Jane Williams considers what John the Baptist has to teach at the
approach of Lent
WHEN JESUS went to be baptised by John, imagine what that felt like for him.
Here he is, part of the noisy, pushing crowd, all waiting to be told their sins
by John and be baptised in the river — and suddenly the whole picture freezes
as John sees him. It is as though everyone else has vanished, and they are
alone, with the river behind them providing the watery noises of the amniotic
fluids in which they first met.
The Gospels, tantalisingly, almost never tell us what Jesus is thinking and
feeling, because they are all about how other people react to him rather than
about his own inner life. But it is perfectly clear that this moment at the
river is a turning point, and that John’s generous recognition is part of what
allows Jesus to go forward. It is the moment when the whole course of Jesus’s
life is decided. From now on, Jesus is set on the course of preaching and
teaching that is to lead inexorably to his death.
We don’t know how Jesus would have described himself before this moment, or
what he would have said God was asking him to do, but, from this moment on, his
life and work and words are characterised by the enormous authority of one who
knows he is doing God’s will.
John does not want to baptise Jesus. He has been baptising people as a
symbol of their repentance, but he knows that Jesus is going to do exactly what
God wants him to, and so really doesn’t need to repent. John is ready to give
up his own work straight away and hand over to Jesus. But Jesus insists. He
takes John’s characteristic practice — baptism — and makes it something new.
Jesus goes down into the water as into the grave, but also as into his mother’s
womb again. He accepts both his own death and his new life as he allows John to
immerse him in the water.
But if John’s words of acceptance and praise are important, what happens
next is even more important. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God confirms
John’s recognition with the dove, who represents the Holy Spirit, resting on
Jesus’s head, and the words of acceptance that God says. "Yes," God says, "this
is the one. You are my beloved Son. Everything you are and everything you do
gives me joy."
Most children long to hear something like that from their parents. In the
weary, painful, and terrifying months that followed, how often must Jesus have
needed to repeat God’s words to himself.
It is important to remember that Jesus’s work is grounded in this sense of
knowing who he is, and knowing he is loved. He has the human witness of John,
as well as God’s own voice ringing in his ears. He does need both, so that he
can know he has not deceived himself. But it is out of this strong sense of
self-worth that Jesus’s ministry is born.
Too much of what we do is driven by insecurity or self-loathing, and by our
desire to please people and win their approval. It is as though here, at the
River Jordan, at the start of Jesus’s public life, God is modelling just what
we all need if we are to do what we have to. We need to know that we are loved
and trusted. Without that knowledge, we will always be acting out of a false
sense of ourselves, not out of the central reality of our being. It is because
Jesus knows who he is and how much God loves him that he can do what has to be
That doesn’t mean that it is going to be easy. When Jesus has heard God’s
voice, and seen the dove, and accepted John’s recognition, that is when he has
to go off into the desert alone, for 40 days. He needs time to come to terms
with the enormity of being loved and trusted. Being loved and trusted by
someone carries huge responsibilities with it for any one of us. But to be
loved and trusted by God, as Jesus is, is really sobering.
So what we set ourselves to do in Lent has several different aspects. First,
there is John’s part. We need to learn to see the value of others, which will
sometimes mean being prepared to take a back seat ourselves. Our satisfaction
will come from knowing we are doing what we were born for, and that our words
of encouragement to someone else at the right moment may allow them to fulfil
their promise, too.
That will not necessarily be an easy thing for us to do. So the 40 days of
Lent may profitably be used to get to know ourselves again. What are we good
at? What should we be letting go of? How can we genuinely assess what we were
put on this earth for?
Then we need to pause and give thanks to all of those who have done John’s
job for us. It is hard to make time regularly to take stock of everyone who has
helped us on our way, and given us the words of praise that we needed when we
were not sure of ourselves. Lent might be a good time to remember them.
Finally, Lent is a time to hear and try to believe that God loves us, and
then to spend at least the 40 days attempting to find out what that means. At
the heart of the Christian story is the belief that God made the world and
everything in it out of love. Jesus came to live and die for us so that we can
understand God’s words to him as being meant for us, too: "You are my beloved
daughters and sons; you give me pleasure."
Being loved by God has implications about how we then live our lives in that
knowledge. However, there are many things that distract us both from knowing
how much we are valued and from thinking through what that means. When Jesus
hears God’s words, he sets out to a place of quiet and solitude — the desert —
so that he can think and pray about them. That isn’t an option for most of us,
but perhaps we can make a little time in the 40 days of Lent to try to think
about what our lives are for.
That might mean giving up, at least for a bit, some of the things that
distract us, so that we can focus better on the essentials. "Giving things up"
does come in, at last, but perhaps not for the reasons that we initially
In A Season for the Spirit, Martin Smith writes:
"Lent is about freedom which is gained only through exposure to the truth. .
. Truth is not a thing; it is rather an event. Truth happens to us when the
coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open.
. . The Spirit promises to bring us into truth by stripping away some more of
the insulation and barriers which have separated us from living contact with
reality, the reality of God, of God’s world, and our true selves."
This is an edited extract from Approaching Easter by Jane Williams (Lion,
£9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 0-7459-5199-6).
To place an order for this book, contact