4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This past summer, Niki Jensen and I took a group of 8 of our youth on a 5-day, Christian camping and canoeing trip down the Flambeau river in Wisconsin. Each day, we were on the river. Each night, a new campsite. All of which was surrounded by wilderness. And we learned one thing very quickly when we entered the wilderness – it is not a predictable place. First of all, rain. Lots and lots of rain. Pretty much from the moment we got there. And with rain, wet wood, which makes it very hard to start a fire. And very hard to stay warm. Each morning, it was a complete gamble on whether the ticks or the poison ivy had snuck beyond the layers and layers of security that we kept between our skin and the wilderness. We even had to hide our food packs each night just in case there was a bear lurking around. We were vulnerable to in that wild wilderness.
One afternoon, most of us spent our free time swimming in the river. But the current was so strong in some parts that it grabbed a hold of one our youth and sent him drifting down stream far enough that it was nearly impossible for him to crawl his way back to us on his own. So we had to send our rescue team of teenagers and life jackets to go get him, and he made it back safely. On this trip, we suffering from bug bites and cuts, sun burn, dehydration, and, yes, even one broken ankle. (As I say this, I realize that you parents will probably never be sending your child on this trip ever again.) Like I said, we learned one thing very quickly – the wilderness is not a predictable place. And it certainly isn’t tame. But rather it is wild and beyond our control.
I mention this because this is exactly where our gospel for today has placed us – in the wilderness. The wild and rugged wilderness. Where it is not predictable. And not tame. But this is the place where John the Baptist has chosen to offer his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And what strikes me is that this location for a baptism, in the wilderness and in a river that could grab a hold of you and send you down stream at any moment, is meant to teach us something about baptism. That is, baptism is not tame. It is not predictable. It is wild and beyond our control.
John the Baptist is standing out in the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance. An opportunity for anyone to come forward and be cleansed of all that was wrong with their lives. To be forgiven for the things that they had done or for the things that they hadn’t done. Which was probably the same kind of stuff for which we need forgiveness: some form of greed, or selfishness, or violence, or indifference. But that’s what John was offering – a chance to start over, to come clean with their life. And John had no idea if anyone would show up. He just started preaching and offering a baptism of forgiveness and waited to see what would happen.
And here is what amazes me – the people came. People from all over the Judean countryside and all over Jerusalem. They all showed up and confessed their sins and were baptized by John. And you know that must have been a….diverse group of people. To put it lightly. There were probably CEOs standing in line next to the homeless. Machinists and carpenters bumping elbows with bankers and lawyers. People who knew God and believed in God walking beside people who hard never even heard of God but knew that they needed a change in their life. And I can only begin to imagine how vulnerable that must have felt for everyone involved. To be standing in line for the whole world to see – that you were you someone whose life needed cleaning up. That you were someone who needed help.
And then to know that you were totally and completely at the mercy of another person’s willingness to forgive you. Who knows, you could wade out into that river water, stand in front of John for a moment, only to have him say no and dismiss you for being beyond hope and beyond repair. How embarrassing – and heartbreaking – that would be. Or, if he is willing to baptize you and to send those sins of yours floating down the river as far away from you as they can get, you still are literally putting your life in his hands, as he dips you back into the water, and trusting that he will bring you back up again. Either way you look at it, the whole situation was extremely vulnerable. The only comfort was that those who saw you there were standing in the exact same line. And you knew you weren’t alone.
And then something happens in the story. Jesus steps into line too. There the people were, as nakedly vulnerable as they possibly could be, and Jesus, the Son of God, could have simply stood on the edge of the riverbanks, encouraging them.
“Good work, Joe, I’m proud of you. It’s about time you confessed that sin.”
“Anne. Welcome. Thanks for being here. I knew you would come. You’ll never be the same again. Have a good time in there.”
But that isn’t what Jesus does. No, Jesus steps into line too. Jesus enters the waters as well. Jesus becomes vulnerable with the vulnerable.
And here is the thing: all of us, all of us, are standing in that line. The only difference between now and then is I don’t know that we are standing in a line waiting to have our sins forgiven. As I look around and listen to people, I don’t see a lot of people struggle with all of their sin and needing them forgiven. But rather, I see all of us standing in line carrying on our shoulders the weight of what Brene Brown calls “The Never-Enough Problem.” Where we see ourselves as never something enough.
Never good enough.
Never perfect enough.
Never thin or attractive enough.
Never powerful or successful enough.
Never smart enough.
Never certain or faithful enough.
Never safe enough.
Never rich enough.
Never skilled enough.
Never funny enough or in-shape enough.
Never conservative enough.
Never liberal enough.
Never unique enough.
Churches suffer from this too.
Never big enough.
Never enough money.
Never cool enough for the youth in town.
Never contemporary enough.
And this is the case for all of us. This “never enough” line that we stand in. We all suffer from the vacant and lifeless feelings of not being enough in some part of our life.
Which is why it is such good news… great news… amazing news that Jesus stepped into that line as well. Alongside humanity. And such good news that as Jesus was dipped down into that living water and then brought up again like everyone else, that is the moment when God’s voice speaks for the very first time. That is the moment when God’s voice, so full of pride and joy, love and grace that it tears at the very fabric of the sky, comes into Jesus’ ear, whispering, “You are my Son, my beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” It is such good news, because those are the words from God that come to us as well. You are my child, my beloved; with whom I am well pleased. Or to put it another way, you are enough for God.
This whole scene out in the wilderness, with this diverse group of unlikely people, with the heavens to tearing and God’s voice speaking, just goes to show that there are no rules, no boundaries that God will not break through when it comes to baptism. No rules over who can step in line and who cannot, and no rules over what God will do with the people when they do. This is the wilderness and the heavens have just been torn open. This is not a tame and predictable place for a baptism.
Which is not what we are used to, when it comes to baptism. We are used to baptism in a predictable place (the church), at a predictable time (Sunday morning), with the predictable person (the pastor), with the predictable necessities (white outfit; warm, but not too warm, water; maybe a little screaming.). While there is nothing wrong with the way we baptize, it can easily lull us into thinking that baptism is a simple, and sweet, and controllable event. Which is just not the case.
The first time I ever baptized someone, I was an intern chaplain at a hospital in the cities. I was on call one afternoon and my pager buzzed telling me to call the maternity ward. Now, when you are a chaplain in a hospital, you never want to be paged to the maternity ward because your mind goes to the worst-case scenario. But I call and enter into the room that had paged, and there I find this lovely young couple with this beautiful newborn in their arms. They wanted to know if I would baptize the baby. I said I would. So I left for a couple minutes to go and gather some things that I needed for the service, and when I came back to the room, it was just wall-to-wall with people. Family, friends, kids. It was insane. And I was caught off-guard. But I said, “Well, I hear we are going to have a baptism today.” And the new parents looked at me and said, “Yeah. Three!”
“Three!?!?” I stammered?
“Yeah,” they said, “Our other two kids are here, so we figured you could just do them too while your at it. Actually, the middle one’s already been baptized, but what the heck, just do him again too.” So, we did it. I had to leave to get some more things, since I was planning on just one baptism, but we did it. Two baptisms and one remembrance of baptism. It was completely insane and unpredictable, and while at first that seemed disappointing, because it wasn’t this calm, powerful spiritual moment that I expected it to be. But today, the way it went seems quite fitting for how baptisms should be. Wild and unpredictable. Out of control.
For that is the truth about God’s love… it is wild. And unpredictable. And untamable. And beyond our control. It goes where it chooses and it chooses to proclaim each one of us as beloved… each of us as enough for God.
This is what today is about. God’s wild and untamable love for you. You being enough for God. You’re enough. That is what baptism is about. Whether you have been baptized or not. The message that God has to say in baptism is this Word – you have always been my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased. Or in other words, what God is saying is, “You are enough for me.” Your value and your worth does not rest in the things that you have done with your life. And your value and your worth does not rest with what you haven’t done with your life. The great promise of baptism is that since the moment you were knit together in your mother’s womb, you have been enough for God.
And now, having heard that promise for yourself, I invite you to picture in your mind your co-workers. They are enough for God too. I invite you to picture the students in your math class or at your lunch table. Or other parents waiting for rehearsal or practice to get out. They too are enough for God. They too are children of God. I invite you to picture that person in your mind that you just despise and never want to speak to again. They are enough for God. They too are children of God.
And there is nothing tame about that message, because the truth of the matter is, I don’t know the core of you. I don’t know the whole of your life. I don’t the dark spots that you keep secret about your life. But it’s true. You are enough. As you are. With whatever you carry in here today.
Baptism. It is an untamable and unpredictable promise from God that carries such passion and weight with it that it will tear open the heavens in order to get to you. And in order to help you remember this about yourself and then to share it with others, each of you today is going to receive a candle after worship. And I invite you to burn it every day this week sometime during the day. It is your “You are enough” baptismal candle. And then, burn this candle on your baptismal birthday, whenever that is. As a reminder at least once a year that that is what baptism is all about. It is about God declaring to you and to all people, “You’re my beloved. And you are enough.” Amen.