If you have ever traveled by plane across the country, you have probably witnessed the miracle. No, I’m not talking about the miracle that a metal vessel filled with too many humans and all their heavy stuff can actually lift itself into the sky. I’m not talking about the mind-numbing miracle of dislocation as we hurdle past time zones and lose or gain hours. I am talking about after that. I’m talking about the luggage carousel!
Think about it. There you are, exhausted from having to walk long distances to out of the way gates, listen to babies who hate to be traveling, eating too much salt and drinking too much sugar, and now you are faced with the arduous task of identifying your luggage amidst all the other bags that are close to yours in size and shape and color.
And when they finally arrive, shooting out of that conveyor belt opening at warp drive and careening off other bags to speed along a serpentine course intended to confound the most aggressive of us. Happy are you if you have a bag that is eminently identifiable. But how many of us forget to put a colored ribbon or strap on our medium-sized, black suitcase? And there we all are, trying to parse the gaggle of bags that is flowing past us. Did my suitcase have that dent in the bottom left corner? Which tags did I leave on it? Is that it?…oops, nope. And this is where the miracle happens. Amidst all that stress and urgency and sameness, most of us are able to claim our bags, in short order, and move on.
I know this is a terrible example to put into your minds as we talk about the baptism of Jesus. Here we are supposed to be very solemn at the water’s edge—as Jesus is lowered into the Jordan by John. And here is God, opening up the heavens, coming down as a dove to alight on Jesus. And speaking with a voice we can hear and understand, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is time for awe. It is time for reveling in the knowledge that WE get to be a part of this whole scene—we get to watch it, and hear it, and experience it. What a privilege to be part of it all!
This is Jesus’ baptism, a big deal. This is about Jesus and God. This is about declaring how special Jesus is. This is about adding to that revealing during the Epiphany season that this Jesus, this one: born in a Bethlehem manger; under a special star; sought by wise ones from the east; recipient of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh; that HE is the one of God.
And this scene proves it. It is as Jesus tells John when John balks at baptizing the one he has been foretelling, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” We can marvel in the words of Isaiah, as we have been all these weeks leading up to Jesus’ birth: Isaiah seeing this day and hearing God say,
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations… he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord… I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…
And here is where my Presbyterian background and education say, “Wait a minute.” The Old Testament was not just a secret language pointing us to Jesus. The First Scripture is the story of God and God’s people before Jesus. Jesus tells us he comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it. If we look carefully at the Isaiah passage, we discover God is talking about Isaiah as the chosen one, Isaiah as the servant, Isaiah as the one bringing delight. It is Isaiah who “is to bring light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners …”
We must remember, as the Seasons commentators say, “The stories recounted and the wording used in Matthew’s gospel speak to an audience who would be familiar with the Law and the prophets. Instead of hearing Isaiah and thinking “Jesus” they would hear about Jesus and think of “Isaiah.” (p. 104)
And that back and forth logic made me think of all those pieces of luggage: being claimed. Each of them, distinct, and loved in their own way. Because whenever we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, we are also called to remember that baptism is not for Jesus alone. He comes to John, one of many. And at the end of his ministry, Jesus sends the disciples out to all the nations to baptize in his name. Jesus’ baptism is an event on a continuum that precedes him and widens out after him.
We celebrate the baptism of Jesus not just as Jesus’ story, but as our own story as well. We, too, are invited to wade in the water. We, too, are invited to be baptized. Our names are called into the heavens. We believe that the Holy Spirit descends on each and every one of us, just as it did on Jesus that day. We are told that we, too, are beloved children of God (I John 3).
Sometimes I wonder if we put all the emphasis on Jesus’ baptism, because it takes the responsibility off of us. See, if Jesus is the special one, if Jesus’ baptism is different from our baptism, then we can be like younger siblings—tagging along after the older, wiser, more powerful one. We can stay in his shadow. We can follow after him, staying a little away from all that messy business he gets himself into.
What if the Epiphany revelation is not simply about how special Jesus is—but is more focused on revealing what “Emmanuel, God with us” means? What if Jesus’ baptism is a way of God stepping into what we do, to be “one of us?” What if Jesus’ baptism and the correlation to words used by God about the prophet Isaiah are meant to point to what each of us should hear?
And that is where our responsibility, our being claimed, starts to be apparent. What would it mean if we heard God’s words, the words spoken to Isaiah, the words spoken to Jesus, as words spoken to us? “I have given YOU as a covenant to the people. YOU are a light to the nations. YOU open the eyes that are blind. YOU bring out the prisoners.”
That’s pretty scary business, pretty weighty. What kind of energy would it take to be the light to the nations? What kind of gifts would we need to open the eyes that are blind, and set prisoners free? What might it cost us to bring forth justice? No, so much easier to see Jesus as the solitary one in the water. Much better to have God’s words be for him alone. Much safer to stay on the bank, in the background, at the end of the line.
And here’s the problem with that. Jesus is going to make the shift towards us almost immediately. In his sermon on the mount, just after the Beatitudes Jesus says “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).
I don’t think I’m going to be able to hear “This little light of mine” as a sweet, children’s song anymore. It is a calling. It is our recognition that God is standing at that luggage carousel and pulling one bag after another bag after another bag, and claiming them ALL.
Jesus baptism points to our baptism. God’s words to Jesus, echo words spoken to Isaiah, and continue even to our own ears. Just as Jesus is claimed, we are claimed. Just as Jesus is loved, we are loved. Just as Jesus is tasked with bringing justice (like Isaiah before him), we are tasked with bringing justice to our world.
Truly, God is with us.
And we, whether we know it or not, have been claimed, have been pulled off the conveyer belt to nowhere, and have been given the chance to shine.
May we faithfully do and be all that God dreams for us, with God’s help. Alleluia, Amen.