In March 2023 I’m traveling to India to teach in my denomination’s seminary there. Initially, I was going alone, and I thought it might be a good opportunity for a solo adventure. As I invited people to preach at Faith Church for me, one of my friends asked if, instead of preaching in my absence, he could join me on the trip! I was elated, and had a deep inner feeling of gratitude for a traveling companion.
There is within many of us humans a battle between the desire for individual accomplishment and relational connection.
This week on the blog we’re studying how Jesus’ baptism relates to the theme of the third week of Advent: Joy. In this post, we learn the second reason Jesus wanted to be baptized. Jesus submitted to be baptized to identify with people as an act of solidarity, of togetherness. Yes, this is motivated by his desire for humility, which was the first reason he was baptized, as we talked about in the previous post. But now we see how Jesus wants to identify with his people, to be together with them, and that too is the pathway to joy. Jesus does not want to be isolated or individualistic.
He was the Messiah, so he could have been very individualistic if he wanted to. He was God in the flesh, perfect, and he didn’t need to go through the religious purification symbolism of baptism. But he found it more important to emphasize his unity and identification with the people than to emphasize his difference, his superiority. In this is great joy, to be unified with other people, to submit yourself to the community of faith. This is also not a very American thing to do. To practice the togetherness of Jesus, we Americans will almost certainly need to behave in a way that cuts against the grain of our individualistic culture.
We Americans can take pride in our “Get Er Done” attitude. We step in and make things happen. Whether it is technological advances like computers, or sending people to the moon, or discoveries or adventures or you fill in the blank, part of our American history and pride is individualism. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That’s not all bad. But it’s also not all good. One of individualism’s downfalls is arrogance and pride that can lead to isolation. One look at Jesus and we do not see that at all. He even gets baptized when he didn’t have to, so that he can identify with us. Through his baptism, then, Jesus becomes more approachable, showing how much he wants to be in relationship with us.
Is the temptation of individualism lurking inside you? Even just a little? Is there a tinge of arrogance or pride? Do you have a hard time asking for help? I do. Hate it. I want to do it myself. When I am working on something, trying to fix something, and it is not going as planned, I’m usually not fun to be around. Michelle says, “Call someone,” and by the way I feel, think and respond to that, you’d think I just got stabbed with a knife. It’s super embarrassing and shameful to call for help. I also don’t want to come across as a bother. Shouldn’t I be able to figure this out on my own? With all the stuff on YouTube these days, surely I can figure it out. Right? Wrong. I’m allowing my individualistic pride to get in the way.
No doubt there is a tension, as we don’t want to take advantage of people’s kindness. There can be something very empowering, in a healthy way, to try to learn something new, to struggle with failure and try again and figure it out. We can give in too quickly. But there is, it seems to me, a much more likely tendency to avoid other people for those negative reasons of shame, guilt, pride, arrogance.
Jesus did none of that, and he got baptized too, when he absolutely didn’t have to. So ask for help. Invite others to share their wisdom. Ask for advice. Enlist a mentor. Make the call. Send the text. Join in. Invite community with humility and watch how joy comes with it. When Jesus got baptized, he was saying, among other things, “I’m in. I’m here with you. I’m part of it.”
That, too, is the pathway to joy. Humans find joy primarily in relationship, not in isolation. Yes, you can find joy when you fix something, when you accomplish something, on your own. I get that. But there is a greater joy found in relationships.
So choose the pathway of relational joy. Sacrifice your individualism for the joy of community. This is not just being together in the same physical location. You can be together with a stadium full of people who support the same team. You can be in a theater full of people watching the same show. You can even be in a church with people attending a worship service. But that doesn’t mean you are in community. Being in community that brings joy takes repeated large doses of grace, humility, vulnerability, honesty, the things we see Jesus doing.