So on Wednesday, I attended the annual dinner of the Burlington County Fire Chief’s Association – every year I open and close the dinner with prayer. The keynote speaker this year was Daniel Onieal, who is the Deputy Administrator of the United States Fire Administration, who also, improbably, grew up down the street from my mother in Jersey City. So Onieal told me a Jersey City story, which sounds embellished, but anything can happen in Hudson County, about a political hack who needed a job.
The story goes that the ruling Democrats had just been voted out – not by Republicans, mind you, the other Democrats happen to win – and the old groups political fixer needed to be protected and kept on the payroll. So the outgoing mayor appoints this guy to be the Hudson County administrator of weights and measures. This guy apparently had a third grade education and was not up to the job, and worse yet, everyone knew it. The mayor holds a press conference, announces this guy, and he makes a short speech about making sure no businesses in Hudson County will be cheating their customers any more. The press corps is sort of laughing at this guy, and one reporter asks, “So, Bub, how many ounces in a pound?” And the guy says, “Give me a break fellas, I just got the job!”
I can’t help but think that Jesus might have felt a little like that at His baptism. As much as He surely knew who He was and what was coming, perhaps He wanted to ease into it a little bit. Perhaps He even thought that was what He was doing: going to see John the Baptist out in the wilderness, not too many people around. I would call it a dry run except for the all the water and baptizing and stuff. But it wasn’t meant to be; Jesus goes out there alone, but then, just as the whole ritual was wrapping up, His Father shows up and makes it a big deal. Even the heavens were opened, mortals heard the voice of God, and then the Holy Spirit swooshed down.
This was no dry run, no soft opening to the public ministry of the Son of God. Jesus’ baptism is often called the second epiphany – the first was, well, the Epiphany, when the gentile Wise Men show up and Jesus is revealed to the wider world. The word Epiphany means to reveal, to make known, and just to close the loop, there’s also the third epiphany, which was Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which revealed His true identity and power to His disciples.
The whole operation kicks into another gear altogether with what happened immediately following His baptism: the temptation in the wilderness. The same Holy Spirit who so gently descended from heaven like a dove moments after Jesus came out of the water then drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan for 40 days. One minute Jesus is living as a carpenter in a small, secluded village, and the next He is thrown into the test of a lifetime, all for doing what He was supposed to do; one minute we see Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, and the next we see Satan literally tempting God.
I remember when I arrived in Bordentown, eleven and a half years ago, I got here on a Tuesday afternoon and Mr. Trout found me wandering around trying to figure out how to get into the rectory. The next day I was moving stuff around and Andy Law stopped by and we talked for a long time, and I confirmed that we had a supply priest for Sunday, and then Andy said, “By the way, you’re preaching this Sunday – we want to hear from you.” I thought, “Give me a break, I just got the job!”
Most of us were baptized as babies; we got the job of being a Christian a while ago now. But it can often feel like we just got this job! We desperately want a dry run, a soft opening, to finally fulfilling who we really are. Sometimes it can feel like we finally get something right, we’ve fulfilled all righteousness, and just then we’re thrown into the wilderness.
Well, Jesus is here today to tell you that you’re not alone. He’s been there and done that, and He knows that being a Christian, being who God has called you to be, is not always cool waters and gentle doves. And while we are not divine – none of us are the Son of the living God – God has adopted us as sons and daughters through our baptisms, and when we follow Jesus, with us too is God well pleased.