Scriptural Meditation for January 9, 2017, Baptism of the Lord
Is 42.1-4, 6-7
Consider that John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the prophets of the Jewish covenant, the new Elijah, herald of the Messiah and culmination of the Old Testament. John summarizes in his mission the entire function of this first covenant: to be a finger that points to Jesus.
Yet consider also that John, such a tremendous figure, is surprised, stupefied, dumbfounded, by Jesus’ very odd request: that he, the heralded Messiah, be himself baptized by the herald; that the one “who must increase” be baptized by the “one who must decrease.” One can imagine John’s face curled in bewilderment and incomprehension. It doesn’t make sense. John, as a righteous man, is there to induce the repentance of sinners; and this man is certainly not a sinner. Why is he in the confession line?
Yet Jesus taking this posture fulfills all righteousness; it is not simply a righteous act, a nice gesture. It is the form of all righteousness, meaning: this is the style in which God will save the world, it is a revelation of God’s nature; those who witness this act better get used to God acting so strangely, so humbly, so hiddenly. To every observer at the scene besides John himself, who knows better, this man looks like the common sinner. “He was like us in all things but sin.” “He who had no sin was made to be sin for us.”
This is the great mystery symbolized by Jesus’ baptism: that his life is my life, yet without sin; that my life, with its particular history, mistakes, scars, wounds, experiences, dreams, and desires, is his human life on earth, yet in him that very life is freed for joy and freedom from what binds it. His life is like a mirror in which I look at myself, and what I see is healed of its imperfections. I find myself in him; he came to return me to myself, my true self.
If there is any Christian perfection available to us in this life, it is to be gained not by “trying really hard” or “lacing up our moral bootstraps,” but by meditating on the love with which he puts himself in our place. That very love and humility led him to die the death owed to us, death as a despised thing, the death of a human life both criminal and misunderstood. This is salvation by compassion. “A bruised reed he does not break. A smoldering wick he does not quench.” Let us move with the joy and feathery lightness that the knowledge of such gentleness imparts to us.