John the Baptizer, part 4: On the baptism of Jesus

In the Bible, prophets (people who do what John does) proclaim and preach. They provoke and convict. They encourage and condemn. They cajole and comfort, all with whatever tools are given them for that task. It usually amounts to powerful words of exhortation to a people either hurting or hurting someone else. In Jeremiah’s case it meant a lot of rather unnecessarily embarrassing antics that included wearing loincloths, ox yokes, smashing clay pots. For Isaiah it meant walking around stripped and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel was instructed to lay on his side for over a year. In Ezekiel’s case it meant and chomping on a scroll that, although sweet to the taste, made his stomach turn and laying on his side for over a year. With Hosea it required marrying a prostitute, that one girl his parents refused to let into the yard. It promised him a life of knowing winks from the unrighteous and huffs from the self-righteous.

Yet, what was John’s weapon of choice? Baptism. What a strange way to reveal a person’s intentions. Only a God of utter mystery with a lot of secrets would conjure this up. Unlike other rites of passage like fancy handshakes, drinking a yard of ale or running with the bulls, baptism is hardly manly or even especially daring in and of itself. It is, however, anything but neat and tidy and forces dry, respectable people to become soggy, vulnerable ones. As a former Baptist, now Presbyterian, I have seen baptism from more than one angle and I can safely say that, regardless of dunk or sprinkle, lake or font, bathtub or teacup, baptism is an odd practice at best. It has that weird insiders only feel about it like those funny Shriner hats, holy underwear or cryptic Freemasons chant.

It is surprising to me just how clear a picture John had not only of his ministry but of Jesus’ ministry as well. John’s baptism was rather like the promissory note that hinted at the banquet to come. It was like the paper wedding invitation before the personal one from the bridegroom’s own lips or perhaps like the ticket to the concert yet to begin. Although John was rather more than mere ticket-taker, he was fully aware of his preparatory role in this strange unfolding of much anticipated but little understood events.

Imagine if you will the first chair violinist from the New York Philharmonic approaching Homer Simpson and asking him to restring his violin. Better yet, imagine the Pope asking you to offer the New Year’s Eve homily. If ever there were a time to feel both baffled and horrified it would be then. This must have been the case for John as the one he had spent his entire deprived life preparing to introduce; the Lord of heaven and earth approaches him, asking to be baptized.

For my part, I would be excitedly fumbling for my cell phone in my soaking wet camel hair dungarees in order to fire off the quickest mass text to my sure-to-be-impressed friends of my good fortune. Man, would this look good on a résumé and the guys at the office would have first round rights for some time to come.

But John was a well-formed, humble man who knew his place. This request made of him wasn’t flattering as much as it was shocking; puzzling at the very least. Jesus had just asked him, calmly, to do for him what John had just shouted at the Pharisees and others to do: “be baptized for the remission of sins” to the end that they “bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.” This was something others did in preparation for him and something not applicable or even sensible for Jesus to do.

But there it is. Jesus enters the water where John is standing, looks him square in the eyes and requests as much. In keeping with John’s character, he questions the request with a nervous quip about his own suitability. Jesus, always ready with an enigmatic, oft ambiguous, but always life changing statement, replies simply, “let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

I end here because, quite simply, to imagine for one minute that I could render up any better interpretation of Jesus’ remarks here than others far more educated and astute than I have done would be the height of pretense. Besides, it gives me something more to write at some other time.

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