Saturday, January 12, 2013

River of No Return

When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3.21-22)

Formative Years

Earlier in the week, as we dismantled our sanctuary’s Christmas décor, I joked with our pastor about how suddenly the liturgical calendar lurches ahead. One Sunday it’s Epiphany; a week later, we’re at the Jordan, celebrating the Baptism of the Lord. “We barely get the Baby born and the before you know it, He’s grown and in the water,” I chuckled. “It does come quickly, doesn’t it?” she replied.

Because modern sensibilities put great stock in our formative years, we’re apt to feel cheated by the gospels’ relative silence regarding Jesus’s youth. We want to know more about His upbringing—what His family dynamic was like, what His boyhood friends and neighbors were like, how His human personality took shape. But the gospels don’t exhibit much interest in these details. All told, they give us four brief peeks into His story once the Magi leave. And the timing of these accounts is problematic. In Luke, we observe Jesus’s circumcision and naming eight days after He’s born, followed 32 days later by His presentation in the Temple, in keeping with Jewish custom that the mother—now “purified” and able to be seen in public after 40 days of post-natal seclusion—present herself and her child to the priests. In Matthew, we learn that Joseph and Mary whisk Jesus off to Egypt to escape Herod’s assassination attempt on the Child’s life. We’re told they remain there until the tyrant dies, roughly four years later.

Which is it? Did the Holy Family go underground until the threat passed? Or were they seen by many, basking in the adoration of two esteemed Temple prophets, Simeon and Anna, who proclaim the Infant as the fulfillment of their Messianic hopes? Since we know so little about Jesus’s childhood, we politely overlook these discrepancies and assume “all of the above.” The fourth childhood siting happens in Luke, when the 12-year-old Jesus strays from his parents to discuss theology with Temple leaders. His response to Mary’s scolding—“Did you not know I must be in My Father’s house?”—suggests early awareness of His divinity and mission. That’s all we have to tell us young Jesus knows Who He is. How He reaches this understanding isn’t explained.

The Beginning of Our Story

So we follow Jesus, now 30, to the Jordan with some frustration. Yet, thinking more about the rapid fast-forward to His baptism, it seems less jarring. John the Baptist is the last in a very long line of prophets announcing a Savior, and it’s fitting that his eyes see what his ancestors could only envision. One minute, he’s telling his followers, “One Who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of His sandals.” (Luke 3.16) The next minute, there Jesus is—the Word Made Flesh—standing before him. In this magnificent moment we witness a living example of the believer’s yearning to see Christ fully, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The instant Jesus appears and asks John to baptize Him, the very meaning of the Baptist’s life—concealed in a fog of prophetic faith that has sustained Israel for centuries—becomes clear. Surely John’s heart leaps with the same joy that caused him to dance inside his mother’s womb when her cousin, Mary, visited with the Christ Child resting inside her. Surely John whispers to himself, “This is why I’m here. I was born and have lived for this day!”

While differing accounts of Jesus’s birth and youth confound us, clarity surfaces when all four gospels converge on His baptism with nearly identical retellings. The writers uniformly agree that this is the signal moment—the proof-point that erases all doubt about Who Jesus is. It’s the pivotal event that leaves prophetic promises behind to grasp the reality of God’s presence, alive and at work in our world. We know what we’re looking at. But do we really see what’s going on here? Jesus humbles Himself to be baptized by a man who is too low to consider tying His shoes. He leaves the water and prays, immediately communing with His Maker, Who responds in a supernatural fashion confirming that Jesus is God’s Son—“the Beloved”—Whose obedience to God’s will pleases God. And it is in that humble obedience that our lives find their meaning and purpose. It’s here, at the Jordan—the River of No Return—that our faith is transformed from profession to confession. The Good News of the Gospel shifts focus. It’s now about us, the beginning of our story. Questions about Jesus’s formative years fall away, replaced by questions about ourselves. What brings us to this place? What compels us to follow Christ in baptism? What hopes drive us to this definitive act of faith? For even if we were baptized as infants, there comes a time in all of our lives when we confess the truth that flows in Jordan’s water: We belong to God. God loves us without restraint. Our humble obedience pleases God.

Supreme Assurance

If we follow Christ in baptism, it stands to reason we should leave the water with the same confidence in God’s love and acceptance that proclaimed Jesus as God’s Beloved Child. This breathtaking demonstration is given to us, for us, to bring clarity and meaning to our lives. It defines us every bit as much as it defines Jesus and we do ourselves a great disservice by thinking less of ourselves than what God proclaims us to be. In the turbulent three-and-a-half years that followed Christ’s baptism—when He was tempted, tried, and ridiculed to death—no doubt He reached back to this moment and its supreme assurance of God’s pleasure. No doubt the apostles did likewise as they faced unjust persecution and many of them suffered torture and death. And, as we confront the challenges of faithful living, we should do the same.

Whatever shapes us during our youth—good and bad, lovely and ugly—loses its gravity once we grasp the meaning of baptism. Following Christ, we plunge into a River of No Return and rise from its waters irrevocably changed. It matters not how others see us, what they say or think about us. There is no turning back. God claims us as beloved children. We enter the river in humble obedience; we leave it prayerfully, eager to commune with our Maker. We belong to God and God is well pleased. That’s the Good News of the Gospel.

If we follow Christ in baptism, it stands to reason we should leave the water with the same confidence in God’s love and acceptance that proclaimed Jesus as God’s Beloved Child.