Once again we find ourselves in the wilderness, where John is preaching a gospel of repentance. And people are responding to his message, as fiery and apocalyptic as it is. “Turn around,” John is saying, which is what repent means, it means to turn around. Turn around, and the landscape changes. Turn around, and gain a new perspective. Turn around, and suddenly you are on a different path, and nothing will ever be the same, and that’s actually okay, because God is walking with you.
The wilderness is the edges, the fringes, beyond the order and habit of villages, with their families and customs and expectations. In the wilderness, anything can happen. Especially when we’re dealing with John. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “John is the watchdog who makes sure that no one wanders into holy precincts unaware.” Whenever we see John, we know that Jesus is close at hand, which means that nothing will ever be the same. Even here. Maybe even especially here.
Especially here in the wilderness, on the fringes, far away from even the vestiges of respectability, John is in the turning-around business. Maybe, like John, and for that matter, like Jesus, we have to leave off everything familiar and go into the wilderness where nothing is recognizable and everything could kill you. Here in the wilderness is an urgency to his message that is often lacking in sermons. “Prepare!” he hollers. “Clean up! Turn around! You need to be on a whole new path.” Only in the wilderness, it seems, can you, or I, or Jesus, shed all that is holding us back from turning around.
Baptism is a turning-around point, a reset button, a fresh start. We all of us need it because we are all prone to wander off in the wrong direction when left to our own devices. But Jesus, Son of God, is free from sin and has no need of being pointed in a new direction. Or does he?
We know virtually nothing of Jesus’ private life up until this moment. He could easily have stayed where he was, living in obscurity as a peasant in a village, entering his father’s trade, making a living with his hands. But that’s not the way that Jesus operates. God has chosen to send his son to us in human form, which means getting all up in this business of being human, all of it, even baptism, even being turned around. Jesus goes into the waters of the Jordan a carpenter and comes out a messiah. He goes in a private, even obscure, figure, and comes out someone who will gather crowds and attention wherever he goes. So the question then becomes: Why does he do that? Why does he wade into the icy water when he can stay on the riverbank and supervise? Why does he keep coming to us where we are, over and over again, when he could save himself so much grief and pain by staying aloof and apart and insisting that we do all the work and come to him instead?
Because he loves us, is why, and because he is, unbelievably, well pleased with us, and because he has come to lead us from the waters of life and death into the waters of life eternal.
Welcome to the wilderness, which holds both life and death in its grasp. In the wilderness, where there is no beaten path, you and I are by definition turned around. Every step means making a completely new trail where one has never been before. Make the right choices, and the wilderness will yield its secrets to you and to me, and we will live. Make the wrong choices, and the wilderness will kill you. And maybe that’s the point.
We don’t normally talk about baptism as a death. But in truth, that’s what it represents. Being immersed in the water is a symbolic gesture of being laid in the tomb. But once we have been led into the wilderness, once we have encountered death, we are led out of death into life. The path that we have been on before will lead invariably to death, but the new path, with the Christ as our guide, leads to life. In making the transition from private life to public life, in entering into his ministry, Jesus must go out to meet death where it dwells. He must encounter death in its own habitat so that he can defeat it. He must destroy death for new life to begin.
It has never been Jesus’ style to stand off at a distance and shout instructions to us from a safe place. Instead, he wades in and meets us where we are, joining us in the water, joining us in flesh with all its limitations and ailments. He takes the plunge along with everyone else, and so it comes to pass that he who is without sin is baptized in the River Jordan and avoids the sin of standing apart from the rest of us.
The one person in that crowd who has nothing to repent is leading by example, saying that he will leave behind all he has known and try something new, and in doing that, he is also saying that this is what repentance looks like: It means going out into the wilderness, it means allowing for the death of all that has come before, the death that must take place for life to begin.
This is my son, the voice from heaven says, and with him I am well pleased. It seems a little premature to be well pleased with Jesus when he is only at the beginning of his public life. He has not yet done much with which to be pleased. But this is the message that God has, not just for Jesus but for you and for me and for all of us. God is well pleased with you and with me, not because of anything we have done but because we are each of us a child of God, his own creation, and because here in this place, in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, we have the courage to change. And so we discover that our lives are not carved in stone. It’s possible to walk away from sameness and predictability. God gives as many second chances as you and I need.
Once we have agreed to venture into the wilderness, to walk away from all that is familiar, to try a new path, to turn around – when we embark on that new path we will have Christ by our side, every step of the way. The very act of going into the wilderness imbues us with the courage to turn around. With Christ, in Christ, through Christ.