A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 12, 2003.
Based on Mark 1:7-11 (1 Epiphany, Year B).
“If Jesus was God’s son, why did he need to be baptized?” This is the sort of question that stops Sunday School teachers and priests dead in their tracks. Last year about this time I received a phone call from a panicked Sunday School teacher who was asked this very question. Fortunately the teacher did the smart thing – she told the child it was an excellent question and told him she’d discuss it the following week. In the meantime she started scrambling for the answer.
And it is a great question. Why would the son of God need to be baptized? Surely it wasn’t to wash away sin or to enter into a deeper relationship with his Father. He was sinless, after all, and you can’t get much closer to someone than being of the same substance. But every year about this time we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. We celebrate the fact that we share in this baptism with Jesus and we remember that baptism is the source of our own entrance into the Church.
But if we’re left wondering why Jesus needed to be baptized, imagine what must have been going through John the Baptist’s mind when Jesus approached him. In Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, which we just heard, we don’t get any insights into the Baptist’s thoughts. John didn’t have to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, as he proclaims he is unworthy to do. Yet he does have to baptize him. So someone who barely feels worthy to be in Christ’s presence is nonetheless asked to baptize him.
Matthew’s gospel account of this story does shed some light on what the Baptist might have been feeling. We’re told that John tried to refuse Jesus’ request to be baptized by him. To paraphrase just a bit, John basically says ‘me baptize you? Are you crazy? You’re the one who should be baptizing me.’ But Jesus insists, speaking of the baptism as necessary “to fulfill all righteousness,” a reference pointing back to what the prophets foretold. In Mark, however, there’s no debate about the issue, John just does the baptism and Jesus moves immediately into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by satan. Jesus approaches and John obeys. And Jesus, too, submits to the will of his father, demonstrating an obedience that ultimately brought him to the cross.
But why would the son of God need to be baptized? The reality, as with so many questions of faith, is that there’s no “right” answer to the question. And it would certainly make my life, and any Sunday School teacher’s life, a lot easier if the answers were written down in some great reference book. But unfortunately or fortunately it’s just not that simple.
I’ve always seen the baptism of Jesus as not so much for Jesus but for us. The drama of the heavens opening and the dove descending are a public affirmation of what both God and Jesus already knew: that Jesus was God’s son. This was a clear sign to those who observed the baptism, and to us as well, that God was doing something new. It was a sign that a new age had dawned. So, Jesus’ baptism was for us, and our own baptisms are for him. Jesus is God’s son and through baptism we become God’s adopted sons and daughters. Which is why we share in Christ’s baptism and why we can celebrate it as a community of faith.
Baptism is for us, as it was for Jesus, a transformative moment in our lives. Of course most of us don’t have the slightest memory of the moment that our relationship with God in Christ was fully initiated through baptism. That’s what happens when we’re baptized as infants. But more important than remembering the specific event is that we live into our baptismal covenants throughout our lives. Baptism is that unconditional moment of relationship with God that we spend the rest of our days trying to fully live into. And Jesus gives us the perfect example of what that looks like.
Armed with all sorts of research and ideas, that Sunday School teacher I mentioned marched confidently back into her class seven days later. She was all set to engage in a lengthy conversation about why it was, exactly, that Jesus needed to be baptized. Unfortunately the child couldn’t remember having asked the question in the first place and really wasn’t concerned with an answer. So, back to the lesson plan she went, grateful for her inquisitive children and the opportunity to reflect upon an intriguing and profound question of faith.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003