Summary: The Baptism of the Lord First Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of my favorite movies is made by the Coen Brothers. It is called “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” It features George Clooney and John Turturro as these escaped convicts in the depression of the 1930’s in America. George Clooney is a smooth-talker in jail for practicing law without a license. They escape from a road crew and at one point a few days after their escape, they are in the woods and they behold a most strange sight. All these people dressed in white gowns come walking by them towards the river where a minister is baptizing folks. Moved by the sight and overwhelmed by the opportunity for forgiveness, one of the convicts runs to the bank of the river and takes his turn being dunked.
Immediately when he comes up, he calls to his friends and tells them that the minister said all his sins had been washed away, even the sin of stealing that pig that he was convicted for. George Clooney, puzzled, says, “I thought you told me you were innocent?” The newly baptized convict says, “Well…I lied. And that’s been forgiven too!” Then he stretches out his arms and says to his friends on the river bank, “Come on in boys…the water’s fine.”
Water: This natural compound is the source of life really. Our bodies are over 2/3 water in composition. We are recommended to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day by doctors now. And even Methodism’s founder John Wesley advocated the consumption of at least 2 pints of water a day back in the 18th century. We rely on warm water for our physical hygiene, cold water to brush our teeth each day, boiling water for the all-important English cup of tea, rain water to hydrate the flowers and grass in the garden, soapy water to wash our clothing, our dishes, and our automobiles, and an abundance of water to sail our boats down the River Stour. In short, we rely on water to live. We need lots of it, especially now in the age of dishwashers, washing machines, and car washes.
Is it any shock then that water features so prominently in the ancient near eastern world? When nothing existed but chaos, the Spirit of God swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. When the people of God were slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through parted waters. In the fullness of time God sent his only Son our Lord Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb, to be our savior. Jesus himself was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
After his baptism, Jesus continually met people in the context of water. He encountered a woman at a well. He healed lepers through the waters of a pool. He called disciples from a life of work on the water as fishermen. He calmed the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee. He walked on water as one his most famous miracles. Well…you get the point.
I am always fascinated by this story of the baptism of Jesus. It is one of the few stories that all four gospels contain. I am fascinated by this story because it is so hard to understand. If baptism is about forgiveness and the washing away of sin, then why was a sinless Jesus in need of baptism? The answer lies in the fact that forgiveness of sin is one of many elements that we take on in baptism.
We cannot forget that death is a key component of baptism. When we are baptized we are baptized into Christ’s death. We die to the world that we may be alive to the Kingdom of God. Baptism is as much about the symbol of death as it is forgiveness.
We also cannot forget that adoption is a key component of baptism as well. In baptism, we are claimed by God as God’s own and we are sealed with the sign of the cross on our foreheads. Baptism is as much a symbol of adoption as it is of forgiveness.
And in the baptism of our Lord, all those gathered around that day at the Jordan were hearers of the voice from heaven exclaiming, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In baptism, we too are made to be like sons of God in that we are sealed for this purpose. Even Jesus was baptized—this should give us an indication of the importance of baptism in the life of a Christian.
I love to study and examine all the different artistic renderings of Biblical stories that have been undertaken by the various masters over the centuries. Caravaggio is my favorite. I love how he uses darkness to make his figures really stand out. There are hundreds of paintings and woodcuts depicting this story of the baptism of Jesus. If you look at some of them closely, particularly Eastern icons, they will frequently have a snake somewhere in the picture near the river. The snake is meant to remind us of the other, not so good side of the image of water. Sometimes there will even be the figure of an elderly man with a jug. He is the representation of the river god. He serves a similar function. Water is not just something that is used to heal, cleanse, or sustain in the world of the Bible or in our world today. Water, like the serpent and “old man river,” can sometimes be the enemy of humanity.