It goes without saying…. That’s a curious phrase in the English language, isn’t it? Since it inevitably precedes what precisely does not need saying. We have one of those seemingly redundant moments in the gospel this morning with the Baptism of Jesus. Even John, who was probably a hard guy to rattle, seems a bit flummoxed by the whole day, not the least of which events being that Jesus took the time to come to him, the way a student might come to a teacher, rather than the other way around. That is, Jesus sought John out to be baptized. And we get John’s point: being baptized – the process of being named by God – seems a bit unnecessary when you are Jesus.
And yet, it was extremely important. And not just because sometimes we need to hear the message over and over again to actually hear it. Not just because it sets in place a new tradition for the church that would follow. The act of baptizing Jesus makes several important points about our relationship to God just at the beginning of his ministry, just as the real work is about to get underway. It’s the same message that we each received with our baptism – and one that often drifts away on us in adulthood. So our lesson this morning is a refresher.
The first point that the baptism of Jesus makes is that he is setting an example, a very public example about his role in relation to us – as teacher yes, but also as fellow traveler in life. John tried to talk him out of it, saying I am the one who needs to be baptized, so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus tells him this is the proper way to do it. And John relents. Jesus is making clear it that he has come to live on our level, to be among us and not separate from us. What’s more, he’s not waiting in some stately home for John to bow at his doorstep; he seeks John out to do something that John feels is too grand a ritual for him to complete. Contextually speaking this is groundbreaking stuff in the minds of John and all the followers of Jesus. These are not the actions they are used to from the leaders around them in their day and age. From this first step, Jesus sets himself apart from the Pharisees and other religious leaders: he walks among the people as one of them.
A baptism is an act of community, an act of welcoming in – which is the second point that Jesus is making. Not only is he walking among the community of humanity, but he is saying that the witness and support of that community are essential to his ministry. We tend to keep our relationship with God private — especially these days, when you’ll often get an odd look for saying that you still go to church. But our relationship with God is strengthened by community, it often exists in that community. When the week is rotten and our luck is souring, coming to church, when community works, should kick start our faith, or at least realign our priorities. Perhaps it’s a simple as reminding ourselves about the school kit project and feeling good about making a difference in the world and particularly in the lives of individuals. Or hearing a nice choir anthem. Or the fresh start that comes with the act of communion. The sharing of the peace. Whether one or many things, community was essential to the gospel of Jesus from the day of his birth. So it is natural that one of his early acts would be a concrete act of joining the community of believers as one of them.
Of course, we might ask, “Why does Jesus need to be baptized at all?” But this is the most important lesson behind the baptism. Jesus is walking on earth as one of us. By experiencing baptism — by hearing the voice of God name Jesus as pleasing in God’s sight — we are meant to hear that same message spoken to each one of us. We, too, are named and pleasing to God, worthy not just to honour Jesus with baptism, but to be his community. Our relationship with God has been realigned and layered: God to us becomes both the voice overhead who shapes our faith and the One present at our side who feeds it. At different times in our lives, we require different kind of support. Sometimes, let’s be honest, we need that kick in the pants, that stern voice in our heads telling us to smarten up, or comforting us as a parent to a child. And sometimes, what we really need is a good friend to listen to us, to offer some help. Jesus is putting into concrete form the role of worker with us in the muck of life, whatever happens along the way. Even more so, as with us, God pronounces his pleasure with Jesus even though he has yet to do the hard stuff. He is not proving his value; he arrived with it. And so it is with us: we arrive before God worthy. If we believe that, every deed that spills from that place will be just as worthy.
The baptism of Jesus is more than a ceremonial honouring of some historical act. It is a theological expletive that radically alters our understanding of who and what God is. Jesus’ baptism punctuates the act of God’s being born in a stable.
Community, commitment, honour. Jesus lays all those things before us, standing in the river Jordan while John baptizes him in the name of God. Jesus’ baptism is meant to remind us, like never before, that God is with us and we are with God. It goes without saying. Amen.