The Sunday after Epiphany is set aside to remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Again, the lectionary jumps around (it will come back to the temptation in the wilderness when Lent arrives), moving to the stories that describe the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. And on this the Gospel accounts agree: Jesus’s ministry begins with a man named John.
John was on the fringes of things, but not at all obscure. Crowds were paying him mind as he preached repentance and baptized those who came to him. Luke presents John as almost curmudgeon-like. To the people who came to him, he gave the affectionate nickname, “brood of vipers.” His words of welcome? “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” I wonder what would happen if I began Sunday worship with such a greeting.
In Luke’s account, the true meaning of repentance—to turn around or head in a different direction—is abundantly clear. When the crowds ask John what they should do, he does not give mystical, spiritual answers, but material ones: “Have two shirts? Give one away. Charged with collecting taxes? Take not a cent more than you must. In the military? Don’t abuse your power through extortion or false accusation.” Not among his advice is to “take a day and pray on it.” Nor does he suggest abandoning posts and positions that were seen as problematic. For John, change seemed possible immediately wherever people found themselves.
Yet the resolve to make such change can fail easily, as many of us on this 5th of January may already be finding true in terms of our New Years’ resolutions. And so to jolt the system, the crowds were offered the chance to be plunged to the depths, submerged for a breathless moment to alert the body to the heart’s desire. In hopes that the old self would be left somewhere among the river rocks, people arose with new determination: from this moment on, things will be different.
It’s probably a safe bet that even with the powerful act of baptism, not everyone’s life changed indelibly when they got back to their homes and families. But the meager “success rate” of repentance does not negate its call. All these years later, we can still hear John saying, “you know what to do. Don’t hold too tightly—to your stuff, your power, your pride, or the expectations. In fact, turn away from them, and just see what happens.”
While we baptize only once, remembering the baptism of Jesus is a time to “remember” our own baptisms, returning to the vows that we or others made on our behalf, and resolving again before God and one another that change is possible, even in our own immediate contexts. I look forward to sharing in the refreshment of this renewal on Sunday.