He just appears at the river ready for baptism. Not solitary or lonely. No. Individual, in headline role, top billing, a dramatis personæ that will then include, underneath, John the Baptist, the disciples, and a wide cast of characters (even the Father and the Holy Spirit). “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
The Jordan River flows south out of the Sea of Galilee, cuts through a deep valley in Israel, and ends in the Dead Sea. Somewhere along that way, John is in the river conducting a baptism of repentance, and “the Son of Man–the fire-baptizing, winnowing fork carrying Messiah–arrives. John the Baptist resists baptizing the Messiah into his baptism. It’s not completely clear why he resists this. Is it humility? Does he believe the baptism isn’t for the Messiah?
But when Jesus says it must be done “to fulfill all righteousness,” John relents/consents (repents?). Really in the Greek it just says he stops. He stops trying to do something other than what Jesus clearly has arrived to do.
He baptizes Jesus.
It is this same baptism, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the naming in the name of God and Christ, into which we are baptized. Or if you have never been baptized, it is this baptism into which you are invited.
It is still, even for Christ, a baptism of repentance. But it is more than that. It is also a baptism of positive regard–“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In baptism, we learn not only that we are children of God, but that we are beloved of God. We please God.
God likes us. God likes you.
There is of course a rather complex participatory step involved in this move. You might ask, How is the baptism of Christ my baptism? How can I be baptized into Christ’s baptism, even into Christ himself? Well, Paul offers the best explanation, so you can read 1 Corinthians for the full account. But the short version, something Paul says in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, is that when we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ, and specifically by the same Spirit and into his death (see Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27).
When Jesus shows up at that river, and stands before John the Baptist, no wonder John resists and trembles. It’s not Jesus alone who shows up. He’s at the river bank with the whole lot of us. All of us.
Who wouldn’t tremble?
So we begin another year of our Lord observing the moment of Christ’s baptism. It is the start of many new things, not the least of which is his public ministry. By remembering Christ’s baptism, we remember the mission into which Jesus was sent and which he remained committed “in order to fulfill all righteousness.”
And then we see ourselves participating in that same mission, because we have the same baptism, aiming towards the same death, that we might rise with him.
And all of our hope, all of our joy, all of our faith, is energized by our knowledge that in baptism we have heard more clearly than at any other time in our lives a word spoken by God that cannot be rescinded. “This is my child, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Such a word will carry us individually and corporately a very long way indeed. As far as the Jordan, and then beyond, into God’s coming kingdom.