God’s Baptism

A sermon based on Matthew 3: 13-17 *
January 12, 2014 at Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My kids mostly grew up in Oregon where it rained a lot. Puddles would form everywhere and stay around for days on our property.  Kids are innately attracted to puddles and our kids were no exception to the puddles’ come hither call.

Somewhere along the line we gave in and let them play in those puddles to their hearts’ content. By the end of their play you could barely tell the kids from the puddle, let alone from each other. They were saturated from head to foot with wet oozing Oregon mud. It was a sight to see.

The deal we struck with the kids was that when the play was over they had to endure being throughly hosed off outside.  We had wonderful fresh – very cold– well water. So every time the kids played in mud at the end, the ritual was that they would run in and out of the spray and spin around as long as they could endure it. Eventually, like magic, our clay-covered  unclean kids the color and texture of dirt were transformed into clean children in colorful shorts and soaking wet shirts. It was a baptism of sorts that ended when they’d lay in the sun and dry.

We don’t tend to think of baptism today so much as a symbol of cleansing, as we do a ritual of initiation into the family of Christ and a visible outward sign of the inward grace of God, but John the Baptist’s “baptizing activities should be viewed in relation to Jewish ablution practices – the use of water to cleanse for religious purposes.” 1.

The Bible has many references to bathing rituals. Like hand-washing, cleansing and immersion rituals for priests and those who touch unclean things, and even for those with skin ailments. (Ex 29:4, 30:18-21; Deut 21:1-9; Num 8:7, 19:18-19; Lev 8.6, 16:4, 24; 2 Kings 5:9-14.) . And historically we know that “ within the Judaism of [John the Baptist’s] day, ablutions [took] the [form] of sprinkling, washing, or immersion.” 2  These cleansing rituals indicated transformation, the symbolic washing of the unclean provided a visual sign of cleanliness.

John the Baptist called folks to the desert wilderness to confess their sins and come into the River Jordan to be immersed as a baptism of repentance of sins, as a cleansing initiation into his movement in anticipation of a Coming One whom he expected would bring about the end time.

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday and the Lectionary selection from Matthew that Greg read gives us a glimpse of most of what John the Baptist is believed to have been doing and preaching at the time Jesus was baptized.

The Jesus Seminar took an extensive look at all New Testament sources and extra canonical writings about John and concluded John’s

baptism [w]as probably a form of a Jewish immersion rite and  . . . [and that] No doubt John’s baptism was understood to be an expression of repentance by those who accepted it. His baptism was also probably understood to mediate God’s forgiveness, to purify from uncleanness, and to serve as an initiation into a sectarian movement. By implication, therefore, John’s baptism – in all likelihood– was understood to be a protest against the temple in Jerusalem, for his baptisms provided an alternative to functions of the temple.3

Those who came to John included peasants, expendables and outcasts – like Jesus. 4 & 5. And unlike the temple’s route of forgiveness and access to God, John’s way was a “free” alternative route to cleanliness. 7 See, the temple had been corrupted by Rome, and its leaders helpedoppress the Jewish peasantry. 8 John’s offer and practice of forgiveness by baptism side-stepped the temple, its rites and its expensive temple fees. 9

Consequently,  “[a]s John grew in popularity, he [was] probably . . . perceived as a real threat to those whose authority was grounded in the temple.” 10 His movement was a direct protest against the temple. 11

Jesus’ baptism by John meant Jesus at one point joined John’s movement as a direct challenge to the temple’s monopoly on who receives forgiveness and purification. And here’s the thing, John was not only offering an end-run of the temple, he was stridently inviting followers to come into the desert wilderness and cross the Jordan in protest of Rome. See it was a symbolic reconquering of the Promised Land for Israel.  12 It was a re-enactment of Joshua’s river crossing and conquest of the Promised Land.

John was doing all of this in anticipation of the Coming One’s intercession, on behalf of Israel. In short  “John’s message was an announcement of imminent apocalyptic intervention by God . . .” 13 John’s movement itself was non-violent, but it was nonetheless a highly explosive challenge with overtones of political subversion. 14 John indicted the governing system of Rome and called for the “Coming One” to overthrow those in power and he even symbolically re-enacted it. 15  This was a threat to Herod’s rule and to the Roman Empire. Consequently John was executed. 16

Jesus was initially a part of John’s movement that taught not just repentance, but resistence of Rome in hope of an apocalyptic end to Rome’s rule of Palestine. 17
New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan thinks that John’s execution itself “may have convinced Jesus of a different type of God– the non-violent God of a non-violent kingdom, a God of non-violent resistence to structural as well as individual evil” as Crossan puts it. 18  In other words while Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist Crossan contends

        Jesus changed his view of John’s mission and message. John’s vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had accepted and even defended in the crisis of John’s death, was no longer deemed adequate. It was not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now. By the time Jesus emerged from John’s shadow with his own vision and program, they were quite different from John’s, but  it may well have been John’s own execution that led Jesus to understand a God who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration.” 19

Jesus’ connection to John can be seen in his baptism and in his resistence against the temple and Rome, but it is clear Jesus broke away from John’s movement and headed on a very different Way. John saw God as one who punishes and initiate acts of violence. John preached “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees, every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 3: 10) And John expected some one to follow him who would baptize, not with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”(Matt 3: 11). This is not the Pentecost Light-of the world-fire that John expects or hopes for, we can hear it as a vengeful, destructive fire.
John is not the only one in the Bible who sees God as a vengeful violent God. In some of the Bible God is understood as a warrior or destroyer or deliverer of punishments. Jewish rebels throughout first century Palestine used and advocated violence to oppose Rome on God’s behalf. This vein of warring for God, committing acts of violence in the name of God in attempts to gain peace, of course, still exists today. John’s notion of a vengeful punishing God can be found touted by some  churches and tele-evangelists . They, like John, seem to understand the Holy as a Spirit like destructive fire, but that’s not the Spirit that alights on Jesus. Listen again to verse sixteen from today’s reading:

        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.”

The Spirit is not like a destructive fire, it is like a warm fire, a light of the world fire. It is like a dove. The dove, a symbol since the story of the Flood in Noah’s time, that stands for peace. Jesus and his movement, his Way, was and is all about peace. Jesus rejected all notion of God being a warrior, or vengeful or violent or,  anything, but the God of Love and peace.Jesus’ movement was – and is– about bringing peace to earth through non-violent justice.  Equality and fairness and food and love for all. That’s what Jesus’ Movement is about.

Jesus’ life and death and experiences of him after death were so vibrant that people remembered him as God incarnate. People experienced him as Christ, the very presence of God on the earth. The Prince of Peace.

The Bible has these conflicting views of God. Some passages have God as angry and violent. Some have God as peaceful and loving. Humans had soiled the image of God, had muddied God’s image by claiming God condoned violence and backed victory through violence. For those with ears to hear,  Jesus’ ministry washed those human imposed layers of violence away – and off– from the image of God.

The cleansing of Christ in baptismal waters with a dove alighting on his purified body can be heard as a metaphor for Jesus’ ministry focused on efforts to free the image of God of the impurities of violence. Through Jesus we experience God as pure love and pure peace. The human way, the Roman way of brutality and oppression, the rebel’s ways of violent upheaval, is rejected.

Peace through victory is not God’s way. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it like this in the book the Adult Forum just finished studying (it’s from my favorite page of the book):

The Roman vision incarnated in the divine Augustus was peace through victory. The Christian vision incarnated in the divine Jesus was peace through Justice . .  The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that esacalator violence that then endangers our world. . .  20

See the question is: Do we think peace “comes through violent victory or non-violent justice?” 21. Jesus claimed it comes through non-violent justice. It comes through letting everyone– everyone– into your community and at your table. It comes through loving everyone– everyone.   It comes through caring for everyone–   everyone.

In both Biblical and non-Biblical Jewish texts “justice as equality” in Jesus’ day had long been understood as demanded by both divine decree and God’s very own character. 22 Jesus understood this. Jesus taught it. Jesus embodied it.  And Jesus’ baptism symbolizes just that. The One whom the Spirit landed on like a dove, like peace, and stayed with him throughout his ministry was God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom the Great I Am was well pleased.

Jesus’ image of the non-violent, loving God we now know and embrace, cleaned the muck of violence off the manmade image of God. Through Jesus’ Way Christians can  know the clean and pure God of peace, the God of justice, the God of steadfast love. When Jesus entered the ministry –which we remember as beginning with his baptism– he started a movement that – in the end– gave us a clear clean picture of the God of peace. The God who is love.Our job is to keep that picture in our mind, to remember always Christ’s call to peace through love . . . which is God. When we think of Jesus, we’d do well to think of the dove, and think of love.


* This sermon is based on a sermon I originally wrote in 2008.
1. Tatum, Barnes, John The Baptist and Jesus: a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Sonoma: Polebridge Press, (1994) 119.
2. Ibid., 120.
3. Ibid.
4. Webb, John, John the Baptizer and Prophet, Sheffield:JSOT Press, (1991), 377.
5. John Dominic Crossan and Stephen Patterson both note that Jesus’ ministry included healing outcasts by declaring them clean, that is giving them status in his community. Crossan, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography,  San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1989) 77-84; idem,  The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1998),  293-304; Patterson, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998), 71-75, 83. Perhaps as a follower of John Jesus borrowed from him the idea that someone outside the temple elite could mediate a process to change the unclean to clean and then expanded it from baptism to healing and meal sharing. Cf., Tatum, 164 (where a side box indicates that Paul Hollenbeck’s work suggests Jesus abandoned baptism for healing when he discovered he could do exorcisms).
6. Ibid., 172 (“we may conclude that the NT description of John’s baptism as ‘baptism of repentance of the forgiveness of sins’ probably reflects the significance of John’s baptism as John proclaimed it . . .”).
7. Ibid., 203.
8. Ibid., 203-205.
9. Crossan,  San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992), 231. Crossan also notes that this end run around the temple was probably John’s unique invention.
10. Webb, 204.
11. Tatum, 124.
12. Ibid., 162-165
13.Ibid., 231, 235; Joshua 3.
14.Ibid., 231, 2359
15.Tatum. 160.
16. Ibid., 153.
17. Ibid., 151.
18. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 287.
19. Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, 48.
20. Borg, Crossan, The First Christmas p. 166.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid., 184.

Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014