A Pow’r Not Theirs to Give

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’”  – Matthew 3:13-15

O, the wonder of the incarnation, the mystery of Christ’s humiliation, the depth of his love! That Jesus would not just become a human being and walk among us but even stoop so low as to enter the murky waters of the Jordan, stand in line with rank-and-file sinners, and receive the baptism of John – John, a mere human, John, a nonordained, non-seminary-educated, anti-establishment, wilderness, revival preacher. O, the wonder of the incarnation, that Jesus would stoop down, enter the murky waters of the Jordan, and receive this baptism, like any sinner, with sinners! And then to have this baptism validated by the voice of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, to be the “one baptism” in which we all participate. The whole mystery of the humiliation and exaltation of the Son of God and the Son of Humans – this whole mystery embodied in John’s arms as he baptized Jesus, an active witness to “a pow’r not his to give.”

John the Baptizer, astonished, asks, “Shouldn’t you baptize me?” And Jesus answers, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

“Proper for us”? Jesus, where did this sense of partnership come from? Where did this solidarity, this communion come from? Where did this at-one-ment come from? By saying “us,” does Jesus rob John of the only thing he can claim for himself, his baptism? It is almost as if Jesus says, “This is mine now. Not even your baptism is yours.” Does Jesus take John’s agency from him? Does Jesus take John’s baptism away from him? Or does he sanctify it? Does he lift it up and make it more than it is by itself?

This past Sunday, I administered the sacrament of baptism for the first time. Like John, I found myself asking, “Am I really the one who is supposed to do this baptism?” Like John, I felt unworthy to baptize. But Jesus says to me, “Let it be so. It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Your life is not your own. You belong to Jesus. Not even your baptism is your own. Sorry, John-the-professional-baptizer. Sorry, Steven-the-professional-pastor. But there is one baptism. This is a special temptation for those of us who are paid to traffic the holy things of God. (As though holiness could be quantified and commodified into things, anyway. Or, consider one of the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of traffic: “With sinister or evil connotation: Dealing or bargaining in something which should not be made the subject of trade.”)

Grace is not the subject or the object of trade. There is no commercial transaction here, no swiping of the divine credit card. Jesus doesn’t trade his baptism for John’s. He takes John’s and makes it something new. Or, rather, John’s baptism is caught up into the mystery of the Triune life of God. John’s baptism is a small-scale drama, operating on the level of human guilt, human repentance. But Jesus takes John’s small-scale drama and opens it up into the full-scale drama of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is no longer just, “Repent!” but also, “This is my son or daughter, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s not our baptism. And yet, as when he spoke to John, Jesus uses this mysterious “us.” By grace, we are both ourselves and more than ourselves.

Let the wisest mortals show
How we the grace receive
Weak, these elements bestow
A pow’r not theirs to give.  – Charles Wesley

Steven Rodriguez pastors Lakeview Community Church, a Reformed Church in America congregation in Greece, New York.

Image: Baptism of Christ: Francesco Albani [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons