Our story begins, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him…” It’s a phrase worth lingering over. “John would have prevented him…” The powerful John initially stops Jesus in his tracks on the banks of the Jordan. “No, no,” John says. You can almost imagine his raising his hand in protest. “This is wrong.” Imagine them standing at the water—the Jordan—this charismatic, prophet teacher, John the Baptizer, someone well-known for preaching a baptism of repentance and a changing of ways, and the man, Jesus, a little known rabbi-in-the-making. John resists Jesus’ submission to this ritual act. John stops Jesus, questioning, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
“Well, what does it matter?” we might ask in this new year and in this moment. It’s just a role reversal playing out in the waters of the Jordan. So what if the Baptizer wants to switch places with the baptized? Why is Jesus taking the place of a pilgrim, a disciple, and a student a big deal? But it’s so unusual that scholars later tried to understand why it was that Jesus—without sin—presented himself to be baptized by John, taking the role of the unwashed, the uninitiated, and the one to undergo transformation that they went to great lengths to explain it.
Yet this role reversal is really not all that strange when you consider Jesus’ unique and subsequent ministry and the various unusual reversals in which he will engage. In a little poem, “On Prayer,” Nobel prizewinner Czeslaw Milosz remarks how “prayer constructs a velvet bridge and walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard.” The bridge, Milosz says, leads us to a far shore called “Reversal” where everything is the opposite of what we know. That is a big deal.
In Jesus’ ministry, it is not only that the blind see, or the deaf hear, or the last become first, or the powerful will ask after the deep insights of an itinerant rabbi, it is also that Jesus will take on the suffering and humiliation of the servant, the abandoned, and the vanquished—things that anyone with power and status would have tended to avoid. Things that we tend to avoid. And people, then and now, will eventually say that they saw God at work in the reversal. God takes on a body and God’s love moves like THAT. God who could remain God at a distance chooses to act differently, chooses to be embodied, like Jesus, like us. And when that happens, things change.
We have known role reversals. Our fairy tales speak of role reversals—the servant girl who becomes princess, the mermaid who becomes human, and the searching who become the sought after. But there is a difference in movement. The reversals are not forced or the result of a mad witch or a magic wand. Likewise, too, we have known parent-child reversals, where the child takes on the role of the parent and the aging parent the role of the child, but these are often under duress and can be unhealthy when the persons in these relationships exercise guilt behaviors, or when personal needs are sacrificed to the detriment of another’s power, control, or hidden dynamics.
No, there is something different going on here. We who are baptized are voluntarily choosing to participate in role reversals where royals, dignitaries, and the privileged learn to walk with the needy and forgotten and thereby learn deeply their own need. Where one’s vulnerability actually proves a strength, where children lead the wise with their way of being and questioning, and where servant and master, waiter and waited-upon, status seeker and status-deprived sit at the same table and serve one another.
Our being baptized, our willingness to exchange places is an act of solidarity with those early disciples, the poor and outcast, the bereaved and those who are last, least, and lost. But why? In psychodrama, role reversals allow participants to empathize, to understand emotions and motives, and to adapt to change. Role reversals in scripture and in life help us to share power and resources, to understand the plight of misfortunates and our neighbors, and to become more nimble in our awareness and perspective of others.
Like Jesus, in baptism, we are called both to our identity and purpose. And one purpose is to be able to mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically exchange places with those whom Jesus embraced, taught, and set free…whether those people are in our scriptures, our families, or in the stranger whom we encounter in our lives. For a moment or a lifetime, we see Jesus where before we would have simply seen the bereft, the lonely, the hardened criminal, our powerful opponent, or no one at all.
These role reversals are dangerous. We might just protest like John, recognizing a love greater than our own in the water and in the situation. We might just find ourselves praying for something altogether different than the words we began with. We might exchange our curses for blessings to the befuddlement of complainers. We just might find ourselves saying with Jesus that we have a Jerusalem to which we are headed, or a cross we volunteer to carry, or a code of conduct to follow that is puzzling to our inner circle. We may find ourselves on the wrong side of the majority or the wrong side of the law. We may walk through a valley of death and fear no evil.
In case you have some doubt about the call of Christ and our call to role reversal, hear these words from Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (NRSV)
Or, if more contemporary words move you, the poet, Czeslaw Milosz writes:
“You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.” (translated by Robert Hass)
Sisters and brothers, what role reversals are you willingly engaging?
What has the switch of roles taught you?
And what can you imagine lies just beyond on the shore of Reversal for us, as a church together?