It began with a baptism. Before Jesus’ forty-day fast—his wandering in the desert to be tempted by the devil—before he took the road to the Calvary, before even his earthly ministry, Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan river (Mark 1:9). Baptisms are always good news. They are a celebration of something new: a new birth, a new sense of belonging, a new work of God in the baptized. Jesus’ baptism is no exception. It inaugurated a new phase for the Incarnate Son. He no longer was biding his time until the preordained hour. With his baptism, something new began: Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.
It is part of my Lenten practice this year to mark the good news all along Jesus’ road to the cross. Perhaps you, like me, are living in a lean season and you need the good news more than ever. I know where this story ends and it is glorious; as hard as the road is, there is joy in the journey. This doesn’t diminish our need to take up our cross and follow Jesus. There is no cheap grace, but good news spills out on the way if you know where to look for it. So I think this is significant that Jesus’story begins with a baptism and an announcement from on high. There were no Lenten angels frightening shepherds, “Today in Judea I bring hard news of great suffering that will be for all people. . .” There was a voice from heaven, with words more wonderful than any such visitation.
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John was some months older than Jesus. I imagine when they were younger, he bested Jesus in every sport and physical contest. But the adult John had been made gaunt by his austere lifestyle: meals of locust and honey and long hours under the wilderness sun. In contrast Jesus was a carpenter—a laborer from Galilee with strong arms and back. The Nazarene would be the more opposing presence, even with John’s crazy eyes.
Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John argued, only relenting when Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” When John plunged Jesus in the Jordan, the heavens tore open and the Spirit came as a dove and rested, brooding over the Word made flesh. A voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son whom I love; I am so pleased with him!”
Divine affirmation. The Spirit’s presence and the Father’s love. The good news for Jesus, even before he began his mission was that God (Daddy!) liked who he was. There was work to be done: Sin had to be dealt with, death destroyed, the Powers dethroned, but even before this, the Father sees the Son and his only word is love. You belong to me. I love you. I am so pleased with you.
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I remember my baptism. I was sixteen and it was Easter Sunday. My church participated in a joint sunrise service with several other local congregations. At the conclusion of the service, the sun had just crested over the horizon. The usually warm Pacific Ocean hadn’t quite shook off its morning cold. I waded into the water where my pastor stood, my feet felt tender as I stumbled on sharp stones. He asked me if I believed that Jesus was my savior and Lord and if I was trusting in him for my salvation (he already knew my answers). Satisfied by my responses, he said, “I now baptized you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and pushed me backwards into the water. He had a hand on the small of my back to make sure I came out of the water. On the shore friends and family, and members of my church clapped and cheered. My rehearsed death and resurrection on Easter morning
The tradition I grew up in practiced believer’s baptism. I have since served as pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, which practices both believers’ and infant baptism; however even before I called the ECC home I witnessed infant baptisms and sense how this too marked a sacred moment. I am a godparent to my niece and was there when her grandfather, an Episcopalian bishop, poured water from his cupped hand over her with that same Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” I participated in the baptismal liturgy, listening as the congregation promised, and I promised as well, to nurture my niece in her Christian faith. At the conclusion, the church celebrated and welcomed her as a member of the family of God.
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A pastor friend of mine tells me he doesn’t like performing baptisms in church where no non-Christians are present. He says if baptism is an outward sign of an inward change, what difference does it make if unbelievers don’t get to witness it? What is the point? The whole Judean countryside came out to be baptized by John. Surely some must of saw John press Jesus’ head below the surface of the waters.
But I am not sure how public most of the experience was. Did eyewitnesses see the heavens rend or the Spirit descend? Did they hear a voice thunder in the sky? I don’t know. John heard and saw something:
I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” John 1:32-34
I think the significance of all that transpired wasn’t widely known, but John knew it and so did Jesus. John saw Jesus, our good news, sealed by the Spirit and chosen by God. Jesus heard the voice of Divine Love–total acceptance, joy at who Jesus already was. John told others what he saw, Jesus did too (or else the Holy Spirit blabbed because we have it written down).
Jesus is the chosen one of God come to set us free. God’s spirit rests on Him. Our lives are hid in him and the words that God once declared of Jesus can now be said of us: You belong to me, you are my beloved. I am so pleased with you.
This is good news of great joy!