In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
JUST TWO WEEKS AGO we celebrated Christmas, the birth of our Lord Jesus in Bethlehem: stable and manger, shepherds and angels, carols and candles. Yes, just two weeks have passed on our calendar, but in the Story, thirty years have flown by; today, the fully mature Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. Why have we skipped over those three decades of Jesus’ life? Is there nothing to be said about them, nothing to be learned from them?
We’re relatively silent about those thirty years because Scripture is relatively silent about them. There are just two events mentioned: the flight to Egypt when Jesus was two years old or under and the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. That latter event offers us some helpful insight into Jesus’ life in those hidden years. I know that you know the story, but let’s hear it again.
Luke 2:41–52 (ESV): 41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
What do we learn about Jesus —and his family — from this account? First, Jesus was raised as a good, faithful, observant Jew. Eight days after his birth Jesus was named and circumcised in accordance with the Law. On the fortieth day of his life he was presented in the Temple for the rite of redemption of the firstborn and his mother Mary was purified according to the Law. Now, in this text we see that the family has a custom of traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover each year as required by the Law. Mary and Joseph are raising a faithful son of Abraham in accordance with the Law of Moses.
But, Jesus is more than this, more than meets the eye. At the age of twelve he can hold his own in religious debate with the Temple scholars. Whether his expertise in the subtleties of the Law comes from homeschooling or synagogue instruction or something more, we don’t know; but, he amazes the scholars — no small feat. Jesus also has some understanding — we don’t know how full yet — of his true identity; he knows that his Father’s house is not the family home in Nazareth but the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is the last statement in this account that interests me most: And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man (Lk 2:52). Jesus learned and grew, and he was well thought of by his community and by God.
So, what we have in that brief statement, is a description of a seemingly ordinary life. Jesus grew up and he learned things. He learned how to navigate the joys and the challenges of a family. He learned how to take his place in the life of the community, some forty to fifty households on roughly four acres of land. He learned how to be faithful to the traditions of his people. He learned how to make a living as a τεκτον, a craftsman, like his father Joseph: building walls and rooms, hanging doors and making furniture, doing odd jobs and handyman specials — anything to put food on the table. On the surface, his was a very ordinary life. Of course, underneath all that were well-springs and deep currents of the Spirit, largely hidden from sight, waiting for the right time to burst forth.
That time came with the appearance of a prophet from the wilderness, John the son of Zechariah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Lk 3:4b). News of this prophet had spread like wildfire. It had been four hundred years since a true prophet — one like Elijah — had risen in Israel; further, this was the time when one of Israel’s great prophets of the exile had foretold the coming of the Messiah. Expectations — hope — stirred as the news spread as far as Nazareth in Galilee. It seems Jesus heard about John, about his ministry of baptism in the Jordan. We can imagine the scene in Nazareth. Jesus shakes the sawdust out of his hair and brushes off his beard. He cleans his tools, puts them away, and folds up his work apron. He tells his mother that it is now his time to leave, and he turns over care of the family to his brothers. Then he starts walking toward the Jordan and John and his own mission, surely praying the whole way.
When he gets to the Jordan, he probably waits in line with the others in the crowd — ordinary folk, tax collectors, even soldiers — to step down into the water to be baptized by John. And that is strange, Jesus coming to be baptized; it has exercised the minds and faith of the greatest Church theologians for two millennia. Scripture says that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). But, Jesus comes to him without sin; Jesus comes as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. So, why would, why should, Jesus submit to John’s baptism? If the Eucharistic Prayer is right — and it is — whatever Jesus did he did “for us and for our salvation;” his baptism is no exception. Though it is far more than this, at the very least, Jesus’ baptism serves as the perfect icon, the perfect model, for our own baptism. Jesus’ baptism points to three great movements in every baptism: repentance, vocation, and identity.
First, repentance. When we think of repentance, we likely mean a godly sorrow for sin and a firm commitment to amendment of life. It is that for us, but it is more than that. The true meaning of repentance is to change one’s mind, to move in a new direction. Jesus had no need to repent of sins, to be sorry for wrongdoing, or to amend his life for the better. He did not experience or express repentance in those terms. But, his baptism was the moment when his life moved in a new direction, when he turned his mind toward a new way of being in the world. Up until this moment he had lived in obscurity as a member of a family in a small town working to make a living and support that family like everyone else in that small town. But, no more. Now he will emerge on the national stage as a prophet and more than a prophet, as a rabbi and more than a rabbi, as a rival to the priesthood and the Temple, as a challenge to the illegitimate king of Israel, and as a minor irritant to Rome itself. Jesus’ baptism was very much an act of repentance in this expanded understanding: a change in the direction of one’s life. And that is a model for us, for reflecting on our own baptism. If your life is fundamentally the same after your baptism as it was before — if your relationships with family and community and work, with wealth and power and honor, with politics and justice and mercy are unchallenged and unchanged by your baptism — then it may well be good to reflect on whether your baptism was actually an act of repentance, whether it was a changing of mind and direction.
Second, vocation. I wonder if Jesus was a good carpenter, a skillful stonemason, a master craftsman of fine furniture. I wonder if he was sought out by his neighbors in Nazareth and even called to be part of the great building projects in nearby Sepphoris. For fifteen years or more, that had been his vocation: craftsman, builder, maker, handyman, jack-of-all-trades. Whether he was exceptionally skillful or not, I’m certain he gave a good day’s work for a good day’s pay, and treated his customers as he would be treated. But he left that life behind with his baptism; he changed vocations. His vocation became a mission, not just to care for his family, not just to do good work in his community, but to save the world. Jesus’ baptism marked a change in vocation. Our baptism does, too. For those who are baptized as infants, baptism defines their most fundamental vocation of all, regardless of how they later choose to make a living and do good in the world. For those who are baptized as adults, baptism does not necessarily call them to leave their professions behind, though it may do. Rather, it more typically challenges them to reimagine their profession, their work, as ministry, as a way of proclaiming Christ, as a way of making the Kingdom of God manifest. It poses questions: What does it look like to be a Christian lawyer or doctor or policeman or teacher or businesswoman or secretary or mother or any other mode of living in and contributing to the world? Near the end of the Rite of Christian Baptism, the Church welcomes the newly baptized with these words of new vocation:
We receive you into the fellowship of the Church. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in the royal priesthood of all his people (BCP 2019, p. 190).
However it is we make a living, this is how we are to make a life. This is our new, baptismal vocation.
Third, identity. Here there is a fundamental difference between Jesus’ baptism and our own. In his baptism, Jesus’ identity did not change; it was simply revealed:
Luke 3:21–22 (ESV): 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
“You are my beloved Son.” From all eternity the Son of God had been the beloved of God the Father. There was never a time the Son of God did not exist, never an instant when the Son of God was not the beloved. Now, at his baptism, that Son of God is revealed to be incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man. Jesus’ identity was not given, was not made new, in his baptism, but it was revealed at his baptism. And that is the difference: at our baptism, we are given a new identity, because we are born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit. In our baptism, by grace we are made to be the children of God, partakers in the Divine nature. If we only had the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see, I am convinced that at our baptism the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon us and remained with us, and a voice spoke from heaven saying, “You are my beloved child — my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.”
So, why was Jesus baptized? The short answer is simply this: Jesus was baptized for us and for our salvation: to lead us to repentance, to a change in mind and direction of life; to give us a godly vocation, to enable us to make not just a living, but a life; and to bestow upon us a new identity as sons and daughters of God.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, in times of difficulty, stress, or temptation would say aloud, “I am baptized.” Reportedly, he carved those words into the desk where he worked. He repeated counseled his people, “Remember your baptism.” The grace that is ours through baptism — the repentance, the vocation, the identity — is an unshakeable foundation of Christian life. May we always remember our baptism. And, if you have not yet been baptized, please seek out a priest or other minister; do not delay in laying hold of this great grace. Amen.