When leprosy broke out among the people of the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the last century, the authorities responded by establishing leper colony on the remote island of Molokai. The victims were snatched by force from their families and sent to this island to perish.
However, moved by their terrible plight, a young Belgian priest Damien De Veuster, asked to be allowed to minister to them. Straightaway he realized that there was only one effective way to do this: that was to go and live among them.
Having received permission, he went to Molokai. At first, he tried to minister to them while maintaining a certain distance. But he soon realized that he had to live among them in order to gain their trust. As a result he contracted leprosy himself. The reaction of the lepers was immediate and wholehearted. They embraced him and took him to their hearts. He was now one of them. There was no need, no point any more in keeping his distance. The lepers now had someone who could talk with authority about leprosy, about brokenness, about rejection and public shame.
The baptism of Jesus was a source of embarrassment to the early Christians. Even John the Baptist himself found it incongruous and tried to prevent it. Why was this? It was because John’s baptism was a summons to repentance. It was for sinners who were conscious of their sinfulness. Now of one thing the early Christians were certain – Jesus was no sinner. He did not stand in need of repentance. What relevance could John’s baptism have for him, and why did he submit himself to it?
It was a symbolic act. He wanted to show solidarity with the people he had come to help. For this reason it was important that he was baptized, and baptized publicly. In this way he was identifying with sinners. When he stepped into the waters of the Jordan he was in effect saying to all of us, “I’m on your side.”
On the day of his baptism, Jesus joined the ranks of sinners. The Father approved of what he was doing, and set his seal on it by sending the Holy Spirit to anoint him. What Jesus did that day at the Jordan was to serve as a model for his public ministry. He would not keep himself apart from sinners. He would not wait for them to come to him. He would seek them out and go among them. He would befriend them. He would welcome them.
Jesus didn’t stand apart or put himself above those he came to save. He placed himself among them. He joined them where they were. So much so that he was accused of being a sinner, and was treated as a sinner. In fact, he was treated as a criminal, and suffered the fate of the condemned criminal. Though completely sinless, Jesus took our sinful condition on himself.
He doesn’t stand apart from us, but has placed himself beside us!