“Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
All the people. All of them who came. They were all baptized. The soldiers. The tax collectors. The crowd. All the people who did not belong under the political structure or the religious culture. Who were they? The unclean. The brood of vipers. The unworthy. This is who was baptized with Jesus at the river Jordan: all the undesirables.
There were no VIPs. There were no political officials of note. There were no religious leaders of good standing. Nobody credentialed. There was only John, who by his self-declaration was “unworthy” to be there too. He was not the Messiah. He knew it. His job was to point the way and “prepare the way of the Lord.” He practiced ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3:3). He preached sharing and taking care of people with our food and clothing, of acting fairly and honestly in our work, of protecting people without abusing them violently or taking advantage of them (Luke 3:10-14). John called out injustice and the distortion of relationships (Luke 3:18-19). It was the kind of good news that eventually tossed John in jail and it cost him his life (Luke 3:20).
But not yet.
Jesus came to the wilderness. He didn’t begin his ministry in the Temple, or in a palace among the important people run by the powers of this world. He stood at the river Jordan, the crossing point into the Holy Land with outsiders and misfits and everyone else who did not belong. And he was baptized along with them. It almost sounds like an afterthought. They were all baptized. Jesus was too. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew and Mark where the voice of heaven seems to be directed solely at Jesus, as Luke describes this scene all who were baptized heard and could see it for themselves. The Spirit came. The voice called out the beloved. All the undesirables were part of it. You and I are too.
We often ask, ‘Why would Jesus seek baptism?’ After all, Christians tend to assert that Jesus was sinless. In that regard, ‘a baptism of repentance’ would be not only unnecessary but also problematic. Yet all four gospels claim Jesus’ baptism – and his ministry begins to take shape after this event. Perhaps what Luke is trying to reveal is not so much that Jesus is God’s beloved (which in the text he clearly is), but that God is up to something far greater in baptism than self-revelation. Jesus is with them in the water; crossing all who join him in baptism them over from left out to the included, from the unworthy to the beloved, from forgotten about to the remembered, from the unclean to the clean.
Repentance separates the fruitless branches. Jesus does clear the chaff from the wheat. The fire of the Spirit continues to purify us just as the water continues to clean us up and make us whole. We are not left as we were – forgotten on the outside or unworthy on the fringe but are made anew by the Jesus who joins us in the water – loved as we always were but that love is announced in public with the same blessing from the heavens for all to see and hear. The kingdoms of this world never like competition.
Like Jesus, as we emerge from those waters our ministry begins to take shape. Following this Jesus and living in his kingdom is dangerous to the powers that be, and we should expect nothing less than for them to reject us as we live a life of inclusion, generosity, care and integrity. It may make us outliers, push us to fringe, and leave us in the wilderness. Like John (and Jesus), it may even cost us our life.
Fear not. Jesus is alongside us in the water, waiting to lead us to cross over to the other side of the river and find our new community where we are welcomed and loved forever.
Take a look around for the other misfits and vagabonds who join you.
Who do you see there?