He proclaimed, “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.”
Ken Sikes Tacoma, WA
We would have called it the boonies or the sticks or perhaps BFE. Mark refers to it simply as the wilderness. Whatever the name, it was a place you didn’t so much go to as you went through. And yet, John made the desert a destination. People from the Judean suburbs loaded their campers and headed out. City folk traded their high priced condos and convenient downtown living for a tent and bed of sand. Why?
Was it his voice? Crying out and proclaiming. Was it his getup? Camel’s hair and a leather belt. Perhaps it was the food? Locusts and wild honey. What about John compelled the people out of their comfort zones and toward the margins? What about John awakened the people? Maybe it was in the water. The water?
Perley grew up in our neighborhood. He was best known as the Cheerio Kid after he woke up one morning to find the cupboard empty and drove to the corner store to buy some Cheerios. Normal behavior if you’re an adult; not so much if you’re seven. The officer who pulled him over thought the car was driving itself. Occasionally, Perley showed up on Sunday morning. Though we didn’t serve Cheerios, we had cookies and were close enough that he didn’t have to illegally drive. Over the years we watched him grow…up and out until he went from a roly poly kid to a burly young man. Eventually, he traded underage driving and cheerios for drugs and dropping out. Still, ever so often he’d show up.
I was moving things around in the sanctuary on one such afternoon and he offered to help. “What’s this?” he asked as we lifted the baptismal font. Adoption, new clothes, grafting, born again…other than circumcision I threw every biblical metaphor I could think of at him. His eyes glazed over until I finally mentioned something about washing away sin. He paused, looked up with wide eyes and asked, “Wash away sins…does it work?”
Does it work? I can’t help but wonder if what got Perley’s attention was the same as what drew the people out into the desert. Is there a way to heal the wounds, mend the tears, fix the mistakes, wipe the slate, remove the shame and be washed clean? As Julie Miller sings, “So beyond repair, nothing I could do, tried to fix it myself but it was only worse when I got through…” What is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” if not this?
We baptized Perley a few months later. Though I’m now a Presbyterian, my Baptist roots still show. We don’t have a pool for dunking so I try to make up for it by shoveling water from the font onto the heads. Perley wasn’t immersed but he might as well have been. It was an incredible moment for our congregation. But, did it work?
If Perley’s sins were washed away that Sunday morning, he spent no time getting his white robe dirty again. It’s been about eight years since that day and I’ve seen him a couple dozen times. He stops from time to time just to check in. Of baptism’s efficacy, the magic eight ball would probably have concluded, “Not likely.” But should I be surprised? Doesn’t John admit as much? “The one more powerful than I is coming after me…I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I can get you forgiveness, John is saying, but there’s more…far more. Then Jesus shows up.
Though not in our lectionary passage, we’re allowed to look ahead. In a surprising move, the main performer gets baptized by the opening act. Even John wondered why the sinless one was undergoing a baptism of forgiveness. Another voice provided the answer, “This is my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” This baptism was more affirmation than forgiveness. Could this be the baptism more powerful to which John was referring?
We Christians have little difficulty believing in a baptism of forgiveness, but how awake are we to Jesus’ baptism of affirmation? How well do we grasp it for ourselves…for others? Even more than we want to be forgiven, we want to belong, to be loved, to be wanted. I am convinced that more than forgiveness, it was Jesus’ affection that inspired the disciples to follow and later go. This awakening took them even further than John’s wilderness desert. It took them to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, perhaps even where you are sitting and reading this right now.
Where will it take you? Where will it take me? At a minimum it will take me to my phone, a conversation and hopefully lunch with the Cheerio boy. Perhaps there, the water we’ve shared will continue to wash the boards from my eyes so that I will see not just mercy, but beauty. The beauty of the God who shows up in unexpected ways and unexpected places through the features of human faces. Wake us up, Oh Lord, wake us up.
Senior Fellow | Street Psalms
Pastor | Manitou Park Presbyterian Church