One of my favorite professors at Seminary, David Tiede, used to tell us that anyone can do good biblical scholarship of any bible passage if they will apply just three little words to a passage.
Those three little words are, “What?” and “So What?”
“What?” What is happening in this passage? What’s the story being told? What characters are involved and what do we know about these characters?
If you ask the right “What” questions you’ll soon have a clear picture of the events, the people, the circumstances and the outcome of the story.
The second question drives us to application. “So what?” How do these events, how does this story affect me in my daily life? Speak to me still? Challenge me, or comfort me?
The baptism of Jesus is an excellent story to which we can apply Professor Tiede’s questions. We get this story in some form every year right after Christmas, as Jesus begins his earthly ministry.
So first, let’s ask the “What?” question of this story. What is going on here?
“What” John is doing out in the desert is very unusual. He is baptizing Jews, for repentance. He’s saying that even though you are covenant people of God, you need to get “cleaned up” to be made ready to come into God’s presence. When Messiah comes, and God’s presence is clear in our midst, you want to be seen as acceptable.
John is telling his own people to get cleaned up! So “What” John is doing is unusual enough to attract crowds and skeptics.
The “What” gets even more unusual when Jesus shows up and desires to be baptized. You get a sense of that when John in his confusion asks Jesus, “Do you come to me? I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you!”
What is going on here? If John is baptizing for repentance, what is Jesus, the one who knows no sin, doing getting dunked? John is perplexed, which is a pretty good indication that we ought to be perplexed as well!
What is going on here? When asked by John why he has come, Jesus replies, “let it be so for now to fulfill all righteousness.”
Well what is that supposed to mean?
It sounds like Jesus is here to do this just because it has to happen? That’s not a very satisfactory answer to me, particularly as a Pastor. I mean, I have a hard enough time convincing folks that baptism is any kind special event. Many people today view it as some arcane ritual to “have done” to the kid to make Grandma happy.
This talk about “let it be so….” isn’t helping me any in that department!
Jesus shows up to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”, to be baptized just because its something that has to be done???
And just when we are most frustrated with the “What’s going on” of this story, something really weird happens.
John does to Jesus what he has done 1000 times before, to everyone else who has ever come to him to be baptized. John tips Jesus down into the river and when Jesus comes up out of the water “what” happens next is something that no one has ever seen happen before!
The heavens are opened. The Spirit descends like a dove, and God speaks out loud, a voice booming from everywhere at once, “This is my Son, the beloved One, with whom I am well pleased.”
Which is, by the way, something akin to God with all this fanfare saying, “Good enough.”
“So What?” Are you ready for that question?
So What? God comes down when Jesus is baptized, as if God was the “Publisher’s Clearinghouse Prize Patrol” suddenly showing up on your door? Jesus comes up out of the water and there is God with the balloons and the big seal of approval. “You’re my boy, and I like you!”
Big deal. Why didn’t that happen when I was baptized? Where was God then?
Or is this the point of the story? That this is precisely what happens when you are baptized.
Is this the reason why it must be done? To show us what is really happening in baptism?
This is an “Epiphany” event, a special manifestation of God. Here God is showing us God’s face, revealing God’s presence. In the thing that “has to be done,” we find out that God shows up!
That is the point!
That’s why Jesus says John must do it “to fulfill all righteousness.”
The reason Jesus comes to be baptized is to show us what really happens here in this ritual of water and words.
And what really happens is this: God shows up!
Jesus comes to be baptized in order to give us this unique view, his insight into what is taking place. He takes the wraps off of it all and through his eyes we get a glimpse of what happens in the cosmic sphere.
Through the eyes of Jesus, we see that God’s spirit descends when the Water and the Word are combined every time a baptism takes place.
This is what happened to you. God came down and gave you God’s own seal of approval, God’s blessing, called you child and gave you all that God has to give, God’s very Spirit.
That may come to us as somewhat of a shock. You mean this happened to me?
When I was brought to the font and the Words were spoken, the water poured, all that happened to me? The heavens were opened, even though I didn’t see it? A brand new connection with God was made, the old barriers the separated me from God were torn asunder, and God came down and said he was pleased with me? Could it be?
Here is the “So What?” In the baptism of Jesus we glimpse what happens to us.
You are the one that the Spirit descends upon. Can you feel it? It is a remarkable thing really, and it is still there.
I had a friend in college, (Burke Peterson) who was a magician on the side, and he had these trained doves that he would use in his tricks. Magicians need to practice, so he would sometimes bring his doves to the cafeteria and produce them out of thin air when people least expected it. They were so tame and gentle that they would just come and land on you, on your shoulder or your head.
It was a remarkable experience.
He’d do a trick and these things would really come out of nowhere, out of thin air, and land on you to tickle and prick with their tiny feet, and suddenly be there alive, and somewhat disturbing.
It really is a good description of what God’s Spirit is like when it falls on you. It can be at once unsettling, and yet gentle. It can feel a bit prickly and at the same time disturbing, but it is not the kind of thing that you want to just brush off or dismiss.
That happened to me? Happens to me still? God’s Spirit comes and lands on me?
Is that why I still feel the prickles and the giddiness and the warmth when I let myself think about it? When I allow myself to take notice of how God comes still into my everyday life?
In revealing to us that God “shows up” in Word and Water, Jesus is inviting us to look at the world around us in a different way.
What if God is showing up still, in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things, things the seem “let it be so for now.” Things that when we aren’t paying attention just feel like what you’re supposed to do?
Does that change how we view such things?
I’m giving you an assignment this week. I want you to think about the question, “Where do I see God’s Spirit at working in daily life?”
This is an “Epiphany” kind of question.
If you enter this week thinking about this, trying to identify where you think you God showing up, I guarantee it will change your mood, your outlook, and your perspective!
That’s what this story is all about.
Here Jesus pulls back the cosmic veil to show us what really happens when God comes in Water and Word.
God does indeed show up like the “Prize Patrol,” but it is not earthly winnings that God comes to convey. God instead hands you the balloons and the check that is written out with your name on it that says, “These gifts are yours, — Everlasting life, the Forgiveness of Sins, and Salvation.”
These are the promises made to the one with whom God is well pleased, and that, my child, is you!
So now get busy living as one who has been given this great and gracious gift!
God shows up when you are around! Because of the Water and the Word of Baptism, God has promised to show up with you…. wherever you are, and makes the same promise to all the baptized!
Feel the gift of being pleasing in God’s sight prickle and tickle you in the coming week.
Open your eyes to see what God has blessed you with, and what God does through the blessings of others who live out their baptismal identity around you.
With your bulletin today you should have gotten an “Epiphany Card.” It’s roughly pocket or wallet sized, so here’s what I want you to do with it.
I want you to hang on this this card this week through the week and every time you see something that looks to you like God is at work through you, or through someone you meet, jot it down on the card. Just a little description to share or remind yourself. It’s your tool to keep the question handy, “Where do I see God’s Spirit at work in daily life?”
Then next weekend, when you come back to worship, bring your card with your notes on it, and we’ll have a place for you to pin it up in the narthex. Share with one another where you saw God’s Spirit at work through the week.
Help us have an Epiphany together.
Begin to see that being accepted here, and being found pleasing to God, is the start of a ripple through the waters of this world. Every Baptized one who knows that they are pleasing God with their actions is also bringing in God’s kingdom, just a little bit more.