Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. (Matthew 3.13-15)
The Human Moment
The transition back to Ordinary Time finds us gathering Advent’s lessons and reminders, neatly organizing and storing them away like treasured keepsakes. There they will be, all together, ready to take out for future reflection when time permits or urges us to do so. In the process, we happen on a few items whose beauty got lost in the season’s festivities and fatigue. We linger with them, wondering how we missed their significance at first, as they are truly beautiful and significant. They deserve a closer look so we can internalize their value before putting them away. For me, the season’s final lesson was one I nearly overlooked. Our pastor set it forth splendidly in last Sunday’s sermon on Jesus’s baptism. I had no problem getting the message. The problem was I didn’t slow down, take time, and create room for the message to get to me. It’s tugged my sleeve ever since, popping up here and there in one form or another—an echo, a wink, a knowing nod, and even an arched eyebrow or two.
The sermon focused on the human moment preceding Jesus’s baptism and the subsequent divine declaration He is God’s Son. John the Baptist has amassed a following with the incendiary proclamation his Successor will purify the people like a farmer who threshes his wheat and sets fire to the chaff. (John's obsessed with pyrotechnics. Earlier, he attacks a curious group of religious leaders, comparing them to barren trees that will be chopped down and burned.) When Jesus steps into John’s riverside inferno, He’s nothing like the flame-throwing Avenger John advertised. He simply—quietly—asks John to baptize Him. Thoroughly confused, John balks. “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” he asks. (v14) I’ll let my pastor take it from here:
It’s such a delicious line. John the Baptist, star-struck, mystified, aghast at the thought. “Wait,” you can hear under the surface. “This isn’t the way I thought this was going to unfold. I thought justice was going to come to come with fire! Wild. Fire!!” Jesus says: “Come on. Let’s do this thing. Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
John consents. The humanity of the encounter douses John's fantasy of fiery wrath sparked by divine fury. He’s suddenly aware Jesus has come to fulfill all righteousness, not to enforce it. To do that, He needs John’s cooperation. “Let it be so now,” Jesus says. It’s incumbent on John to let go his notion of what Jesus should do and get with His program. Change John seeks will come by example rather than coercion. Jesus will draw people through love—an altogether different method than John’s concept of change driven by fear. Consenting to baptize Jesus humbles John. It takes him out of himself, freeing him to forget everything he’s ranted about and wished for so he can participate in Christ’s mission in keeping with Christ’s nature. “Now,” Jesus stresses. It’s a pivotal moment for both of them. Both will leave the water transformed. Jesus will no longer be a carpenter’s Son. A supernatural manifestation will confirm His divine authority in no uncertain terms. John will no longer be Christ’s forerunner. His role will shift to Christ’s partner in launching God’s redemptive plan. The implications here are huge. And all of them hinge on John’s consent.
Asking the Unthinkable
It’s easy to grow so enraged with wrongs we suffer and witness that we formulate outlandish scenarios of divine retribution levied on the offenders. Particularly if we’ve been buffeted and bruised by familial, social, political, or religious wrongdoing (or all of the above), we envision eventualities no less spectacular and definitive than John’s fire fantasies. If we don’t explicitly say it, we silently project hope that those who abuse and oppress us will one day pay a great price for what they’ve done. Like John, we set the stage for it, don’t we? “Wait till Christ shows up,” we declare. “Boy, are they gonna be sorry! I’d be afraid, very afraid.” Then, when Jesus does step into our conflict, He’s nothing like we anticipated. We learn He’s come to forgive debts, not penalize non-payment—to fulfill righteousness, not enforce it. His entire program is built on love’s power over fear. Instead of opposing our adversaries, He imposes on us, asking the unthinkable: help Him. Our reaction mirrors John’s: “I need to be helped by You, and do You come to me?” It’s a tenderly human moment, this negotiation between Christ and us. It’s humbling to hear Christ’s appeal for our cooperation. Yet Christ’s request for our help reorients our awareness that change, not judgment, is what we really seek. Change that cannot occur without our consent.
Consent changes everything—our perceptions of Christ, our adversaries, and us. We’re no longer potential beneficiaries of divine intervention or passive witnesses to divine justice. We’re engaged participants in Christ’s mission. We abandon fear-infected fantasies fed by self-righteousness to partner with Christ in fulfilling true righteousness and launching God’s redemptive plan. The decision turns our thoughts from satisfying debts to saving debtors, from losses to gains. Our initial confusion at Christ’s request yields to consensual clarity, opening our eyes to love’s liberating power over fear. The moment we agree to help Christ is the moment our fears dissipate and our chains fall. We can balk at the request or we can accommodate it. “Let it be so now,” Jesus says. What happens after that hinges on our consent.
The moment John consents to Jesus’s request is the moment everything changes for both of them.