Baptism and Crowds

Matthew 3:13–17

A throng of people, spread out in front of him! Crowds, who have come out to hear the new charismatic preacher, John the Baptist. I imagine Jesus walking over a low hill perhaps, towards the Jordan river, to be confronted suddenly by a great crowd of milling listeners; and down on the river bank, John himself, weirdly dressed, holding forth, doing what he does. They have come from all over. Country folk from the villages nearby, but also sophisticated city types in their fine clothes. Children, skipping and playing: careless, a day out for them with mum and dad. Those almost too frail to make the journey. All kinds of people, young and old, rich and poor, gathering at the river for all kinds of reasons.
The curious are here, and the idle; the religious and the criminal, (seeing in such a large gathering the chance to pick a pocket or two). Here are those come to check on John, to take notes, and gather evidence, and plot his downfall, and report back: the brood of vipers; John lets rip at them. Here are some who sincerely believe that God has greater plans, and wonder if John might be the one to lead them closer. Here are some who have already decided to join John, becoming his disciples, and helping him to spread the word.
Thus John prepares the way of the Lord, with fire in his eyes and passion in his voice. ‘Repent’, he cries, ‘for the kingdom of heaven is near’. Day by day, John gives it everything, with his passion and his preaching of repentance. And as he plunges each penitent beneath the river’s surface, he points to a new birth that is yet to come. ‘I baptise you with water’, he explains, ‘but after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose. Wait till you hear him! He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. Fire to purge and to purify, fire to burn up corruption and wickedness, fire to consume all that falls short of God’s high and demanding standards.’
And they love it! This is what prophets are paid for! Well, not actually paid, as such; but this is what you expect from a qualified prophet, not seen in Israel these hundreds of years. John’s reputation has spread far and wide now; he is big news. They are even sending out pharisees from Jerusalem to listen to him.
Into this febrile, excited, expectant crowd walks Jesus. I wonder if anybody notices? No-one, at this point, is interested in him: all the attention is on John. For where has Jesus been these last ten years or more? Hammering and sawing and planing away in Nazareth, we presume. Unknown, unrecognised, unsuspected; simply the carpenter’s son.
And such conspicuous success might well daunt him, as he surveys the crowds arrayed below him. Here is John at the top of his game; prophet, orator, forerunner of the Messiah. But Jesus, what has he achieved? Not a lot, if truth be told. How can he compete with this? John is bringing in the kingdom, convicting people of their sins, baptising them as a symbol of their repentance; and they are flocking to him. Nobody even knows who Jesus is, let alone listens to the message he is forming, or follows the call he will make. As he steps into the Jordan, he is recognised only by John.
Everything dissolves under the water: John, the crowds, the watching pharisees, the hot sun, the noise, the expectation, everything. Swirling in your ears and through your hair, up your nose and through your clothing. Weightless, timeless, you sense only cooling, calming, cleansing water.
And then standing up again, solid ground beneath your toes once more, the water streaming from your hair and your clothes and your ears: it is as if everything that went before is washed away and gone.
And God says, ‘This is my beloved son, whom I love; with whom I am well-pleased. Not because of what Jesus has achieved. Not because of the mighty ministry he has exercised, because he hasn’t, yet. Not because of the following he has gathered. Not because of the miracles he has performed. Not because he has somehow earned my approval. Just for who he is: my son. Whom I love. With whom I am: delighted.’
If Jesus feels at all intimidated by John’s success, this is God’s overwhelming endorsement. If his future darkens with storm clouds of doubt or foreboding, this is God’s rainbow.
And each time we obey his command and baptise a child in our worship; we recall this first baptism. A baptism that we ourselves have undergone; a baptism that proclaims this message that God loves us. Not what we have done, nor how bright, or wealthy, or hard-working, or influential or charismatic or spiritual, nor even how penitent we are, for babies are none of these things. But who we are. Children of God. His beloved. His delight.
It is miraculous to be loved, simply for being who you are. It makes possible so much. It is the one thing you really need to know, deep in your soul. For Jesus, knowing his Father’s love, this is the true beginning; from this fountain flows his whole ministry.
Because for him also, there will be crowds. This crowd, who witness his baptism, and hear John’s words. Crowds soon at the wedding as he transforms water into wine. Crowds around the lakeside, as he preaches, not purging fire and damning judgement, but refreshment and joy. Crowds as he heals the sick, and new life overflows. Crowds as he rides a donkey into Jerusalem, crowds as he makes a scene in the Temple. Crowds as they crucify him. This baptism beginning is not a shallow joke, or a passing fancy: it has deep implications. It will define his life; and it will define his death.
As I wrote this sermon last week, the US assassination of the charismatic Iranian General Soleimani led immediately to the deaths of fifty people as his funeral took place, and a further one hundred and seventy six died as the Iranian military mistakenly shot down a commercial airliner. Crowds of thousands chanted their hatred of another country and another people as they laid their champion to rest, and Iranian reprisals began to take place. And I wondered what on earth Jesus’ baptism has to do with the crowded world in which we actually live. A world which seems once again to be precarious, suspicious, dangerous, heavily armed, deeply conflicted. Is it completely facile for us Christians to proclaim that God’s love is the answer to such profound mistrust and hatred, and that God’s love is the thing that most matters?
I don’t believe it is an easy answer. Clearly the message of God’s love does not solve the world’s problems overnight, or we’d have been living in paradise long-since. Clearly the baptism we have undergone has not washed clean a world of sin and pain. But whether we are prophets causing a sensation like John the Baptist, or living hitherto in obscurity, like Jesus whom John announces, it is this message that we need to proclaim, as we’ve done now for two thousand years. To the sort of people who flocked to hear John’s preaching, both those who were eager, and those who wished him harm. To family and neighbours, to Iranian mourners and American presidents, to everyone. Because to know that each one of us is loved by God: from this fountain can flow forgiveness, and understanding, and tolerance and reconciliation and the will to work for peace.

© Jon Russell 2020