The scriptures give us a great many views of God, and we, of course, are eager to add our own. Here on the banks of the Jordan River in Matthew 3, we get the feeling that we are seeing something of the core of who God is. Everyone at the Jordan is being baptized into the reality of heaven, but only Jesus arrives to be baptized into the reality of humanity.
When Jesus is baptized, he is entering fully into the chambers of the human experience with its joys and sorrows, its potential and its terrible pathos. The story points out that this visit, his gaining entry into our world, is going to cost him; as Jesus is halfdrowned by John, he too is repenting, dying to his old life, his life in heaven. Here at the Jordan, Jesus is getting his ticket stamped for a life with the human race. God help him.
For this grand vision, heaven is going to get roughed up. Heaven is opening itself up to get a bloody nose—and a whole lot more. When Jesus is baptized, events on earth are changing, but that is not the whole story. Heaven is also changing. It will never be the same again. Heaven is moving from a gated, holy ghetto to becoming something of a refugee station. With the baptism of Jesus, heaven is flirting with bankruptcy for our sake. Suddenly, heaven is a vulnerable place. There is no turning back for God, for all is spent. God bets the farm, not on retribution, but on death and resurrection—in this case, his own. Indeed, has heaven gone mad?
And nearly no one is ready for it. You can hear John casting about for some understanding of what he is about to do. “You shouldn’t be asking me to baptize you. It should be the other way around!” John is to prepare the way for the Messiah, but even John cannot grasp the plan unfolding before him. Envoys from heaven do not behave as Jesus does. It is unseemly, scandalous, fearsome. We want God to be the master of control, not the master of resurrection. And in so thinking, we are singing with the rest of the chorus in the Bible. “You should not be washing our feet. . . .” “Shame on you for talking of dying. . . .” We cannot understand this gift from heaven unless we are able and willing to embrace reversals. Blessed are the poor . . . blessed are the grieving . . . blessed are the meek . . . the peacemakers . . . those persecuted for the cause of heaven. . . . Are these declarations in the first instance about God himself?
With the baptism of Jesus, heaven has made its judgment: it will change the very character of the word holy. Holiness—it has to do with separation. God is holy. Heaven is holy. It is separate. But in what sense separate? Logistically? Ethically? Ontologically? Or is holiness a more dynamic matter? Might God be holy in the sense that no other being will risk all for the sake of redemption? Only this being, Yahweh, will sacrifice himself to save the creation. In this intrepid intention and act, God has no peers. God, in this way, is separate. Holy. At the Jordan River, Jesus will act as the icon of such a truth. And in his doing so, earth will never again be the same. Nor will heaven.
The God of heaven and earth will stay true—fully true. God will pull human history along with grace and mercy. God will put the cosmos right with loving, shattering sacrifice, a most mind-bending and unholy sacrifice, employing the very Darling of Heaven himself. The baptism of Jesus foreshadows the holy undoing of heaven.