Or Isaiah's poetry for this week: "Fear not for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name; you are mine."
After living in total obscurity for thirty years, Jesus left his family and joined the movement of his eccentric cousin John. He might have even submitted himself to John as a disciple to a mentor. This much is clear — John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent, so much so that his detractors said he had a demon. Whereas his father was a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins and ate insects and wild honey.
Then comes a shock — Jesus asks to be baptized by John. With some important stylistic differences, all four gospels tell the story of Jesus's baptism by John: "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, 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, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'"
After his radical rupture with his family and conventional society by identifying with the desert troublemaker, to the point of submitting to his baptism, Jesus's own family tried to apprehend him. The villagers of his home town of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged crackpot.
Why did Jesus ask for John's "baptism of repentance?" The earliest believers asked this question, because in Matthew's gospel John the Baptizer tried to deter Jesus: "Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!" In other words, John insists that Jesus was not getting baptized for his own sins. Crossan argues that there was an "acute embarrassment" about Jesus's baptism on the part of the gospel writers. Even a hundred years after the event, Jesus's baptism made some Christians feel uneasy. In the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD), Jesus denies that he needs to repent. He seems to get baptized to please his mother.
We get clues to this question if we back track to the beginning. Matthew's genealogy includes forty-two men, but also four women with unsavory histories. Tamar was widowed twice, then became a victim of incest when her father-in-law Judah abused her as a prostitute. Rahab was a foreigner and a whore who protected the Hebrew spies by lying. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow, while Bathsheba was the object of David's adulterous passion and murderous cover-up. These four women are part of Jesus's family of origin.
The story continues when pagan magi worship the baby Jesus. Jesus then escapes to Egypt, the symbolic enemy of Israel, and finds refuge there. At the baptismal scene there are soldiers and tax collectors of the Roman oppressors.
Jesus's baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with "the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem." He allied himself with the faults and failures, the pains and problems, of all the broken people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. Not long into his public mission, the sanctimonious religious leaders derided Jesus as a "friend of gluttons and sinners." They were right about that.
With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively stands with us in our brokenness.
Jesus's baptismal solidarity with broken people was vividly confirmed by God's affirmation and empowerment. Still wet with water after his cousin had plunged him beneath the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision — the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son, and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove. The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signaled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility — that by the power of the Spirit, the Son of God embodied his Father's unconditional love of all people everywhere.
God loves me. He knows my name. Yes, it's "improbable and shocking." But as Don Gately learned, if your're willing to move from clever sophistication to genuine sincerity, "You're encouraged to keep saying stuff like this until you start to believe it."