What is the proper motivation for baptism?
- fear of hell
- desire for salvation
- to please someone else
- to dedicate your life (or the life of your child) to God
- a response to irresistible grace
Why did Jesus get baptized? Luke has already made it clear with the beginning of his gospel account that John and Jesus are on parallel, if not exactly similar tracks. This passage is where the tracks diverge. John is aware that he is not the Messiah.
However, Jesus does not seem to be aware that he (Jesus) is the Messiah. John’s proclamation of the One who is to come, who will separate the useful part of God’s harvest from the wasteful part… Jesus does not leap up and say, “Yes, and the day is at hand!” John calls out the leader of the people on his immoral behavior and is imprisoned for it.
Luke seems to organize the story this way so that we cannot say for sure who baptized Jesus. If John was in prison, he didn’t do it. Moreover, if John is in prison, who exactly has taken up his place down at the Jordan River? And what is Jesus’ motivation? Why does he go down and get dunked, along with many others?
The baptism that John offers in the wilderness is one of repentance. It is a bath of reorientation, of metanoia, turning around and going in the correct way. We assume that this isn’t something that Jesus needs. When last we saw him in Luke, he had gone to the temple as a young teen, but was instructing the temple officials in the fine points of the Law and the Prophets.
Yet, maybe Jesus wasn’t totally sure when to begin the work to which he was called. Perhaps he realized the indigestion his temple visit had caused his parents and he pulled back a bit. Maybe Joseph died and Mary need help caring for the rest of the family. Maybe Jesus grew up hearing the story of his birth and knowing that he knew more about the universe that others did, but his divinity ran up against his humanness and he just didn’t know how to get started.
So he ends up at the banks of the Jordan, with other baptism seekers. Some are devout. Some are curious. Some are derisive. And amid them all stands Jesus, the Messiah. They’re invited down into the water- murky and cool. Perhaps it is more like a mikveh- a temple ritual bath- where they are guided into dunking themselves, rather than being lowered and raised by someone else.
They go under, one by one. There goes Jesus. And then they rise into the desert sun. Do they feel different? No one can tell. Maybe they don’t speak to each other because no one wants to admit that they aren’t sure what to feel. Perhaps they feel clean or renewed or confused. And then, a dove descends and lands upon one of the newly baptized- standing off by himself, praying. The dove, the sign of God’s presence and the visual symbol of the Holy Spirit, glides down and perches.
Does only Jesus hear “You are my beloved Son” or does everyone? It’s hard to tell in Luke. Who needs to hear it? Perhaps only Jesus does. Even Jesus needs baptism to be only about grace, only about God doing the naming and the claiming. This could be the push Jesus needs, maybe even his baptism motivation answered. Now, now the work begins in earnest- the work of being Jesus combining with the work of being the Son of God.
Frankly, even when we baptize in a gallon or so of water in a shallow font, it’s still a similar scene. People not entirely sure what to think, but coming with a variety of intentions and motivations, adults and children come to be baptized. We all come, no matter what our motivation, but when we approach the font of grace, nothing that we have in mind matters. God’s desire overrides everything else.
At the edge of the water, it becomes all about grace, irresistible grace. Some people resist the call that the water is wide because it feels like they can retain some control. The truth is, our hearts long for it. We come to water because we thirst. We come to baptismal water because our souls thirst to be quenched with the assurance that we are beloved children of God, that we are beloved no matter what we have done or what has been done to us, that God is pleased with us as part of creation, that we have purpose and place- warts and all.
This is what baptism is about- for Jesus and for us. Not what we can do or say or claim or who pours the water or whether it’s from a cup or in a river… it’s all about the vast expanse of God’s grace and how God claims each and every baptized person as a beloved child.
Baptism has been given to the church as our work. Not as something around which we should form strict barriers and even motivation tests, but as something free, hopeful, and accessible. We are formed around the water, washed by it, and in its outpouring, we are flooded into the world to be carriers of grace.
Ultimately, our motivations are no match for the Holy Spirit and the irresistibility of grace. We are drawn, even Jesus was, to a place where we can stand still, be open to relationship, and hear… and even comprehend… “You are my beloved. With you, I am well pleased.”