Here’s the trouble with the way time is marked by the church between Christmas and today – in just a few weeks, Jesus has gone from being born, to a full-grown adult about to begin his ministry. Now, that technically makes sense because there is hardly anything recorded about Jesus’ life between birth and baptism. But, I still can’t help but wonder what came in between. The Gospel of Luke gives us a few anecdotes – a story of Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to the Temple to be blessed, and another charming story of an adolescent Jesus reading the Torah with eloquence and reflecting back deep wisdom. But, this year, we are in the Gospel of Matthew. There isn’t much about Jesus’ early life in this Gospel, but what little is recorded tells us a lot about who Jesus was and what he would become.
Jesus was born during a time of Roman Imperial rule, which means that Jesus was born in a land and to a people who were occupied by a foreign power. Jesus was not born during war, when there was an active resistance to the occupying force. Essentially, Jesus was born after defeat and surrender. His people, his family, his neighbors, were seen as nothing more than objects to further the advance of the Roman Empire. Their farms were owned by Roman land-owners and the people were forced to work the land and send the bounty to Rome, keeping hardly anything for themselves to get by on. Jerusalem, a holy city that housed their holiest of Temples, was turned into a seat of power for Rome – their Temple defiled by corrupt bankers and tax collectors. Their religious traditions were mocked, and their personhood devalued. It was a time of abject despair for the Jewish people. And most had given up by the time Jesus was born. Most people had decided that there was no point in insisting that their rights mattered.
But when Jesus was born, a stir spread throughout the land. Something had happened, a subtle shift had occurred, but people were not quite sure what it was. But maybe, just maybe, God was up to something. And King Herod started to take notice as well. Remember, King Herod was a native client-king – essentially a puppet of the Roman Empire, someone to keep the people in line and enforce the occupier’s rules. The rumors, that the long-promised King of the Jews had been born made King Herod nervous. King of the Jews? Well, that was his job. That was his job and the Roman Empire made sure to keep him in enough money that he would do anything they asked. He was rich and powerful and people feared him – and that’s the way he wanted it. He didn’t want to give that up – so he needed to find this supposed infant king and put an end to those rumors once and for all. That’s why the Wise Men went looking. King Herod sent them to follow that mysterious star that had appeared and find Jesus. Those wise men were supposed to report back and tell Herod where Jesus was, but, as we know, they didn’t. And that made Herod even more furious. His power and control over the people was being tested and he could not allow that to continue.
So, Herod did something extraordinary for its cruelty – he ordered all the male children up to 2 years of age in and around Bethlehem to be killed. Herod ordered the execution of children in order to maintain his power. Jesus only survived because Joseph had been warned in a dream that he had to take Jesus away and escape to Egypt. So, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became refugees fleeing for their lives, trying to escape the violence of their country.
That was Jesus’ very beginnings. Born in an occupied land to an occupied people, and the being forced to flee with his family across the border to escape the horrendous violence of his home. It was a violent, frightening, and oppressive time. And it is not difficult to extrapolate what came after that – during those years that were not recorded in the Gospels. His time in Egypt was likely harsh. He was a refugee – and the treatment of refugees has not changed much. He was very likely treated as an outcast, an outsider, a drain on society. His family likely lived off what support they could receive and work they could find. It is a safe assumption that food was scarce, and they had to move often because shelter was limited.
Eventually, Herod dies, and Joseph is visited once again in a dream that it is safe to bring his family back to Israel. While he does, Joseph is worried because Herod’s son, Archelaus, is ruling over Judea, his home. Joseph rightly feared that Archelaus would give into his fears of losing his control over the people, just as his father did, and put Jesus as risk once again. So, Joseph takes his family to Nazareth, a small farming community. A small town with no prestige, limited resources, and little work. Nazareth was considered poor and dirty, and therefore the people of Nazareth were looked at as 2nd class citizens. Nothing good comes out of Nazareth, people are recorded to have said to Jesus. But Joseph, desperate to keep his family safe, decides that out of the way town would be the best place to hide Jesus away from the jealous and greedy eyes of the Roman Empire.
If you were thinking, as I do, while I was telling that story, that it is truly a wonder that Jesus didn’t turn into a disillusioned and angry person – you would be right to do so. Beloved son of God, or not, the very human struggles that Jesus endured for the entirety of his life are immense. Just to stay alive would have been considered a victory by many people. But, as we know, Jesus took those early experiences and used them to create a movement that we continue to worship today.
And that leads us to today. John the Baptist had wandered out of the wilderness and was telling people that something extraordinary was about to happen. That God was about to do something they needed to pay attention to. John the Baptist, the wild-eye, wild-haired, itinerate preacher from the woods was trying to get the attention of the people. “Repent!” he exclaimed. “The kingdom of God is drawing near!” And he starts to baptize them, to prepare them, to set the stage so that when Jesus arrives, they are ready to hear what he needs to teach them.
John was causing quite a stir, and Jesus – his cousin – sets out from Nazareth to be baptized too. But, this baptism made John uncomfortable. Let’s hear it again, this time the way The Message version of the Bible, a modern translation written in the early 90s, puts it: “Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, ‘I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!” But Jesus insisted, ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.”
John is clearly so uncomfortable. He has told the crowds that he was not even worthy to carry the sandals of the messiah – how could he possibly be the one to baptize him, the one to prepare Jesus for what was to come. Who was he, John undoubtedly thought, to be the one to cleanse the body and spirit of Christ? Just do it, Jesus says. Trust me, you are meant to do this, God ordained it centuries ago. Fulfill that promise. And John does it.
And it is in that moment, that moment that makes John so uncomfortable but that Jesus is sure of, it is in that moment that God tells Jesus, and the world, that the time has come. The time has come to stand up to the powers of oppression and injustice. The time has come to stand up the religious authorities who proclaim that some are in and others are out. The time has come to over-turn the tables of the tax collectors in the Temple and declare that God’s favor rests on everyone, but especially the poor. The time has come for Jesus to tell the world that God’s love does not exist within human boundaries and that we are all beloved. The time has come and Jesus is now ready.
Everything in his life had led him to that moment. Everything he had experienced and endured, all of the violence he witnessed and fled from, all of the oppression he lived through – all of that led him to the banks of the muddy river Jordan and into the hands of his cousin and teacher. He stepped into the river weighed down by a life that would have left so many beaten and defeated, and emerged marked by the Holy Spirit as the one who was to help us understand what it is that God asks of us. But, that was not the moment that God came into Jesus’ life. No – God had been there in and through it all. God fled to Egypt to escape death. God was hunted by jealous kings. God lived in Nazareth, the town on the other side of the tracks and was ridiculed because of it. God stepped into that murky river. And God emerged to fulfill God’s promise that God would never be separated from humanity again. God’s promise has been fulfilled – God is with us. God is in the murky rivers of our lives – and there we find our hope. That is why, thousands of year later, we continue to baptize people into this faith. It is a mark of a beginning, a reminder of God’s love for everyone.
That moment of emergence from the waters of baptism is one that most people cannot remember. Most people, though certainly not all, are baptized when they are quite young. Some remember, but far too many of us – myself included – don’t carry around with ourselves the reminder that we are marked in that baptism forever. Not nearly enough of us wake up in the morning, throw off our blankets and proclaim that we are marked by the love of God and community, and God is well pleased with us. Most of us are too weighed down by the struggles of life, by the expectations we place on ourselves and others place on us. Most of us roll out of bed in the morning and trudge into our days. But, what if this year we didn’t. What if this year we went through life proclaiming to ourselves and our neighbors through our actions and words – I am one of God’s beloved and so are you. How would that change our lives? How would that change the way we encounter the world?
Do you know what I think would happen? If we started each day remembering that we have been marked by God as one of God’s own – I think we would recognize that the time has come too. The time has come to stand up to the oppression and injustice of our world. The time has come to favor the poor, the widow, the refugee. The time has come to declare that God’s love does not exist within the boundaries of human imagination and then to show that love to all who we encounter. The time has come to make real the Kingdom of God. The time has come.
Remember your baptism. Remember that you have been marked by God. Remember that you too are one of God’s beloved. And remember, when the burdens of this life seem too much to bear, that Jesus got into the murky rivers of this world too. You are beloved by God. Live into that. And help the world to experience it as well. The time has come for us to be the beloved people of God. Amen.