What was Jesus doing in the first 30 years of life, until the day that he stood before Cousin John to be baptized? We know more about Jesus from conception, through birth canal to being delivered in a manger than we know about his entire adult formation the following 30 years. The art of the memoir did not exist yet. Augustine’s Confessions, written four centuries later, was the first modern self-reflective book . The talk show format was two millennia in the future, with its chatty questions, “How do you like being the messiah? What is it you hate the most about it? Is it like being a super hero or one of the X-Men? What does God really think about the Kardashians?” There is no inside scoop on ancient people, just what they did or what they said, and we can only speculate (and we do so, because that is what modern self-conscious people do.)
Some scholars think Jesus went East and dabbled in Zoroastrianism, others think he went West and learned the Greek wisdom of Stoics and Epicureans, or perhaps he was an Essene monk isolated in a desert commune. Somewhere along the way he learned to be a carpenter and picked up a little about fishing. We will probably never know, but I will tell you what I think. Wherever Jesus was, I think he was deciding, choosing his path, trying to figure out who he was. When did he know his destiny, did he ever hear the voice of God before this day of Baptism, when the words came, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It was John who was the first to blossom, and get launched in a public ministry. John was the confident one, the clear one, the just a little crazy one with a zealous streak. Was Jesus the cousin full of angst and doubt, who took longer to find himself? Come on, he’s 30 when he emerges from nowhere, and the average lifespan in his day wasn’t much more. At what point does Mary stop pondering things in her heart and tell him about the Angel Gabriel, the star over his manger, and perhaps show him the gold and frankincense to prove the story? Would his bar mitzvah have been the right occasion? Or did he just know it inside, intuitively sensing he had a special divine connection? Perhaps it just took a while to sort all this out, to find himself as messiah. Should he be a scholar, a warlord, what exactly does a messiah do to become such a thing? Maybe he was dreaming the whole thing up, it was a crazy estrogen dream his mother had about angels speaking in the night.
It is a great mystery as to what just was thinking, his self-reflection, his self-consciousness, about who he was. I can only say that it appears to me that there was much wrestling, some very human anxiety about what to do and be. Throughout Jesus’s life there are these moments of choice, doubt and wrestling – after baptism, he then goes off into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted, he waits months to tell his disciples that he is the messiah, and then must quarrel with Peter, this choice to his mission eats at him all the way to the Garden of Gethsemane “Let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but yours.” Even on the cross, the shout is “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me.” Jesus struggles and chooses his path all through his life.
Theologians think of the incarnation as happening in Mary’s womb, as if it was a one-time event enacted by God to bring Jesus into the flesh. But I tend to think of incarnation as not a singular event, but a long series of these moments and choices to live out the calling Jesus had. Incarnation is an ongoing process of choosing to be fully engaged in human life. It is accepting the limits and blessings of being human, to not shrink in the face of suffering, to choose love, to be in community Baptism is the first time he makes his choice public. Jesus chooses a divine calling to be fully human, and the suffering that goes with serving the common good. Many months of wrestling finally lead to this moment where he joins the crowd around Cousin John, and he is called out of the crowd, and humbly asks that he be baptized. Jesus does not walk on the water, but wades out into it, to be submerged by human hands and re-emerge with divine calling. He will walk the path of the incarnation that has already begun in him, and will focus his life to complete this work.
We have made Jesus so not like us so we may worship him, but I follow him because he is so human. When I young I was fascinated by superheroes and their unique and amazing powers. That is an expression of the human desire to transcend the limits of our mortal, sometimes silly, and often vulnerable selves. But as I become older my great admiration is for people who have the courage and commitment to doing something worthwhile, especially if the outcome is tenuous, the risks and dangers are many, and they must face human limits and vulnerability to succeed. The feeding the 5000, multiplying loaves and fishes, walking on water, healing the blind, do not stir my soul as much as the hug given to a leper, the protection of a woman about to be stoned, the prophetic courage to drive the money changers from the temple, the bravery in face of opposition who wanted him dead and who would ultimately succeed in a brutal, painful way. It is the risking of self to protect human dignity that touches me so much more than any superhuman powers. I cannot do supernatural miracles, but with Jesus as my example and inner strength, I might just be able to do an act of courage. It is ironic that it is his deeply human actions, where he is vulnerable to criticism or physical harm, that make him seem so divine. Perhaps it is our human lack of courage that so wants Jesus to be the divine miracle worker, so we don’t have to face our own baptism and incarnation as human beings. We would rather leave it all to the super-heroes.
It makes sense that baptism has become the ritual of entry into the church community. It is the welcoming ritual for infants and it next week when new members join the church; it is by the affirmation of their baptisms. If you were baptized as an infant, you share this in common with Jesus. There was a hope and promise that your life would follow the path of faith, and you would find the love of God in the community of the church. You had no control over it and no choice in the matter, but while you were completely helpless and unaware God loved you and divine grace and the Holy Spirit was within you. As adults, we chose to affirm our baptisms, or if we are Baptists, to be immersed, just as Jesus was. What God has done within us is now becoming incarnated and claimed. We chose the way, the truth, and the life.
When we welcome people into the life of the church, we ask some extraordinary questions of them. We don’t just ask people if they believe in Jesus and the Holy Trinity, or that they will be good church folk, serve on committees, pledge and always agree with the pastor. (You are UCC and Baptist probably because you don’t always want to agree with a pastor, right?!) But we do ask from the UCC Book of Worship:
Do you promise, according to the grace given to you, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?
I have read those words dozens of new members, confirmands, even parents bringing their children for baptism over the years, and I am always a bit taken aback to hear them reply, “I promise with the help of God.” Baptism sounds to me like joining a movement. Calling isn’t just something for pastors. You all should have “Reverend” in front of your name if you are baptized. My calling is lived through preaching and teaching the faith, and yours may be lived through working in health care, social work or engineering, as a parent, grandparent or activist; and through standing up for human dignity and adding your kindness and creativity to the world.
Why would we do this? Why get baptized and follow Jesus, and all the challenges that go with it? Jesus found out as soon as he came out of the waters. Still dripping wet, shivering from the chill, Jesus hears the divine voice, “You are my beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased.” Even messiahs need love. We don’t know if Jesus had ever heard the voice of God before this moment. We don’t know if he felt loved or not. And it is interesting that these words come in the moments after commitment, not before. Jesus didn’t hear he was loved, so then he committed, which is probably the way most of us work. And theologically speaking, grace and love come to us before we are aware of it. But there seems to be a fullness and completeness of God’s love that comes in being in community. We cannot do this alone. We need a community to walk with this way, to know this God. God’s love may come in quiet solitude, but it blossoms in the community of the baptized. We find the fullness of divine love as we give it and live it.
It took Jesus 30 years to come to the waters’ edge, so do not despair if you struggle in your faith journey. Jesus knows the choice you make and the walk you take, and your baptism is a reminder that he will give you the strength to see it through.