Several years ago, there was a popular song by Joan Osbourne; the chorus started, “What if God was one of us?”  It wasn’t the greatest song from a theological point of view – it didn’t really say much beyond that one line – except that it pointed us back to one overarching, rather wonderful, theological truth.  It’s one we don’t often see, that can be rather hard for us to remember, but that is present within today’s reading, this moment right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Because we find ourselves, in this story, in a moment of transition.  Transition between John and Jesus, between expectation and reality, between humanity and divinity.  We find ourselves in a moment in which prophecy comes true: when the “one who is to come” is actually present, actually listening to the words being spoken about him; when the hopes and dreams of a become actions for and towards that people.  We find ourselves in a moment when God is, in fact, just one of us: just another face in the crowd there by the Jordan, awaiting the plunge into the swirling, muddy trickle, right there on the edge of the Promised Land.

Because we know who this Jesus person is, we recognize the face in the crowd, but for us, it’s only been a matter of a few Bible verses: we’re only one fairly short chapter removed from the shepherds and angels heralding the messiah’s birth.  But for those other faces in the crowd; for those who had come out from Jerusalem in the desperate hope of hearing Good News, of hearing a word of hope from John – was he a prophet, or perhaps the Messiah himself? – for these people, it has been a long time since they’ve heard the old tale about a bunch of shepherds in Bethlehem, telling some tale about angels as an excuse for leaving the sheep out on the hillside… and who would recognize the adult Jesus, from old tales of a swaddled babe?  He’s just another man, out to hear the fiery preaching,  to seek after the possibility of a renewed relationship with God.

Just like one of us.

How startling must it have been, for all those gathered there, to see this moment of revelation, the dove and the voice descending upon this one, otherwise rather nondescript, man?  Can you imagine the whispers of everyone present, comparing Jesus to the one  John has just described, the one who shall separate wheat from chaff, the one of fire and spirit, of power and status?  It’s hard to think that he would be what the people expected, standing among them, still wet and muddy from his trip into the river.  Yet such is the power of God, to upend our expectations, to use a human being for God’s own purposes, rather than for our own, to work God’s own will through human hands.  Such is God’s love, to be willing to take on human form, human weakness, human discomfort – even to the point of being wet and muddy – to guide us along the way.

Jesus, fully human, fully one of us, went out in one of his last moments of anonymity, to be baptized by John.  He went to fulfill the scriptures, maybe to support this ministry of his cousin’s, whose political and religious tendencies really were close to his own.  Jesus’ own ministry would, after all, pick up cleanly where John would leave off, with the question of repentance.  Repentance; in Greek, “metanoia”, or literally, a change of mind.  Repentance is more than regret, more than apology; it is quite simply a turning point, a movement of mind and spirit back to the correct path, back to God.  It’s really no wonder that John preached his message there, by the water; that he incorporated the Jewish tradition of the mikvah, the ritual bath, into his call to change and rededication.  It is no wonder that he expected that those who would come out to hear him would take the plunge – literally; would understand this to be more than a physical cleansing.  Perhaps that’s why he chose the Jordan, a shallow, muddy little waterway that wouldn’t do much towards physical cleanliness.  The repentance that John preached didn’t depend on physical manifestations or outward appearance, but on a setting aside of human conditions and human concerns, of all that keeps us within ourselves, rather than in relationship with one another or with God.  The baptism that John performed would not remove the dirt from our skin, but would immerse us in that which is so necessary to life, yet so conducive to death, so that when we emerged we might find ourselves renewed, restored, changed.

For baptism, even to John, was less about cleansing than about purification, rendering ourselves ready to seek God.  The plunge into the Jordan was the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, of the repentance and change of mind that were so needed.

And so Jesus, ready at last to begin his ministry, preparing himself for the great change he was soon to experience – the move from carpenter’s son to God’s son – finds himself in the Jordan River.   Jesus: fully divine and yet fully human, joins so many others in the embodiment of change, of renewal.  Jesus was submerged into the water so that he could begin his ministry of fire, so that he could call us all to repentance, so that he could begin the work of burning away our outer, protective shells – our chaff – and reducing us down to our essence.  Jesus, the first one to receive the Holy Spirit, came up out of the water to lead us in God’s path, through the fire in which we will not burn, through the flames that will not consume us.  Jesus accompanies us through the waters of baptism, through the fires of purification, through the flight of the Holy Spirit to bring us – fully human though we are – to the divine.

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