Sun, Jan 12, 2020

Identity and risk


It wasn’t an easy decision just over ten years ago––

deciding to move back to Adelaide without a job to go to––

some would even say that it was a foolhardy decision…

but it was just something that I had to do.

I could feel the pull of the heart-strings.

On some primal, almost instinctive level––

and despite the gap in time and experience––

Adelaide was home;

and it always would be.

But that was only part of it.

It was also because I needed a fresh start.

I needed to put behind me all of the mistakes that I had made––

the bad career choices…

and the failed and broken relationships.

But I also needed freedom:

the freedom to allow my thinking––

my belief systems––

to grow and to evolve unconstrained by my reputation or image…

or people’s expectations of me.

I needed freedom to rediscover––

and to reconnect––

with me.

And it’s often very hard to do that without some major change in location…

or in lifestyle.

It’s not easy making that sort of decision––

it comes with certain risks…

and it can be costly on many levels––

but, sometimes, you just have to do it.


That Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan by John is clear enough.

Of all of the events related in the Gospels––

aside from the crucifixion––

it’s the one that seems most certain in strictly historical terms.

Jesus was, indeed, baptised in the Jordan by John––

but the question is, “why”?

Why did Jesus get baptised by John?


What we know of John suggests that he was a prophet—

very much in the mould of the Hebrew prophets of old.

He called upon the people to return to basics:

to be faithful in their relationship with God…

to act with justice and compassion…

to care for the poor and the oppressed…

to embody, in their personal and corporate lives, the love and mercy of God.

And John’s preaching––

John’s call––

struck a chord with many ordinary people:

people who were buckling under the weight of Roman occupation and the brutality of the Herods;

people who were struggling to survive the onslaughts of drought and oppressive taxation;

people who were harbouring dreams of something better.

And so they came to John and they underwent baptism––

which was a ritualised form of washing––

as a symbolic gesture of commitment to John’s call to a new…

and a renewed way of life.

To be baptised by John was to make a public commitment to that call…

to that way of life.

And, clearly, that’s what drew the historical Jesus as well.

He went to be baptised by John because he harboured those sorts of dreams too.

He wanted to make a commitment to the sort of community-life that John espoused.

He wanted to join John’s movement for justice and peace.


And yet, that would not have been an easy decision for Jesus to make.

In travelling from his home in Nazareth to the Jordan…

he embarked on a journey of over one hundred kilometres––

which is quite some distance on foot.

And it was a journey through harsh and hostile country­­––

hot and dry…

full of robbers and bandits––

which means it wasn’t a particularly sensible thing to do.

In travelling from Nazareth to the Jordan, Jesus also would have left his family behind.

And, as simple peasants––

who struggled to eke out an existence…

and who relied upon every member of the family to pull their weight––

his decision to go would have had a huge impact on them.

In many ways, it would have threatened their survival.

And, no doubt, it would have been met with considerable anger and resentment.

His behaviour––

which would have been deemed both reckless and reprehensible––

would have reflected badly on the rest of his family.

It would have changed the way that his family was seen and treated back home in the village.

Such shameful behaviour would have made it harder for them to get any help from others.

Going to be baptised––

going to join John’s movement––

couldn’t have been an easy decision for Jesus.

It was risky…

and it was potentially very costly.

But, clearly, it’s a decision that Jesus believed that he had to make.


However, our author––

like the other Gospel writers––

simply glosses over all of that.

In part, perhaps… 

because first-century readers would have understood what that decision would have meant…

and what it would have involved.

But in part, too, perhaps because he’s a little embarrassed by the whole thing.

He’s slightly embarrassed by the idea that Jesus was a disciple of John’s:

it doesn’t quite fit with his elevated, post-Easter understanding of Jesus;

it doesn’t quite fit with his theology.

So he concocts this little exchange between the two…

where he imagines John protesting…

and Jesus trying to reassure him by saying:

“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness”.

The author wants us to understand that it was something of a concession––

as if Jesus were saying to John, “yeah, look, don’t worry about that right now”.

But then he adds the slightly ambiguous response about “fulfilling righteousness”.

That’s not suggesting that Jesus went to be baptised in order to fulfil Scripture.

Nor is the author suggesting that Jesus asked for baptism… 

because it was necessary for his ministry and mission.

If that connection is to be made then it’s only to be made by inference––

and only after Jesus is baptised…

and after Jesus has had his visionary experience.

Rather, the author is suggesting… 

that Jesus was baptised because it was the right thing to do…

because doing so was being faithful to the God who was at work through John.

It was right that Jesus identified with John…

and with John’s movement…

and with John’s call for justice and renewal…

because, in the end, they were fundamental to whom Jesus perceived God to be…

and what God was on about.

It was right for Jesus to be baptised…

as a way of symbolically marking a fresh start in his life.

And the author would have us believe that––

having done what he thought was right––

Jesus had a mystical, revelatory experience…

in which he symbolically perceived God to be with him…

and heard God declare, “This is my Son, the beloved”.

In other words, the author is suggesting––

in making that difficult decision…

in doing what he believed was right––

that Jesus discovered who he really was…

and what he was meant to do.


And, perhaps, that’s what this story is saying to us, too.

It’s the choices that we make––

and how we make them––

that define us and shape our identity.

And it’s when we take risks;

when we seek to align ourselves with God’s purposes in the world;

when we commit ourselves to God’s way of justice and compassion;

when we do what we believe to be right regardless of the costs and the consequences;

it’s then that, like Jesus, we discover who we really are;

and whom, in God, we might become.

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