Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ – Matthew 3:13-17
A gigantic baptist church was the one I left in High School. I sauntered off into Agnosticism and Buddhism for a while before coming back to a “non” denominational church which was basically baptist in everything but name. Both churches taught relatively speaking the same two thing about baptism: that it was a sign of public obedience to God and that it was a symbolic cleansing from sins. When I was baptized at 19, these were my windows into what was going on.
Now, these are two fantastic images to have of baptism. They are simple and direct. A pastor explaining this to a new person might add in the role of baptism as initiation into the church. I still think that these are all part of a good healthy view of baptism. Now, I’ll be fair for a minute: I was hardly a great observer of what was going on, and I doubt I could grasp what they were telling me at the time. I doubt I caught all the details.
Now I’ve changed a little, but I still see these as essential parts of my view of Baptism. Even as I support infant Baptism now and have moved to see that Baptism is more than simply “symbolic” cleansing of sin, these two meaning persist in my way of imagining Baptism. When you Baptize an infant, they are joining the church, but they are also getting cleansed from Original Sin, the inward bend toward sin. I’ve never really believed that people come into this world as a Locke like tabula rosa or blank slate, but there is an age of accountability where we become aware of our predilection towards sin.
A good solid wash makes sense with all this going on, but we could go further. The parents are being obedient, and they and the church take vows to help children with their obedience to God. We’re all good for both images in every type of baptism I’ve seen, both all ages and believers.
But I will say, I entered into baptism with a about a thimble full of understanding amidst the ocean of the baptismal waters. The passage in Matthew used in the liturgy this morning underscores the point. I stand as confused as John. What in the world is Jesus doing in the water? Jesus doesn’t need a public show of obedience, he’s already got obedience down to the mark. Jesus doesn’t need to be cleansed from sins, he started out with no marks against him and no disobedience to mar the Image of God in the Word of God.
John the baptist was out teaching a baptism for repentance, but again that really doesn’t help us grasp at what’s going on in this passage. Jesus doesn’t need to repent.
These two images, that work great for understanding baptism either miss something or I just don’t understand them all that well.
As this conundrum circled swam around my head this week. Something struck me. In the early church part of the Baptism ceremony included the priest or bishop smearing a little oil onto the head of the baptized. This is anointing. This is just a lens, but it is the lens with which I started to look at the Baptism of the Lord.
The first most obvious thought that crossed my head was that the word “Messiah” means “anointed-one”. It’s the word we use to describe Jesus, it’s the word that was used to describe the kings David and Saul. Arguably, numerous people in the Old Testament were anointed for specific purposes. While there doesn’t seemed to be a prescribed format for anointing or goal for the anointed, I think we could argue that Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Isaiah, Samuel, Sampson, and many others were all anointed in one way or another. Only David and Saul get called the anointed, but it’s clear that God usually starts the ministry of any particular person from King to Outcast with anointing.
Isaiah strikes me in his fire brand experience as being annointed to talk, and it is in the book of Isaiah that I find the best idea of what this anointed ministry looks like. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)
This is the suffering servant who is called to give good news to the poor and delivered the oppressed. From those sins that human beings commit against each other all the time. Rob Bell once pointed out that in Hebrew tradition you needed two witnesses to lay hands on you in order to become a Rabbi. Here we find John the Baptist and God the father laying hands on Jesus. Giving him authority as a teacher, a teacher and a deliverer.
Understanding Baptism as anointing shifts the perspective from what we are doing to what God is preparing us for. We can think of baptism in terms of obedience or washing or joining, and these help us grasp the actual act of baptism pretty well. They can however hang us up if we get caught up in them as the great act of obedience, washing, or joining. We could end up focusing on Baptism as the initiation or the wedding without contemplating the marriage.
With anointing this temptation isn’t there as much, we can see obedience, washing, and joining in as inaugural, the kick off to God’s calling. This reception of the Holy Spirit is the time in which we receive from God part in the Body of Christ, freedom from slavery to sin and death, and a relationship with God that enables obedience.
Baptism anoints us into relationship with God. It starts us following God into greater love of God and neighbor as self.