John the Baptizer had been praying for God to step in and take over the world. And this is how his prayer got answered: Jesus showed up and followed an upside-down script. Instead of taking over the world, he let this conflicted world overtake him, he gave himself into the world’s hands, and then rose into the life of God’s Beloved.
That’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus showed up, and instead of taking over John’s ministry and baptizing John, he gave himself into John’s hands, submitted to John’s baptism of repentance, and then rose into the life of God’s Beloved.
So in a way, this story of Jesus’ baptism is also the story of Jesus’ whole life.
And Jesus’ followers eventually realized that this is also the story of God’s whole life. Instead of taking over the world, God is giving God’s very self into this conflicted world’s hands, suffering its worst, and yet rising to transform even this world’s worst into new opportunities for reconciliation, so that all of us—friends, family, strangers and even enemies—can share the life of God’s Beloved. That’s the life God has always lived and the life God is living with us now. Jesus made it a visible, tangible life, and that’s what his followers are summoned to do—keep making it visible, tangible.
All of us are sharing in the baptismal life of God’s Beloved whenever we stop trying to be in control and instead risk giving ourselves into one another’s hands. When we dare to do that, we make Jesus’ life, God’s life, visible, tangible.
I’m frequently not in the mood to hear that these days. Despite what my theological persuasions tell me, at a visceral level my often unvoiced prayers feel more like those of John the Baptizer.
I really want God, or some stand-in for God, to step in and take over our world. Especially in the past few years, I’ve been so angry at people who refuse to recognize what I take to be well-attested facts. The willful ignorance, bigotry, and moral hypocrisy of whole populations, and their leaders, is so evident to me that I become blind to my own knee-jerk biases. I really want some irresistible power to shut them up and put them all in timeout until they repent and grow up.
That’s what John the Baptizer wanted. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen then, and it’s not going to happen now.
Our only salvation comes from the only God there is, the God whose life Jesus embodies, the God who is not going to take over the world, the God who is giving God’s very self into this conflicted world’s hands, suffering its worst, and yet rising to transform even this world’s worst into new opportunities for reconciliation.
So I don’t get to forcefully re-educate anybody, or call upon anybody else to do that. If I want a better world, I need to let myself be immersed (baptized!) into the always-messy give-and-take of impassioned truth-telling among people who are more a part of me than I care to admit.
That’s the Baptism we all share with Jesus, with God.