This is another one of those sermons where I have to begin with a promise: I’ll get to our Gospel reading and the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s just going to take a few minutes.
Over Christmas, Carrie and I dug out our old wedding video, and we watched it as a family. That was twenty-eight years ago. My brother was almost exactly the same age then as my oldest son is now. My parents were younger than I am now. Back then, I had a full head of hair, and wore glasses only when I felt like it. Remarkably, Carrie looked about the same then as now.
In the same box we found home videos from just a few years later, and we watched a couple of them too. One recorded Benjamin’s second birthday party. Another showed Benjamin and Nicholas, about ages eight and six, rolling around on the floor, holding each other tight, and shouting with glee. Carrie sent that one to my mother who commented, “How delicious!”
Since watching those videos as a foursome, both of our children have left home. Nicholas is off on a month-long jaunt prior to returning to college. Benjamin returned to his home in Boston.
All that family stuff got me thinking about the Virgin Mary and how she might have felt when Jesus announced that he was planning to head down to Judea to be baptized by John, and that he basically wasn’t coming back. I wonder what the empty nest was like for Mary.
In those first days after Jesus left, I picture Mary reflecting back over the last three decades. How everything had changed for her when the angel announced that she would give birth to the Christ. Her journey to Bethlehem with Joseph, where she gave birth. The visit that night from the shepherds, with their amazing story about the heavenly hosts praising her newborn baby.
The wise men, whose story we heard last Sunday, probably arrived a little later. Their visit must have been a shock. Almost as soon as the Magi left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee with his family to Egypt. They didn’t stay in Egypt long, just until the king who wanted to kill Jesus himself died.
On their return, the holy family settled more permanently in Galilee, presumably back in Nazareth. I am guessing Jesus would have been four or five by then.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood after that. We only get a single story from when Jesus was twelve. His family visited Jerusalem for one of the great pilgrimage festivals of Judaism. When the caravan that included Jesus’ parents left, Jesus was not with them. Joseph and Mary didn’t realize he was missing until the end of the day, when they hurried back to Jerusalem to fetch him. It was three days before they found him! I know from experience how awful it is to lose your small child even for a short time, and my children, wonderful though they were and are, were not the messiah! I picture Joseph and Mary worrying about another visit from the angel!
Joseph and Mary finally found Jesus in the temple chatting with the religious teachers of the big city. We know from that episode that Jesus was both pious and smart. No surprise there.
Then there is something like an eighteen-year gap during which we don’t know what life was like for the holy family. I had never thought much about that period. I have always pictured Jesus either as a child or during his active ministry. But those years between Jesus at twelve and Jesus at thirty must have been full.
At some point, Joseph died. Probably Jesus took over the family business. In that patriarchal age, Jesus must also have assumed responsibility for his mother.
I think about the pressure my own children already have to bear around the question of settling down, getting married, and cranking out grandbabies. It makes me feel sorry for Jesus, as he progressed through his twenties, no doubt a VERY eligible bachelor in a society that tended to marry young and to have large families.
I wonder what Jesus was thinking in those years as he made a life for himself in Nazareth, as he became an adult, as he worked a job, as he supported his mother. I wonder what Jesus and the Virgin Mary talked about at supper.
But one thing seems clear. Special as Jesus was, he was not engaged in any form of public ministry during those years. He didn’t teach, and he didn’t work miracles.
Then, one day, everything changed. Jesus left. And though he returned to Nazareth for at least one brief visit, for all intents and purposes Jesus never came back. Knowing that, it must have been hard to say goodbye, hard for Mary and hard for Jesus.
At the time, Jesus was roughly thirty. These days, I think of thirty as pretty young. But I looked up the average life expectancy in Jesus’ time. One source said 40 to 45. Another source said about 35. Those numbers are rough, and high infant mortality skews the averages. But no one in the first century would have considered a thirty-year old to be young. By thirty, most people were about as established as they were going to get.
But thirty is when Jesus begins his public ministry.
And Jesus kicks off his ministry off by getting baptized by his cousin John.
Mark’s report of the baptism, the one Deacon Terry just read, just states the fact. Jesus “was baptized by John in the Jordan.” In his Gospel, Matthew adds that John is uncomfortable baptizing Jesus. John rightly says that he needs Jesus to baptize him, not the reverse (Matthew 3:14). But Jesus insisted on being baptized.
From that day to this, people have speculated about exactly why Jesus sought baptism. Probably Jesus had multiple reasons. But what occurred to me for the first time this week is that Jesus was already a mature adult at the time. Jesus already had a full life.
When Jesus begins his public ministry, Jesus is starting over. Jesus is turning from one set of responsibilities to a very different set. After baptism, Jesus, who has been quietly caring for his family in Nazareth, emerges as a great teacher and healer, as the long-awaited messiah, as the very Son of God. It is as if Jesus himself is reborn in the waters of baptism.
That is what happens to us in baptism, too. In baptism, like Jesus, we are touched by the Holy Spirit, we are consecrated to God, we embark on our Christian life of mission and service.
But there is one important difference between how Jesus experienced baptism and how we experience baptism. Jesus was ready for a perfect life of service and ministry almost immediately after his baptism. His public ministry begins two verses later in the Gospel of Mark.
For us, it takes longer. For us it takes a lifetime. We are baptized only once, often as infants. Then we spend the rest of our lives living into our baptism, becoming the people that God created us to be, growing in love of God and neighbor, and renewing our baptismal covenant multiple times along the way.
But baptism remains the beginning point, the sacrament of new birth for us as it was for Christ Himself. My prayer for us as individuals and as a parish in 2021 is that we will continue to live ever more deeply into our baptisms and that we will devote ourselves with ever more commitment to the life of loving service as God’s people. And I pray that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan