Summary: In torn clothes a bedraggled huddle of escaped slaves come to the mighty river Jordan: so through baptism we enter the promsed land.
Its the stuff of Hollywood: in torn clothes a bedraggled huddle of escaped slaves come to the mighty river Jordan. It parts before them and they enter the Promised Land. This is the founding story of the Israelite people - slaves in Egypt rescued from slavery by God’s mighty hand, crossing both Red Sea and Jordan to enter the promised land.
Now if you did not hear that story when Irene read the Gospel this morning, then perhaps you were not listening hard enough. No - I’ll be fairer to you - perhaps you did not know what to listen for. At first sight our Gospel reading doesn’t contain anything about the Exodus or slaves entering the promised land. “Surely that stuff is to do with Judaism - our Gospel reading was about John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, Christian baptism and indeed Christianity?”
Yet I say unto you - this story is about the Exodus and slaves entering the promised land, and we cannot understand John the Baptist and what happens to Jesus in baptism and what happens to us in baptism without understanding that story of how God rescued slaves from Egypt.
The baptism of Jesus is one of those rare events that occurs in all four Gospels and we learn different things about it from each of the Gospels. For example we learn from John’s Gospel (3:22) that John was gathering people for baptism on the far side of the river Jordan. ie the Pagan side. The side that was not in the Promised land. You see John the Baptist did not invent Baptism. In the first Century AD many people from Pagan backgrounds actually would become Jews. If they were men they would be circumcised. But whether male or female they would also have to undergo something else - Baptism. Baptism had many layers of meaning: remember the pagan leper Naaman who Elijah tells to wash 7 times in the Jordan? When he does so the uncleanness of his leprosy is washed away. So when the convert is washed in baptism, the uncleanness of his gentile state is washed away and he becomes part of God’s covenant people. And entirely this baptism is performed at the Jordan, so that the convert can enter the river on the foreign side of the river, and like the rest of the Israelite people centuries before, pass through the waters of the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Now he or she too is an Israelite, a member of the chosen people.
So John the Baptist does not invent Baptism. He reinvents it. He calls Jews to be baptised. Now hang on - that doesn’t make any sense - he calls God’s Chosen people to go through the process of becoming …. God’s chosen people. But that is the whole point. He calls people to a fresh beginning to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Has he says in Matthew’s Gospel “Do not presume to say to yourselves “we have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I say to you God is able from these stones to raise up children of Israel.” He calls the people who had seen themselves as God’s chosen people to recognise that like the leper Namaan they too need to be washed clean of their sin. They have to enter a new relationship with God by symbolically re-entering the Promised land.