Sunday, January 9, 2011

Al Fadr and the Baptism of Jesus

I'm posting this in the hours after a horrific shooting in Arizona, where a nine-year-old girl was murdered for no reason at all.

Perhaps we're in the twilight before dawn, but it still seems far too dark sometimes.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

Matthew 3:13-17
1Then 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." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the things that has confused me all along about the baptism of Jesus is, quite simply, “why?” If, as John the Baptist proclaimed, the baptism he offered was for the remission of sin, then it follows that, for the sinless Messiah, such a thing would be unnecessary. If it was, as some think, merely to serve as an example for us, then what was with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the voice from heaven? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone else get the dove-and-voice treatment when they got baptized, so I can’t buy into the idea that the baptism of Jesus was just for show. There was more going on there. There are people, called “Adoptionists,‘ who believe that Jesus did not become Christ, the Messiah, God’s only son, until he was baptized, and frankly I cannot agree with that either. Like we discussed last week, Jesus was and is and shall be eternally God. In that light, the idea that it all began there in the Jordan River is nonsensical.

But this week, a conversation with a Muslim helped me see the baptism of Jesus in a different light. This man moved to Alabama from Bagdad. Of course I had a million questions, and he was more than happy to engage me in conversation. Along the way, we talked about our children and such, and he told me that one of his daughters is named “Fajer.” Since I don’t speak Arabic, this name meant nothing to me… until he explained.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day, and the first prayer, offered before dawn, is called al Fajer. What caught my attention is that the prayer is named for when it takes place -- in the twilight before the dawn.

We’ve talked before about how we, as Resurrection people, live in the twilight before dawn. A dark time, yes, but not the kind of dark where the long, cold, featureless night stretches before us, empty and hopeless, but the twilight before the dawn, when we can see the first vague outlines of the coming day, and we know that the darkness is coming to an end. This kind of twilight is the definition of hope. Talking to this man, I finally had a name for that!

But there’s another way in which the word “fajer” is used, and this really excited me. It signifies the start of a new life.

This isn’t a foreign concept to Westerners, if you think about it. Baby showers and birth announcements are a kind of fajer. Proms and diplomas are another kind; wedding rings yet another, and the list could go on: items or events which remind us of passages from one point in our life’s journey into another.

Ted Williams of Columbus, Ohio can tell us all about the concept of “fajer,” of breaking out of the long twilight, of starting a new life. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had left Ted homeless, just another panhandler on the side of the road. Despite having overcome his addiction over two years ago, Ted couldn’t drag himself out of the hole.

Now, I have to tell you that Ted had a little something that most of the folks who stand by the roadside with cardboard signs don’t have. Aside from an uncanny resemblance to Jimi Hendrix, Ted had a deep, sonorous radio verse with a pitch-perfect announcer’s delivery. Motorists would stop and give him money simply to hear him introduce an imaginary song or announce a baseball score.

One afternoon a reporter with the local newspaper took a video camera with him to tape Ted; first announcing an upcoming concert in return for a donation, then standing on a sidewalk later, talking about his life and his dreams.

The reporter posted the video on YouTube, and something amazing happened. A few people happened upon it, and shared the webpage link with others. People were fascinated! Ted’s video flooded FaceBook, Twitter, Stumbleupon and other sharing sites. In the terminology of Internet fads, it had “gone viral.” In almost no time at all, millions of people had seen the video of Ted Williams, the Panhandler with the Golden Voice.

Something else happened, though. Ted Williams got job offers. He was given a house to live in and a car. Appearing on ABC’s Morning Show after accepting a job at a major radio station, Ted wept openly at the turn his life had taken… all because someone had taken the time to take an interest in him. A simple video on a website paved the way for Ted Williams’ fajer.

We’ve just celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ birth. This past Thursday was Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. But following that event, except for a brief glimpse of Christ at twelve years old, we know nothing of Jesus from the time the gold, frankincense, and myrrh is given until the moment he shows up on the banks of the Jordan River.

I imagine John the Baptist busily baptizing person after person, all the while yelling to the crowds gathered on the bank, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Perhaps he doesn’t even notice his cousin until he’s standing right there in front of him, next in line to receive baptism. John stands there, gape mouthed in shock, for a long moment before he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

You see, John knows who Jesus is. John knows that, of all the people standing on the bank now, of all the people he has baptized and of all the people he will ever baptize, the one person who has nothing to repent of is this man – Jesus!

And yes, Jesus says that he wants to be baptized because “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” as odd as that sounds. Though John doesn’t understand it, he proceeds with the baptism… and the most amazing thing happens!

The sky opens up! The Spirit, like a dove, settles on Jesus, and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, while I am careful to affirm that I do not think that Jesus was baptized merely to mark the beginning of his ministry, nor do I go to the other extreme and claim that he was not God until he was baptized, I think that part of what happened for Jesus at the baptism was his “fajer,” the start of a new life.

Think of it: from this point forward, everything changes for Jesus. No longer will he stand in that carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, breathing in the aroma of the sawdust as he builds a cabinet; no longer will he sit quietly in the synagogue as the scribes read the Torah. This thing he was born to do, this mission that’s been coursing through his veins since he was old enough to understand it, starts now!

For all of us in the Christian faith, whether we practice infant baptism or what is commonly referred to as “”believer’s baptism,” that event serves as a point of reference for our passage into a new life, a fajer.

Because Jesus took this first step in the journey, because he was faithful to “fulfill all righteousness,” because that faithfulness led Jesus to the cross and the Resurrection, we can say with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Whatever events define our past, whatever future once lay before us, all of that is changed. Whoever we were, whatever darkness we were groping around in, now the dawn is coming, our new life has begun! We have become part of the family of God, and the reality for us has become this: in life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God!


  1. This is beautiful. It definitely makes me think about baptism differently. Right now I'm serving as a worship leader at a church that believes some extreme things about baptism. It's something I've been wrestling with for awhile.

    They believe that baptism makes you a Christian. Without a "believers baptism" you won't go to Heaven. Everyone at the church believes it for a different reason, none have really made me understand why. Most are "if Jesus did it we have to too." At times (I'm learning now) it's so extreme that it's "if you don't believe what we believe you're not a Christian."

    I've been wrestling with understanding baptism. I've always thought it was a sign of a new life. Bury your old life and arise like Jesus. But I've never understood all of the extreme differences in views on this very simple act of expression.

    You've confirmed a lot for me today. Thank you. Great sermon!

    -- Ivy (@unscriptedlife)

  2. I love it. Great job!

    Jeff (@ selaniest)