Baptism of Our Lord (13 January 2019)
JoAnn A. Post
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
She shouted the Bible study—each word articulated slowly and clearly because otherwise her nursing home audience couldn’t hear her. As her students enjoyed various states of slumber, she soldiered on—reading scripture, asking questions, telling stories. I admired her persistence.
At one point she asked in a loud voice, “From whom do we learn most? People who are like us, or people who are different from us?” What an excellent question. I almost answered, but one of the residents, rightly, beat me to it.
He roused and in a gravelly voice pronounced, “We learn most from people who are like us.” And promptly fell asleep again. Though I disagree with him (as did the Bible study leader), I understand his perspective.
The nursing home in question is in my home town, a village made up of about three or four large extended families, all of whom emigrated from the same part of Germany at about the same time, and who have known one another for at least four generations. I sometimes tease that I had either dated or was related to everyone in my high school class. Of course, this man assumed you learn most from those who are like us. Who else is there?
But, I think we learn most about ourselves from those who are wildly different. John the Baptizer agrees with me on this one.
John’s congregation at the river was much like my hometown—observant Jews from the northern part of the Galilee, married to one another’s cousins, criticizing the same rabbi, shopping at the same kosher market. And sharing a common vision, a common dream of deliverance. Together they had dreamed of the day when the Messiah would appear—the one anointed by God to restore peace and prosperity and hope.
One of the reasons John the Baptizer was such a draw is that he bore a modest resemblance to the Messiah they had been taught to expect. If you squinted just the right way you could almost see it. John was strong. Passionate. Articulate. Unafraid. Rumor had it that he might be Him.
Another preacher would have entertained their adulation for a little while. It’s not every day people confuse you with God. But John wanted none of it. Though the dream of the Messiah was as familiar to them as their faces were to each other, familiarity was not the promise.
Here’s the interesting thing. It is not clear from the text that John the Baptizer knew Jesus was the One they had been waiting for. We don’t even know if John knew Jesus was in the crowd. When John raises the specter of the Expected One—powerful beyond measure, breathing Spirit and Fire, armed with a pitchfork, ready to burn the place to the ground—he wasn’t speaking with personal knowledge of the Messiah or winking Jesus’ direction. Nor was he parroting their pet images.
What good would it be if the Messiah arrived, looking like the picture in the children’s book and nodding benignly—Glinda the Good Witch blessing the adoring Munchkins. The Messiah they imagined would be their friend and protector. John quickly disabused them of that fantasy.
John knew that the one God would send would be wildly different from their expectations and wildly different from them. That the world the Messiah would create would be so different from this one that we wouldn’t even recognize it. Or miss this one.
The Messiah about whom John shouted would be utterly different. Completely other. Totally terrifying. Do you suppose, after John the Baptizer described the One Who Is to Come they still wanted to meet him?
From whom do we learn most? People who are like us, or people who are different from us?
My sisters and I love to talk politics. We are incredibly smart and insightful and open-minded. We agree with each other about almost everything. You’ve not such self-righteous ranting anywhere. I hadn’t even noticed how mirror-like we are, affirming one another’s opinions, multiplying each other’s anger, laughing at each other’s clever quips until, just this week, I started to share my clever political insights with someone not my sister.
As I spouted my sparkling solution to the budget impasse, shared my keen insights about the wisdom of walls, my conversation partner grew more and more silent. I sensed a slight tightening of the jaw. And then I realized that I am so used to talking to people just like me, that it hadn’t dawned on me there might be other, equally insightful, equally faithful, equally reasoned opinions wildly different from mine.
I finally had the sense to apologize. And to shut up. I have been thinking about that conversation ever since. What a gift to engage someone not like me.
John the Baptizer didn’t stand at the river saying to sinners, “You’re right. Everything will be fine. I agree with you completely. Maybe the Messiah will bring you a pony.”
No, he shouted at them, challenged their lives and their dreams. And they loved him for it, for freeing them from their suffocating sameness, their couch-like comfort.
Jesus didn’t come to be our girlfriend, our sounding board, our wall against the world. He came to be different. To make us different.
Jesus demands that the strong surrender to the weak.
Jesus demands that the powerful kneel before the meek.
Jesus demands that the first become last, the rich become poor, that the found seek the lost.
After all, what sort of dream is that—that the One for whom we have waited will just scooch on to the couch beside us and ask for the remote.
Isaiah promised raging rivers and scorching flame.
John the Baptizer promised power beyond imagining.
And Jesus? He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff, the faithful from the faithless, the relaxed from their recliners. Jesus will make us different.
In a moment, we will sing a hymn drawn directly from Isaiah’s promise. “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” (ELW 581) It sounds like comfort, and it is. Sort of. But it also bears a painful truth. There will be fire. There will be flood. There will be hardship and loneliness and fear. And the One who is to come, the One whom John described won’t prevent the trouble, but will be in the trouble with us. Carrying, pushing, prodding. Is that what we had imagined?
From whom do we learn most? People who like and are like us, or people who challenge us? When do we grow the most, when life is simple or when it is hard? If we follow Jesus, we don’t have a choice.