Historically (don’t go to sleep yet!), Lent was a time for new converts to prepare for their upcoming baptisms that would take place on Easter Sunday as a symbol of everyone’s new life in the resurrected Lord. That is why so many congregations take this time to remember, preach, and study their baptisms. We will have a week later on this season where we take time to dive into our baptism, but for now, let’s look at why that tradition was set into motion.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was born about six months before Jesus. When his story begins, the Bible gives us background information that the IRL audience doesn’t know and him as a fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah that says someone will come before the Lord to announce him, or a herald. This image of JTB being Jesus’ MC is presented in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which is a rarity for any story. So basically, he’s an important character in the narrative of Jesus’ life (his death later on is insane, but I don’t want to give you any spoilers). Which is awesome, because this guy is kinda crazy and I love it.
The first thing we read about MC JTB in Matthew 3 is that he “appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” while wearing “clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and eating “locusts and wild honey.” So some random dude APPEARS in the desert and just starts yelling at anyone who walking by to change their hearts because the end of the world is coming and he’s wearing animal skins and munching on locust. Personally, I’m not really going to be listening to a lot of what this guy has to say.
But the people all over the region of the Jordan River, Jerusalem, and Judea at that noise UP. He’s calling the important church leaders “children of snakes” and the people are like “OMG YAAS PREACH!” So many people think he’s the best thing since leavened bread (get it… because they’re Jewish and didn’t have yeast when they fled from Israel? I’m hilarious at 5am) that they mistake him for the Messiah. So MC JTB has to correct them and say “nope, that’s my baby cousin. My mom has told me for years how much better than he is that me. I’m not even allowed to carry his nasty sandals around.” (Or I assume that’s what he said based on my knowledge of antiquity, sass, and passive aggressive behaviors. Yeah you’re right he probably didn’t say that.) But he starts dunking people in the Jordan River and baptizing them anyway, preparing their hearts and minds for the one who is coming. Which I imagine looked like this scene:
“Well I’ll be a sonofabitch. Delmar’s been saved.”
Then, one day, MC JTB is going around, doing is thing, calling people on their sins and dunking them in the water, Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized. JTB is all “um hey cuz, I think it’s great that you’re here and all, but should YOU be baptizing ME?” and Jesus is like “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
No pressure, John.
So JTB baptizes him, and when Jesus comes up from the water, “Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.'”
WHAT THE WHAT. That’s when the life guard yells “EVERYONE OUT OF THE POOL” because someone’s about to get struck by lightning. Heaven opens up, the holy spirit comes and rests on his shoulders like a dove (um if a dove ever tries to land on my shoulder I’m going to run away), and then there’s a big booming voice out of the sky. This is insane, right? All of it from crazy MC JTB to Jesus showing up and then crazy weather happening. It’s crazy. My millennial brain reads this story and it says “no none of that is logical. There’s no way.” But isn’t that what the mystery of Jesus is all about? Isn’t that the way the love of Christ is shown to us? In the beauty and the chaos of this life, God speaks to us and moves us in ways that do not make any sense.
Jesus in this story is preparing for his ministry. In this story we witness his ordination service. Jesus needs this baptism so that he can be transformed into the savior of the world. It isn’t until after his baptism that Jesus goes into the desert to pray, fast, and prepare. We need baptism because it is our way to come near to Jesus and to instill the mystery and wonder of the waters in our own lives. We need time to prepare for that.
John the Baptist is preparing too. He is laying the groundwork for his cousin, preparing the hearts and minds of those around him, and allowing himself to be used as God’s servant in this holy mystery that’s about to go down.
So as we go through this day together, remember that you too are changed by this crazy, unpredictable, all consuming water. Remember that in your baptism, you are a servant in this world, called to do incredible, awesome things with your life in order to transform the world. And remember that God is preparing you in this season for incredible service to a broken and hurting world.
God of mystery and wonder, I give you thanks for waking me up this morning so that I may once again witness the awe and beauty of your world. God, so often I forget to actually wake up and be an active participant in your creation and instead I wander through the motions of the day, unseeing and unknowing. Please wake me up to your light. Please help me to fully witness You in today and throughout this journey. Prepare my heart for your arrival and let me serve you through my brokenness. I’m giving you my worries and my burdens today. I’m placing them in your hands so that I can focus on what is good and what is to be done in your world and not just my own little one. Bless me and care for me today. Amen.