Many of us will be remembering the baptism of Jesus this weekend. The timing might seem a bit strange given the fact that we have only just finished celebrating His birth, but it all makes sense when we understand the reasoning behind it.
As we know, His charismatic cousin John was challenging people to confess their sins. That can't have been true of Jesus though, because the New Testament assures us that He never did anything wrong. Even John said He was the 'Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world'.
So why did Jesus ask to be baptised? The answer is quite simple: He was not acknowledging His own sins but identifying with those who were sinners! Seen like this, His baptism was yet another example of His lifelong willingness to identify with people who were looking for God's help. It began the very moment He was born to be our 'Emmanuel'. He grew up in an ordinary home and lived under the yoke of a brutal occupying power. No 'plushy' palace for Him, and no silver spoon in His mouth either.
And He was happy to identify with anyone and everyone. In fact, He shocked the religious establishment by partying with notorious rogues like tax collectors and by refusing to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery. Is it any wonder then He gained a reputation for being a 'friend of sinners'? Most significantly of all, He was willing to identify with two criminals and die a slave's cruel death.
All of this makes for good news because it means that He can and does understand everything we face in life too. Messed up? It doesn't put Him off. Rejection? For Him, it was a constant fact of life. Fear? He had to deal with that in the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, the stress He experienced was so great his sweat was mingled with blood, even though His trust in God never dimmed. Sorrow? He certainly knew all about that too. We can see it in the way He reacted to the premature death of a close friend. Bereavement was as painful for Him as it is for us.
He can identify with us then, but better still He can help us because He's very much alive. One of the earliest Christian writers summed it up this way, "Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let's not let it slip through our fingers. We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help." (Hebrews 4:15-16 The Message)
I have seen proof of this again in recent weeks because friends who live in Croatia have been badly affected by Covid. Indeed, the whole family has been sick, but my pastor friend in particular has been very ill. But in spite of this his wife has remained strong, and her trust in God never faltered. Indeed, I found her quiet confidence quite humbling and a reminder of the kind of faith they both displayed when they were living in the middle of a very different battlefield some thirty years ago. Thankfully, he's home again and seems to be well on the way to recovery.
I have found the experience humbling, but not surprising. God doesn't change. What He did in the first century and in the 1990s, He can do anytime. He can identify with us, draw near to us, and give us a helping hand whatever the dangers, however great the problem.
As an American friend of mine said to me earlier this week, "God isn't out playing golf and ignoring the world. He knows exactly how it is all working ..... Don't ask me how it works, it just does ..... and by faith I'm standing and relying on what I've experienced all these 60 years of being a Christ-centred Christian."
These may be dark times but there's no better time to let our light shine, and we can do that if we 'accept the mercy and take the help' in our time of need.
Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.