John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people came in droves, men and women alike, respected people and outcasts, soldiers and tax collectors, rich and poor. They were like a human tributary to the river itself, repenting of their sins and seeking to live a different life, a better life, a good life. The people hoped that there was power in the water, power to change their lives and change the world around them because they lived in a world dominated by the power of Sin. They lived in a world structured in a sinful way, engineered almost to drive them to do things they hated.
There were a few, a very few rich and powerful men—kings and priests and warlords—who were living high off the hog and could do just as they pleased. But the rest of the sorry lot of humanity had to scratch and scrabble just to stave off starvation. And this sinful arrangement controlled people’s lives as surely as if they dangled on marionette’s strings.
Tax collectors came to the waters seeking a new way of life and were told: do not use your power to cheat the poor out of extra taxes to pocket the rest. That is well and good but tax collectors were living hand to mouth just like everyone else, plus they were hated as parasites and branded as pariahs. Corruption was how they could afford to feed themselves. Sin was the most reliable way they knew to survive. Soldiers came to the waters seeking a new way of life and were told: do not extort bribes through threat of violence. That is all well and good but soldiers were paid almost nothing, plus they were hated as oppressive collaborators, plus they had to grease plenty of palms themselves. How were they going to get the money they needed to survive if not by threat of violence? Violence was what they had to work with. Sin was the surest way they knew to survive.
Tax collectors and soldiers and miserable sinners of every stripe walked dripping from the waters forgiven for what they had done—and that was surely a great gift. It is a great gift to be relieved of past guilt. But that was not why the people had come. They had come hoping to leave the waters stronger than when they entered them, strong enough to be free from old patterns of living. The people had come to be set free from the power of Sin. And do not be deceived, Sin is a far more dangerous and alive thing than a list of what we should not do.
The apostle Paul describes Sin like this: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. And it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me”. That’s the trouble with Sin, not that it will land a soldier or a tax collector deep in the red on the wrong side of a cosmic ledger. Sin is the means by which people do not live in the ways that they would wish, but rather think themselves only able to survive by doing things they hate. The power of Sin is the power to make a child of God hate themselves until the day they die. The people had come seeking to be free from the power of Sin.
And somewhere among them there was one, one like a child of humanity. One who was a carpenter by the sweat-sawdust smell of Him. But this one among the many, He was different because He had not come to be absolved of any wrongdoing. For this one had been holy from the day He was born. This one had been wise in the law and knew what was right and did what was good and yet still, even still, the power of Sin ruled the world around Him. As if in spite of his goodness the whole world around him was engulfed by Sin and He knew that it was not right that so few should have so much and so many had to survive in such hateful ways. Yet what could He do? What could one man do to resist the power of Sin beyond remaining pure? The Son of Man came to the waters of baptism for the same reason all the rest had. He was seeking strength, strength so that He and all the rest of God’s children might be free from the power of Sin.
“And when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and a voice came from Heaven “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.
There in the river, the world was changed forever. Christ shared in the same baptism with all those who come seeking strength from God. And in Christ’s baptism, Heaven and Earth became one and God joined humanity in the struggle to break the back of Sin’s strength. Never again could Sin be used as a weapon, used as a threat standing between God and Her Children because in Christ’s baptism, humanity’s struggle against Sin became God’s struggle as well. Sin does not divide us from God; instead, God is with us when we seek to be free.
And that is good news for us today, Christians, because the power of Sin is something each generation must face. The power of Sin is still with us but the power and strength of Christ’s baptism are also ours to lay hold of. Christ's baptism is our baptism as well. Ours is a baptism of power born of Christ, power to fling away the bottle or the needle or the forged prescription slip and walk into the arms of something greater than ourselves. Ours is a baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit—Fire hot enough to melt machine guns meant for killing into microchips meant for teaching because Sin's power is a lie and we seek to follow the Truth. Ours is a baptism of the Holy Spirit, wise and clear eyed enough to know that it is intolerable that a generation of children should be abandoned to gangs and guns and drugs. Sin is real and it is dangerous but Sin is not our Lord or master. Christ is the Lord and we can and must build a world where Sin does not devour us, or our children. The power of Sin is broken in the baptism of Christ, and God’s power is with us to build a new world. Hallelujah!