It felt like one of those slow motion movies, the kind when time seems to flow like molasses and your senses absorb all the information – the light of early dusk, the smell of late summer, the air that blows just enough to kiss the back of your neck. I was driving on Mangum Street downtown, passing over the railroad tracks, soaking in the beauty of our city when I saw a beautiful sight in the glow of a setting sun. As I approached it, I opened my window all the way and turned off my radio to make sure I could get the full effect. Standing outside, cheering and waving, shouting "I love you," jumping up and down, a broad swath of God’s people sent messages of relentless devotion way, way up to the tiny-slotted windows of their imprisoned beloveds. The county jail courtyard swarmed with what could only be described as unconditional love. It seemed that whatever wrong had been done, whatever crime committed, whatever sin singed into history and heart – at that moment, letting the locked up and lonely know they were loved was all that mattered.
Our Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Luke and tells of a story we know well – Jesus’ baptism. But unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke skips much of the detail and jumps to what – perhaps – he considered to be the only necessary parts of the story: The people expected a Messiah. They thought it was John. John said, "Not I. But He is coming." All the people were baptized. And so was Jesus. Jesus prayed. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. A voice from heaven said: I love you.
Luke doesn’t tell us where the baptism takes place, what Jesus said, or – or – why Jesus was baptized. Why Jesus – the Living Messiah – needed to be baptized – why Jesus, as John describes – the one more powerful and discerning, the one with unquenchable fire – needed to be humbled and immersed in water used to cleanse sinners.
What Luke does tell us, however, is that Jesus was with all the people. All the people.
When I think about this word "all," it requires a bit of deconstructing. We use it so frequently, right? To say that God loves "all" people. It becomes a platitude, an easy way to talk about God’s unconditional embrace. But if we truly mean God loves "all," then let’s think about who that includes: the people incessantly sinning beyond earthly reconciliation, the people who seem to do everything right and decent and in order, the people who look put together not matter the time of day and the people who couldn’t find matching socks this morning. It includes the kid who used to taunt you on the bus and it includes your rebellious teenage self who stopped at nothing to get a rise out of your parents. It includes the people previously jailed and perpetually jaded, the people who had nothing better to do. It includes the rich and the powerful and the homeless and the systematically oppressed. All the text tells us. These are people are whom Jesus chose to get in line with at his baptism. "These people," Jesus seems to say, "are my people."
In church talk, we call this "incarnation" – a physical, fleshy, earthly embodiment of God’s love for us. We used that word a lot during Advent and then Christmas. We’ve moved quickly from a pregnancy to a birth to an escape to Egypt to three Magi to now, one week later but thirty years ahead in the Gospel. In this biblical time warp, we can lose what we held dear back in December – God’s love is now here on earth in the body of Jesus Christ – a body that will walk and talk and live and die and rise again among God’s people so that God might know us deeper and that in turn, we might know God. The incarnation is a truth that comes to us in the body and life of Christ, that God cares about us so much that God wants to be with us and God wants to stand with us – with us, even the lost, the lonely, the looking, the broken, the boring, the brave, the sinful, the sad, the scared. Jesus Christ came to earth that we might see and hear and touch and believe that love – a perfect, pining-for-us kind of love – love is for all and therefore, love is ours.
Even if this doesn’t convince you – and I’ll be honest – to think that God, almighty, all-powerful stoops so low as to love me – I have a bit more proof for you.
See, after the story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke, we come across an oft-skipped part of the story. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, we read what seems like a boring chronicle of Christ’s human genealogy. It starts with his father Joseph, descending into a long list of names like Zerubbabel and Elmadam and Arni. In this list, we read of Jesus’ ancestors like Jesse who disregarded his youngest son David and David who murdered and assaulted in his ascent to the throne to Jacob who deceived his father Isaac on his deathbed and Seth who is a replacement son for Adam and Eve after Cain killed Abel.
"Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin, and his baptism is a signal that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. He was not merely identifying with or showing solidarity with the human world; he was fully acknowledging its tragic structure."1
When Jesus stood in line with his children, his beloved friends to get baptized, he was doing so knowing that it would cost him. It would cost him his reputation and eventually his life. He knew that to stand on the side of love, to stand with the outcasts and the broken was to stand on the side of risk and yet – and yet – this is where Jesus chose to be. With you, with them, with us, with me.
Why did Jesus get baptized?
I think that Jesus got baptized that we might know a love that knows no bounds. A love that leads us through turbulent waters, a love that quenches our parched hearts, a love that overflows time and time again no matter what we do to try and stop it.
This morning, we baptized little Finley, making a promise to her that we would love her, that we would listen to her and teach her and play with her and that we would get in line with her no matter where she went, constantly whispering in her ear: You are loved, you are loved, you are loved. We didn’t promise to make sure she got into a good school or that she would never get sick or that she would never make mistakes. What we promised, instead, is a far more holy and sacred and ancient promise: that she will know the love of Christ.
Whether you were baptized or not, Christ makes this promise to you. Christ promises to love you and care for you and tell you over and over again until your last earthly breath.
I invite you to close your eyes and let these words wash over you. It is a variation of the French reformed liturgy for baptism and I find them to be the Gospel in poetics:
For you, little one,
the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation,
and the Lord God made covenants with his people.
It was for you that the Word of God became flesh
and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
For you, my child, Jesus Christ suffered death
crying out at the end, "It is finished!"
For you Christ triumphed over death,
rose in newness of life,
and ascended to rule over all.
All of this was done for you, little one,
though you do not know any of this yet.
But we will continue to tell you this good news
until it becomes your own.
And so the promise of the gospel is filled:
"We love because God loved us first."
1. Hess, Carol Lakey. Feasting on the Gospels, 238.