Today's Gospel is a feast of improbable and colorful images. There is a certified and certifiable wildman named John the Baptist. This John is perhaps the most colorful personality in all of Holy Scripture. Then there is a truly strange event. John baptizes Jesus, who does not need to be baptized. Finally, there is a voice from heaven proceeded by a swooping down of the Holy Spirit.
And all of these strange events are essential for the salvation of the world.
First, John the Baptist. John is described in the Gospels in very strong images. He lived in the wilderness " beyond the Jordan River." He wore a camel's skin, or more likely, a rough, coarsely woven camelhair garment. He ate locusts and wild honey. If he was from Nazareth, and it seems likely that he was, tradition says his hair would never have been cut. If John were around today, he would likely be institutionalized. His message was not one of comfort. He called for repentance. He referred to those who came out to the Jordan River to hear him speak as a "brood of snakes." When he announced to the crowd the coming of Jesus, he described Jesus as one who would baptize us, who would immerse us in a baptism of fire.
The people who came to John to be baptized for repentance were so desperate about the condition of their souls that they were willing to go to a man as strange as John was. They were sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. They were people who were doomed. They were condemned by the larger society. Those who were religious scorned them. They were the dregs.
Then Jesus came to join them. The people Jesus saw when he came out of the water of his own baptism were the dregs of society. He joined them through his baptism. He became one of them.
Then the Spirit came. We really don't know what the coming of the Holy Spirit really looked like. But it reminded the witnesses of the swirling, the swooping down of a dove.
Then they heard a voice from heaven that said, "You are my son, my Beloved, my favor rests on you."
At that precise moment, all three persons of the Trinity were right there. If we can attribute things like "focus" or "intensity" of "commitment" to God, that is what was present at this event. It is all coming together to launch the campaign to save the world. God is invading his fallen, sinful, and broken creation with absolute, insurmountable, overpowering love.
Now let us look at the crowd that was present at Jesus' baptism. They were there to confess their sins. And John expected, demanded, that they change their ways. He said, in Luke's Gospel, "He who has two tunics, share with the man who has none." He said to the tax collectors, "Exact no more than your rate." He said to the soldiers, "no intimidation, no extortion! Be content with your pay."
The people who came were sinners who repented and were ready to live new lives.
These people are signs of a new covenant. The new covenant is created and sealed by the birth, life, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. These sinners are, in fact, Jesus' new community.
The journey that Jesus began at this baptism is the journey of salvation. We join that journey through our own baptisms. In the Baptismal Rite, especially in the portions found on pages 302-303 of the Book of Common Prayer, we are first called to repentance. Then the first three solemn questions of the rite ask us to: "renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God...renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God...renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God." After this profound and solemn repentance the next three questions invite us to join with Jesus in the journey of salvation. "Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?" The repentant person being baptized answers, "I do."
When Jesus was baptized he said, "I do," to God's purpose for him. He was to bring salvation to the world.
When we say, "I do," to God in our baptisms, we join those who have joined themselves with Jesus in the journey of salvation.
If you have never said, "I do," to God, will you? If you have said, "I do," to God does your life show that you are making good that promise?