So John the Baptist – he’s surrounded by symbols, markers, of his right relationship with God, with his radical ideas of forgiveness and grace and love and redemption and change. In Matthew anyway, he starts the phrase that will be repeated and expanded by Jesus: The Kingdom of Heaven is near. It is so near it is “at hand” – you can almost grasp it, you can reach out your hand and help by helping. You can turn your life around and have forgiveness and grace and mercy.
And Jesus comes into the picture and John knows he’s the one: Messiah. He’s the one who is really going to fix things. The poor will have justice and abundance; the blind will see; the lame with walk; the dead will rise; the deaf will hear. The world is going to be fixed. And he’s so joyous and humble and excited, he wants Jesus to baptize him, but Jesus says no.
And wow! Imagine! We’d have a different story if Jesus had said yes. If Jesus had said: yep, let’s wash that sin away from you people.
But Jesus had John baptize him – there was no sin to wash away. But Jesus was joining in our world, participating in the desire for forgiveness, participating in the community, creating community. Being one with us. And God broke into the world to make it clear that this was good.
Jesus goes from this joyful and amazing event straight to the wilderness. But we don’t know what John does. Was he amazed? Was he strengthened in his ministry? Did he go back to Jerusalem? Did he wait for Jesus to come out of the wilderness? Did his preaching change? Did he go too far? Is that why only a few verses later we discover in one those packed, by-the-ways, John is arrested: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
(Although I myself was baptized as an adult and while I was very glad to do so, I was also completely embarrassed – baptize your babies! So much less embarrassing!)