Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Looking Through the Lens of Baptism

Forgive the repetition, but the gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:29-42) is a lot like last Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17). All three synoptic gospel accounts portray the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. As I mentioned in the pulpit, even John's gospel account, which doesn't follow the others very closely, begins, in a way, with the baptism. This week, we read not the narrative of the event itself but John the gospel-writer's interpretation of the event through the words of John the baptizer.

When John saw Jesus approaching, he declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" That's quite an identification--one that surely shocked his hearers. The next day, when John makes the same bold statement, two of his disciples understand that as an invitation to break their allegiance with the baptizer and follow Jesus. Who can blame them? Why would someone follow the forerunner when the real thing is at hand? Except perhaps at a tapas bar, why would someone go to a fancy restaurant and order a meal but never get past the first course?

The remarkable thing about this passage and John's identification of Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" is that it is grounded in that baptism. To justify this connection, John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

That verb "testify" is telling. In the Greek, that word is "ἐμαρτύρησεν," which is a form of "μαρτυρέω," which means "bear witness" and from which we get the word "martyr." This is John's witness. This is his proclamation. He saw the Spirit descend. God's voice told him that the one to receive the Spirit in this manner is the one who will baptize with that same Spirit. John made the connection and proclaimed boldly, "this is the Son of God."

What do we see in baptism? Last week, I wrote a lot about recognizing God's work of righteousness in the person of Jesus because of that baptismal moment when the voice declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved." This week, I feel drawn to that baptismal lens again, but this time John the Evangelist through John the Baptist helps us go a step further. Instead of standing at the water's edge and hearing God declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work, we hear John declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work of taking away the sins of the world. That's quite a stretch, but it starts, again, in Jesus' baptism.

How might a preacher engage the theology of the remission of sins through the waters of baptism in a sermon on John 1:29-42? How might we recognize through Jesus' baptism, through John's interpretation of that baptism, and through our own baptism that Jesus is the one who washes us clean? That sounds like a heavy, rich, difficult, powerful sermon in the making. This week, it's not mine to make, but I look forward to what the Spirit says to us on Sunday.

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