To many the baptism of the Lord has always seemed like something of an oddity. And if it mysterious to us why Jesus underwent baptism at the beginning of his ministry, we should remember that it was no less mysterious to John the Baptizer. What we do know about the Lord’s baptism, though, is that it occasions an extremely radical divine event: the Father himself speaks and the Holy Spirit is seen in physical form. This is nothing to be trifled with. Here the whole Trinity is seen, speaks, and is spoken to in the presence of a great many flabbergasted individuals.
Our Lord’s baptism is seen, in Luke’s Gospel, as the first proclamation of God about the identity of Jesus. The verdict that will be affirmed and vindicated in the resurrection is proclaimed for the first time here, by God’s own voice. This is the Son. This is the one who speak for God, who does God’s will, who brings about God’s work. This is the one that all of you have been expecting (cf. 3:15). All human eyes are on Jesus. All divine speech points to Jesus. This is the one and no other.
Notice that this revelation happens following John’s words concerning Jesus. John sees Jesus for who he is, the apocalyptic messiah who is going to bring the Holy Spirit, judgment, and the kingdom of God. And John’s words receive the best validation one could hope for, the very voice of God.
Everything about this scene is pregnant with anticipation, anticipation of God’s own action. We, like John and the onlookers are precisely that, witnesses. What’s about to go down is not something of ours, something we can help along, or bring about. What’s about to go down is something utterly other, something completely new, something we can only point to as say “Behold the Lamb of God!”
What we are given, in the scriptural witness to Jesus beginning the work of salvation is simply to watch, to witness, and in witnessing to follow. The vocation we are given is to see and in seeing to be made anew. To join in Christ’s baptism, to be translated into his own mode of being, his way of being human. And this way that Christ embodies, this fully human life, lived completely in the mode of love, this changes everything. The status quo can never be the same, but neither can our revolutions. In Christ we are invited to see something completely new. Something that unsettles all old antagonisms and power games. We are invited to see the beloved Son, the one who is for us the very image of God. We are invited to know a truth, one we have shut our eyes to all our lives about the nature of God, the radicality of God’s agape.
And in coming to see and taste the truth of who Christ is, we are let in on a mission, a journey of discipleship, a calling. And this calling is to be witnesses, who like John never proclaim ourselves, but Christ. We do this in word and deed, limping along after the way that Christ goes on from his baptism to show us. In the words of Will Campbell (a John the Baptist-like figure if I’ve ever seen one):
Yes, we know something they do not know. We know that God so loved the world, with all its people, their sins and problems, that he became like one of us and dwelt among us and died that we might all be one people—his people. We know that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and breaking down all barriers and walls of hostility which separate us from one another and from him. We know that God, in establishing the Church, has enlisted us to proclaim that message of reconciliation. We know that we are called not to build a kingdom, but to bid men to enter one already established, here and now, in which race is as irrelevant a category as redhead, baldhead, fat man, lean man. We also know that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick and bade his followers do the same.
That is what we know, and that is the evangelical message we must now proclaim to both revolutionary and defender of the status quo. And to those who say we have not earned the right to preach to the revolutionaries, we can only say “God, in Christ, has earned it for us.”