So it seems pretty standard that people bond over common experiences, eh? Fraternities think of it maybe as the “pledge class” effect, wherein you lump together any odd mix of dudes and force them to undergo all sorts of anguish and/or triumph together to cement the “brotherhood” bond. As in, “Hey, they just made me eat dirt and do pushups all day in the pouring rain, and they did the same thing to you. We’re brothers now.” Then you hug it out.
That pattern shows up all over the place. If you and me share an experience, it can be the common ground that breaks the ice, or lets down our personal defenses some, or builds trust and credibility. I think it’s what goes on with CBS’ Undercover Boss. Watch the clip:
So, CEO’s and presidents and owners of huge corporations take time to head down into the daily trenches of the company. The owner of 7-Eleven stores does a graveyard shift as a stockboy, or the the CEO of 1-800-Flowers sweeps up flower clippings, etc. They get an idea of the what makes their business great or terrible at the ground level; and in the end, the employees probably lend their boss some more credibility. Because they can say, “He/she, the big cheese, knows what I do every day.” There’s value there.
I wondered this week if it’s the same thing with Jesus being baptized. Every year this Sunday comes around, and we consider that Jesus, God in the flesh, came to the Jordan just like everybody else to be baptized by John (in Matthew 3:13-17). In part, on the surface, I appreciate Jesus’ baptism because, yes, it’s the biggest of big cheeses, the owner/operator of all things, coming to do what the average person does. Rubbing elbows with the common folk. I think that’s some of the meaning. But surely not everything, because unlike the TV show, Jesus came to stay through to his death…it wasn’t a temporary experience before he jumped right back to the CEO’s ivory tower penthouse.
And we have some clues that this is a really significant event, maybe not just Jesus doing it ’cause everybody else was and this would be their shared common experience. What clues? Well, God is present in a particular way, the voice speaks from heaven and the Spirit appears like a dove — a one-of-a-kind event. And another clue for me is that John the Baptist seems not to even expect this move. John, Jesus’ cousin, the special one chosen to preach and prepare the way for the Messiah, maybe should be the single person most in touch with Jesus’ mission — and he seems clueless, even almost upset, trying initially to prevent Jesus from doing it. Something is afoot here. So…what? Look around the scene there, and ask questions.
A couple more clues are below the surface, found in the deep story of God’s people over time. For one we go back to one of the most famous ancestors in their history, Moshe (sounds like “Moe-Shay”). He was given that name because as a child in ancient Egypt the Pharaoh set out to kill little Hebrew boys like him, his parents floated him in a basket in the river so he might survive, and he was drawn out of the water to safety. Moshe, or Moses. And when he grew up he served as the voice/hand of God to deliver the people from slavery. And then a second time he and all the people were rescued by being drawn through water, the sea.
As the story continues, through decades of wandering through desert, fighting and hard work, as God’s people drew close to the land they had always been striving towards, that God had promised them, they hit a river. The Jordan River. And it might as well have been named the “It’s go-time” river because the people on the other side were fortified in the land, hostile to God, and the biggest battles were waiting there. There was another leader there, not Moses now but Joshua. His name, Yeshua, meant something special, too, “The Lord saves.” And to cross the river he sent the Ark of God ahead and the rushing water parted for the people to cross into new territory.
So if we were in the crowd the day Jesus was baptized, maybe these things click a little, from somewhere deep inside. The Jordan River has significance. The story of our people is one that has been marked by God’s rescuing us through water, and then plunging on into a new adventure. And the biggest theme there is that when those things happen, God is there personally present to do it. Working wonders through Moses and the others, present in the whirlwind of fire and pillar of cloud, in the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, and so on. Journeying all along with us, and never abandoning us.
When the big wonders had been done before Pharaoh and the people were set free, God didn’t say, “Well, I got you started here, good luck, see you later. SEE YA!” No.
When Joshua and those met the Jordan, God didn’t say, “Got you this far, opened the way across the river, now head in and see if you survive on your own. SEE YA!” No.
And when Jesus shows up to be baptized, he didn’t say, “Okay, John, I’ll take this baptizing thing…(baptize, baptize, baptize)…alright now y’all go start this Christian movement thing… SEE YA!” No.
He chose to be baptized. And like had happened in God’s story before, it’s the beginning of something that he is personally present with. Like God saying, “I’m here on the ground with you in a special way, and we’ve got a journey to make.” A journey of salvation marked by water, a journey into newness. It was no accident that Jesus’ own name was quite special, reminiscent of Joshua’s, meaning “The Lord saves.” And in Jesus it’s very much as if God says, “And as I go with you, don’t doubt how truly here I really am. I’ll feel your hurts and joys, I’ll be tempted just like you, and come under attack just like you.”
So it seems like through the ages God had been, and is, trying to teach God’s people about the nature of God’s character. Not just that there’s some little shared experience to bond us together before God goes back to heaven to leave things to us; not that we have some half-true “pledge” bond of brotherhood. But that God is here, has been and will be.
Even when it seems absolutely not the case, God has gone nowhere, for Jesus and this story teach us that God never abandons. So we are invited into the same baptism, the same mark of God’s grace, the same sign of being rescued, and the same beginning to an adventure story.