In later years this passage would spark countless theological debates, journeys down rabbit holes, and some very high level navel gazing. As Jesus rose out of the water, breaking the surface of the River Jordan and taking in the first breath of his new life as one baptized and commissioned as a servant of God, the heavens were opened. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove over the river, no doubt recalling that she had hovered over the waters as the world was called into being. And a voice from heaven, the voice that had in that long ago beginning opened up the possibility of life by saying “let there be light,” now said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” A new light. One not blotted out by darkness.
To understate the case, this did not happen often. It didn’t happen when I was baptized. It didn’t happen when you were baptized. John was baptizing all sorts of people, but the heavens didn’t open and the sky didn’t speak for them. Only for Jesus. It set him apart. It named his vocation. And it blew their monotheistic minds.
If God is the voice in heaven, how can God also be in the river? Are there two gods? This is a very serious consideration, in light of that first commandment, that whole “you shall have no other gods before me” one. To follow that commandment, you’ve got to know what is God and what is not God. Is Jesus God? He sure looks like a human. But this stuff also feels like God. If he is God, how is God also behind the voice from the sky? Later, Jesus would pray to that God, would address that God as abba, “father.” Jesus would plead with that God from the cross.
And then there’s the Spirit. Not a new concept for the Jewish world, but yet another manifestation that sure seems divine, sure seems like God, but which here shares the scene with the voice in the sky and the guy in the river, which also sure seem like God, so maybe what we have is three Gods? Or maybe one God which is made manifest in three ways? One God in three persons?
Of course, you know that is the answer Christianity settled on. One God in three persons, a triune God, a trinity. And you might not believe just how much Christians have written trying to precisely work out the mechanics of that. The Nicene Creed exists largely to make it clear that God the Father and God the Son are both eternal and divine, neither older or greater than the other, despite the chronology you’d assume from the words “father” and “son.”
Christians who want to express God with math have meditated endlessly on this triune God, as have those who prefer metaphor. A lover, the beloved, and the love that binds them or the mind, it’s knowledge, and its love… both of those come from St. Augustine.
It’s a fun exercise, and it is immensely challenging, too, because it’s really, really hard to find a metaphor that maintains just the right set of orthodox theological dynamics. But let me suggest here that the orthodox theological dynamics, though I’m fascinated with them, are not exactly the point. The point, I think, is that it still blows our minds. This scene, with Jesus coming back up from underwater, and the dove and the voice, and each of them being fully present expressions of God, is more than we can take in. It is so excessive, so far beyond our typical understanding of personhood or identity, and it all serves to say: this guy, right here, is much more than just a guy.
Under all the math and metaphor, this baptism scene presents us with mystery. Not mystery as a discouragement, the way I heard a lazy youth minister once use the idea of mystery to get a kid to stop asking tough questions. Not mystery as an anesthetic for curious minds. Mystery as depth. Mystery as excess. Mystery as something so different and yet so tantalizingly close that it makes our world feel different. God is a guy, getting baptised in a river that, despite what the song says, is neither deep nor wide. We understand that. But God is also the descending dove and the voice from heaven. God was nailed to the cross, but also not die on the cross, and has carried inspiration to countless millions of hearts over the course of time. God is multiple and singular, manifold and unique.
But—and your question here is shared by students in every theology class I ever taught—so what? You’ve got classes to take and stuff to apply for, and I’ve got bills to pay and kids to feed, and who’s got time for an intellectual exercise about the exact nature of God? Well, embracing mystery can do a lot for you.
And here’s where I want to be careful. Embracing the mystery of God does not mean abandoning your curiosity, or ceasing to wonder. When I heard that youth minister tell a kid not to ask those questions because it’s all a ministry, I pulled that kid aside and urged him to never stop asking those questions. Mystery is not a tranquilizer.
This mystery of God that emerges at Jesus’ baptism is an invitation. It’s a bit of revelation—the epiphany of three manifestations of one god—that lures you to follow it toward something we can’t comprehend. It may be that we don’t yet comprehend this reality of God, or it may be that we are structurally incapable of comprehending it, but what we see here is remarkable enough to get us to take the next step into something that is altogether unknown and also our true home.
Holy mystery, you see, is not a total lack of understanding. It’s a lack of total understanding. Our experiences of God, our epiphanies, compel us forward, seeking to learn and to live as fully as we can. St. Anselm, a particularly nerdy saint who lived nearly a millennium ago, defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” By choosing to be a people compelled by what we have seen and aware that what we have seen is not all there is to see, we set off as theologians, as people of faith seeking understanding. This is different than unquestioning belief. It is different than superstition or that sort of religious obedience that is motivated by fear. And take note here that when we baptize someone, we do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we also pray that God will equip them with an inquiring and discerning heart. Baptism is a ritual entry into a life of faith seeking understanding. Welcome to the mystery.
Faith seeking understanding, that is, life embracing the mystery, can evolve. It can handle your skepticism, and it can approach other ways of knowing without a sense of competition. Faith seeking understanding can affirm that the world science describes is the world God creates. That’s a line I cribbed from a theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg, who passed away just a few years ago. I’m namedropping theologians here because I want to emphasize that there have always been a lot of deeply faithful curious Christians. A life lived amidst holy mystery finds joy in every new way of understanding the world, because each offers us an epiphany, an insight into the ongoing creation of which we are a part. Faith seeking understanding can—and this is what Jesus was making people do day in and day out—change its mind without falling apart.
So this story of Jesus’ baptism is more than just another exclamation point to tell you that Jesus is a big deal. It’s more than a data point for orthodox theology. It’s an epiphany. It’s a revelation that there is always more going on than we can understand. And it’s an invitation to faithfully seek to understand, knowing that we will almost certainly never fully understand. Here in 2020, with information moving faster than ever before, and with incredible opportunities for learning and inquiry before you each day, this is a faith that works, because it is a faith that knows it has a lot to learn.