John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And people from the whole Judean countryside
and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,
and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist,
and he ate locusts and wild honey.
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This coming Sunday's gospel reading focuses on baptism, in fact, baptisms.
The mysterious cousin of Jesus, John, 'appears', as the text puts it.
There's a sense of John somehow unexpectedly springing up out of nowhere -
out of nowhere, and into that nowhere named 'the wilderness'.
And there, in the wilderness, a place beyond the edges of society, of civilisation, of comfort, John both proclaims and offers a baptism.
In the wilderness, the seemingly deserted desert comes alive with streams of people: 'the whole Judean countryside...all the people of Jerusalem' spill out into the desert to seek this baptism.
Some were probably driven by curiosity, others to watch the entertainment of a good show, and some who had within them a sense that all was not well within and which needed to be put right.
John offered a baptism of repentance, a visible, physical act that demonstrated to the one baptised, and to those watching, that whatever had been done was forgiven. With that forgiveness came the opportunity to imagine and walk towards a future unshackled by the chains of the past,
to let go of bitterness that sucked the soul drier than the desert wilderness itself,
to take on the hope of a new life, green-growing shoots of healing and recovery.
Whether the writer of the gospel is using hyperbole or not, when it comes to the numbers who seemingly began to overcrowd the desert, the point is that people left their homes to seek out this odd man in the middle of nowhere who dressed in the style of a prophet, had a rather odd diet, and talked of one who was greater than he was.
And the reading tells the story of how his words took on physicality in the form of the Word appearing: there in the wilderness, by the River Jordan, amidst the crowds seeking forgiveness prophecy takes on skin... and Jesus, the 'greater one', who will baptise with the Spirit', looks to John for baptism.
This gospel does not have any conversation between the two cousins: no John looking shocked or confused, objecting to such a request.
No editorial theological aside explaining why Jesus, as the Son of God, felt the need to undergo a baptism of repentance and forgiveness.
The act of baptism is dealt with in a simple, straightforward sentence.
And we, as those watching the scene play out in our minds, are left to wonder what it was all about without the comfort of an easy answer.
And then a further mystery:
the heavens torn open echoing Isaiah's cry [64:1] 'o that you would tear open the heavens', the dove-like Spirit, the voice affirming Jesus as 'Beloved'.
This is such a rich text: rich in imagery, symbolism, mystery.
And in brief:
what catches my eye at the moment is the nature of John's baptism and the response; it would, of course, given rituals of repentance and forgiveness happen to be the focus of my thesis.
Forgiveness is a powerful two-edged tool - to seek and receive it, as well as to give it.
There's something cathartic about it; a liberating act for both giver and receiver that aids the process of closure and moving on.
And it's something that continues to fascinate me, which is just as well, given I do have this thesis to write....