Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 12, 2020
“Baptism: An Act of Solidarity with the Poor"
Matthew 3: 13-17 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus was just born a few weeks ago and today he’s already 30 years old. What happened in between? Well, among other things, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he was visited by the wise men from the East and then his family fled violence to live as refugees for a few years in Egypt. Then, when Mary and Joseph felt it was safe to leave, they moved the family to Nazareth. Then what?
Jesus was curious so he traveled eastward with his best friend to meet up with those three wise men – a magician, a Buddhist, and a Hindu Yogi. At least as it is recorded in The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. These three wise men taught him many things, including how to multiply food and how to become invisible. They taught him the origins of cappuccino, how rabbits became associated with Easter, and why Jews eat Chinese food on his birthday. When Jesus and Biff returned home, they shared stories of their adventures with their friends, including Maggie, who later in life became known as Mary Magdalene. These young friends shared their hopes and dreams and the occasional mischief, especially the foul-mouthed Biff, and argued over who got to play Moses in their games.
Since the Bible offers so little information, it’s stands to reason that people are left to speculate. Such speculation of the more serious kind, you know, less blasphemous and sacrilegious, often includes the suggestion that Jesus spent part of his young adulthood travelling, in particular among Eastern religions. For example, among others, the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ suggests he spent his youth travelling across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt.
Modern scholars, however, including Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus are supported by actual scholarship and that any suggestions that Jesus, in particular, came into contact with Buddhism are “without historical foundation.” In fact, Leslie Houlden states that all of these modern comparisons only emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century. Which is kind of disappointing. Jesus and the Buddha obviously never met, since they were born 500 years apart, but I still like the idea that they would have been good friends – like the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I love pictures of the two of them poking at each other and making each other giggle.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph went every year with Jesus to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. You may recall the year when he was 12 years old, he went missing. After three days of travel on the return home, his parents realized Jesus was nowhere to be found. They rushed back to Jerusalem and discovered Jesus sitting in the Temple among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. His parents, a little irritated at Jesus, asked him why he has treated them so poorly? Jesus simply responded, “where else do you think I’d be?” Or something similarly nonchalant. I’m not sure exactly what Mary or Joseph said next, but Luke 2:51 reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth with them and was “obedient to them.” Seems to me there might have been a little ear tugging involved. The last thing the Gospel of Luke reports about his childhood was that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” How? Who knows?
The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus spent his young adult years as a carpenter, the profession of his father, or rather, his step-father. The Gospel of Matthew says the same thing. When people were upset with him and asked, “who does he think he is,” the response was, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son?”
There’s not much else available to us about those 18 “unknown, missing, or lost” years. The only other writing we can draw from was called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, dated somewhere around the year 80, the same time as the Gospel of Luke. In the end, it was not chosen to be part of the canon of scripture, perhaps because it is quite bizarre. Jesus is described in the same manner as a trickster in Greek mythology. And petulant. One-year old Jesus made the neighbors blind after they complained about something to Mary and Joseph. He killed a boy who accidentally bumped into him. Later, however, it’s all good because he healed everyone he harmed. This gospel is less charming than imagining Jesus and Biff learning magic from one of the wise men. Although, among the better stories in the Infancy Gospel is how he brought a clay pigeon to life after breathing into it.
Regardless, around the time he was 30 years old, Jesus presented himself to John and asked to be baptized.
One of the questions raised at Noodles and Company on Thursday was “what was baptism at that time?” Baptism has its root in the traditional miqvah, a ritual washing.
Back in Jerusalem, before a pilgrim could enter the main sanctuary of the temple, the court of the faithful, he had to completely immerse himself in its pool of clean water as a symbol of his ritual purification. For a fee. A hefty fee. It was quite a profitable enterprise. Enter the temple. Make a sacrifice. But, go further? Pay the price. However, if wealthy people wanted an even nicer experience, away from all those common folk, they could pay for a premium upgrade at the miqvah in the home of a priest. But among those commoners, the poorest of the poor couldn’t even afford the cheap ones. And therefore, could not enter the court of the faithful.
John, however, did not require a fee. The price of baptism was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path. Metanoia. To turn around. John turned the miqvah immersion in water from a purification ritual into a symbol of forgiveness. And furthermore, John declared that God’s forgiveness was free to anyone who asked for it. But hold on there… Only priests had the authority to declare God’s forgiveness – for a fee.
Therefore, more and more, increasing numbers of people started traveling the day’s long journey from Jerusalem to John’s cave along the Jordan to be baptized. Including the religious authorities upset that he was cutting into their profits. John called them out – why are you hypocrites and broods of vipers here?
Among those who showed up in those increasing numbers was Jesus, John’s cousin. Remember John’s mom Elizabeth and Jesus’ mom Mary were cousins. They visited each other while Mary was six months pregnant – now 30 years ago.
Why would Jesus ask to be baptized if the purpose was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path? Did his best friend Biff actually lead Jesus into a brief life of sin and debauchery while they lived among the wise men?
Well, here is an explanation by Richard Losch that I hadn’t considered before. Jesus asked for baptism by John to identify with the poor who couldn’t afford the hefty fee to enter the court of the faithful. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor – his very first act of pubic ministry. Which then, as he gathered followers, was quickly made explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, the first line of which is “Blessed are the poor.”
Baptism does, in fact, have many meanings. Repentance for sin. Forgiveness. A dying and rising to new life. An initiation into the church and the Christian faith. A promise. A dedication. A rite of passage. But, I especially like the addition: baptism is an act of solidarity with the poor.
Whatever it is, and all of what it is, baptism represents the transformation of what has been to what we hope and pray will be. In word and deed. Which is not a “once and done.” Not that we have to be baptized over and over, but to return regularly to examine what we promised, or what was promised for us. And get back on the better path.
That’s why we begin every new year with a renewal of our baptism vows. And as we enter the down and dirty of what could be a very nasty 2020, I’d like to invite us to consider what it means to us to be in solidarity with the forsaken, the persecuted, the lonely, the left out – everyone left behind in this economy. Everyone left behind in this country. Yet, not just left behind, but locked up. Caged up and thrown out.
Repentance for our participation in and benefit from the systems and structures of white supremacy. And then, metanoia, our promise to turn in a new direction, to walk a better path, to build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. With every word we choose to speak and with our every deed.
Afterall, what does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. But to also remember, not just once, our baptismal vows are to keep doing justice, to keep loving kindness, and to keep walking humbly, day by day, year by year, in solidarity with God and our neighbor.
A ritual for renewing our vows continues, including the following:
Remembering Our Promises
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, following in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?
And do you promise, by the grace of God, to grow in your faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation in the life of the church?
Then individuals come forward and touch their forehead with water while singing Here I Am
 Christopher Moore, 2003
 Richard Loesch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008, pp 222-225
 Micah 6:8
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world