Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
If you’ve taken an intro to psych class in the last fifty years, you’ve probably learned about something called the mirror test. In the 1970s, child psychologists wanted to know when children started seeing themselves as themselves, a unique and distinct person in the world. And so they placed a dot of red lipstick on the child’s nose, placed them in front of a mirror, and waited to see what happened.
Young infants often seemed to think that there was another baby in the mirror in front of them. After a year, most babies seemed to hesitate—not sure what the mirror was showing them. Toddlers, however, could look in the mirror and recognize their own reflection—and scientists knew this because in stead of touching the red dot on the reflection in the mirror, they would touch the red dot on their own face. They could realize that the mirror was showing them themselves, and that the red dot was foreign to that same self.
Like most classic psychological experiments, there’s some disagreement these days about how useful and universal it is, but I still find the concept fascinating: that the way to tell whether a person knows themself is by whether they recognize their own reflection.
Which brings us, believe it or not, to today’s gospel passage, and the baptism of Jesus, who just last week was one of those babies, those toddlers, and now strides onto the scene as a fully grown man.
Each year we emerge rather abruptly from the rich, crowded, familiar scenery of a Bethlehem stable to a barren wilderness landscape, a desert, beyond the towns, just grey rock and yellow sand, and a thin line of green plants drawing life from a shallow river, where a strange man in strange clothes is carrying out a strange task. Baptism, he calls it. John the Baptizer, they call him.
Now Jewish people were used to ritual baths, places to clean up before the Lord after coming in contact with blood or dirt or death. But to be unclean and to be sinful were not synonymous; for example, a woman was unclean after giving birth, but no one thought she was a sinner for having a baby! And yet John isn’t as interested in outside cleanliness as he is in inside cleanliness—cleaning up the heart. John’s baptisms are quite specifically to mark the moment when people repent, turn from one way of living to another. He’s a reluctant baptizer, though; livid when people he thinks of as “too sinful” come to confess and be clean, worried they won’t truly change. And then when Jesus walks up and gets in line, he is utterly and totally undone.
Practically barring his way, John protests that Jesus has it all wrong. John knows, in his prophet’s way, that Jesus is “the one to come”—one who would be God’s strongest agent on this earth.
“I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?”
And Jesus answers “Allow this now, because it’s fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
It’s Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Matthew, his opening speech. And it doesn’t exactly set my hair on fire. It sounds so dry, so per forma. “It is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”
And it doesn’t really help answer the question that so many of us have, theologians, Bible students, even my friend’s janitor, who marched into her office this week and asked “If Jesus was without sin, why was he baptized?”
It’s a great question. It’s not one I have one single, resounding answer to. But there was something—something about this idea of cousin John’s baptism—that made Jesus trek out from his Galilean hometown to the ancient, storied Jordan river. Something about it that seemed like the right thing to do.
“To fulfill all righteousness” is a fancy phrase. But all it means is, “to do God’s right thing.”
And so John, finally, allows Jesus to be baptized, dunking him into the water like so many of his neighbors before him. Except this time the skies tear open and the Holy Spirit comes soaring down like a dove, like the dove that carried the olive branch to Noah, marking peace between God and God’s people.
And as if God has been waiting for just this moment, just this moment for Jesus to do the right thing, a voice says “this is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
A public proclamation, unmistakable, unprecedented: “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And I can almost picture Jesus balanced there, between the waters below and the heavens above, all creation pointing to the revolutionary fact that this man—this Jesus—is not just God’s agent, or God’s prophet, or God’s right-hand man—but God’s son. God made flesh.
And so I come back to the mirror test, and I wonder if part of why Jesus had to be baptized is so that he—and we—could see it. So that Jesus could look in the mirror—the water below him, the heavens opened above—and know that he was to be the reflection of God. Thirty, thirty-one years old, and now was the time. Time to show God’s face to the world.
Whatever Jesus knew before this, whatever stories his mother had told him, whatever prophecies his father had shared, I wonder if this was the moment that he felt who he truly was in the world. From here, after all, he hits the ground running.
When we look at Christ—his actions, his words, his death, his life—we see more clearly than in any other mirror what God looks like, what God cares about, what God can do. Jesus becomes the mirror in which we most clearly see God. And the funny thing, I think, is that even as Jesus looks in the mirror and sees the face of God, his baptism makes it possible for us to do the same.
You see, we make this claim that in our own baptisms, we are united with Christ. In fact, Paul makes that claim, several times, but in his letter to the Galatians, the third chapter, verse 27, he says that all who have been united with Christ in baptism put on Christ like a set of clothes. In our baptism, we are given the chance to look in the mirror and see God’s face in our own, too—the bit of the image of God that we are given to carry, the person specially shaped and crafted by God’s own hands. We get to look in the mirror and see the face of God, because Christ shows us how God’s face can look like our own.
Paul says we are united with Christ. But in baptism Jesus also chooses to be united with us. Jesus goes marching into the river, to get silt between his toes and water in his eyes, to experience the life the way we do. For him, righteousness is being with us—God decided that what was right for God was to be one of us, up close, to show us exactly who are, and who we can be. It’s more than mere solidarity, more than a prince coming to try on the life of the peasants before heading back to the castle, empathetic but untransformed; Jesus is truly one of us, fully human, and fully God.
Several years ago now, I had the privilege of actually going to the Jordan River. I had expected sacredness; I had expected beauty; and I have to tell you, despite the best efforts of the tourist board, I was disappointed, even disturbed. Now granteed, it was about halfway through a three week trip, and I was tired and more than a little cranky. The parking lot for the tour buses was about a half-mile from the site—not likely the site of Jesus’ actual baptism, that’s on the Jordanian side of the river, but tourists tend to stick to the Israeli side, so that’s where the infrastructure is. On the way there, signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English warned us to stay on the main path, because the dusty land on either side still held the occasional land mine from wars and conflicts gone by; the river itself was shallow, sluggish, and muddy, a sort of slimy yellow brown color. A common joke among the tour guides there is that the river holds more history than water.
I watched as eager pilgrims in long white robes—available for sale in the gift shop—knelt down in the riverbed and were dunked backwards in the water. I found myself wondering about leeches and feeling really, really grateful that the PCUSA doesn’t practice multiple baptisms. And I watched as those folks came out of the water, grinning with holy mystery, their white robes stained a cat puke color and bits of leaves and twigs stuck in their hair, and at that moment, all I really felt was grossed out. I had really wanted to have a spiritual awakening at the Jordan, a glimpse of the spirit, an echo of God’s voice. But all I really saw is that the Jordan River is a place where you get dirty, not clean.
But as I think about it today, I wonder if that wasn’t the whole point. Jesus could have come to some bubbling spring or crystaline lake; he could have been baptized under a waterfall like a romance novel cover model; he could have brought water from a rock if he desired, like Moses before him. But Jesus was willing to get down into our muck, into the reality of this world, our world. Jesus was willing to pick a path amidst our landmines. Jesus was willing to get the sun in his eyes and water up his nose and twigs in his hair, if that’s what it took. Jesus was willing be dunked, all the way, into being human. Just so we could see God up close. Just so we could see God with us.
The Baptism of the Lord is a dazzling scene: the skies opening up, the dove descending, the booming voice, perhaps a sparkle even on those sluggish waters. But it is not a house of mirrors, a cheap trick. Jesus really came into the muck, into the mud, into the ooze, to refract God’s own light into the world.
In the mirror test, psychologists knew babies understood themselves to be themselves when they touched the red dot of lipstick on their own nose. Today, we touch our own foreheads, where once some pastor or other made the sign of the cross, to say that we belonged to God and were united with Christ. And by that sign—by those waters, even long dried—we know who we are.
The beloved reflection of God.