The Baptism of our Lord
January 8, 2016
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:1-17
Jesus’ Baptism—And Ours
Imagine for a moment, what it would have been like to be on the dusty banks of the River Jordan the day of Jesus’ baptism. Picture John, in his rather strange clothing, with the fire of a prophet in his eyes, earnestly calling people to repent, and castigating those who presented themselves for baptism without demonstrating the desire to return to God, and live a life that witnesses to the fruit of the Spirit. Powerful Pharisees and Sadducees came to the river, religious leaders of the community. The wealthy and respectable of the towns and villages probably came. And then lots of ordinary folks, and the outcasts, those on the margins, the despised, the lepers, poor, women, widows. Who was this, they might have wondered, who is more powerful than John, this wondrous preacher? Who could it be that was going to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire? How is one baptized by the Holy Spirit? They must have been filled with wonder and expectation and a bit of fear as well. I know I would have been afraid.
And how the crowd must have murmured in hushed voices when Jesus himself appeared at the river. Could this be the Messiah who had been foretold? What need did he have to be washed from sin, or to repent? What was happening? John himself seems reluctant to baptize him, protesting that instead he needed to be baptized by Jesus. And then Jesus speaks those remarkable words—“Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’ And then, as he is coming up from the waters of baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as the beloved Son of God, with whom he is well pleased. What are we to make of all of this?
Some form of this story appears in all four Gospels. The account from Matthew is the only one in which John the Baptist and Jesus have a dialogue back and forth. Like other stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, such as Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, the transfiguration, and the calming of the storm, there are times when the boundaries between the physical world of time and space and the spiritual world are thin, and we glimpse the reality of the Holy that is at the heart of the universe. We can sense that this is one of those times. The gospel writer is telling his first century audience, and us, that Jesus is the one of whom John speaks, the promised One, the Messiah, who will restore us and reconcile us to God. He is the one who the nations have longed for, God’s son, who will establish his reign, a reign that begins on earth and is fulfilled in heaven.
The story is full of wonderful imagery that would have had rich meaning for his audience–the heavens opening over the water is reminiscent of the mystery of creation, when God brought order out of the primordial chaos. The appearance of the dove could be a reminder of the Flood, when the bird was sent out to look for dry land and was the herald of the receding waters and the restoration of the earth. The voice coming from heaven is the voice of God that accompanied his people throughout history- through the wilderness on the journey from Egypt, the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, the voice that resounded in the hearts and minds of the prophets that comforted God’s people in exile, and restored their future. In Jesus all the hopes of the people down the ages were being fulfilled.
Yet despite all the images of power and the anointing of God, we also see the wonder, the gift, and the grace of the humility of Jesus in his incarnation. He did not need to undergo a baptism of repentance to return to God, as he was already completely and fully united to God. He did not need to be cleansed from sin. Yet, he would be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” He didn’t flaunt his divine nature, or lord it over others. When he took on our human flesh, he also subjected himself, out of love, to enter our experience, of temptation, of brokenness, of need. He identified himself with us in our weakness, and sought to share our experience. Out of obedience to God, he shared with us in the rite of baptism. Look at this great love, this tenderness, this humility, and marvel at God’s great love for the world. His baptism not only shows forth his call from God, but also the great love God has for us, to enter fully into our human experience!
So what about us? What does our baptism mean? For many of us, it was a ritual that took place many years ago, when we were infants, and we probably don’t remember it. For some of us, it was a choice we made for ourselves as adults. The catechism of the Episcopal Church teaches that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children, and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God.” God in his graciousness offers us the gift of restored relationship with him through Christ. What is required of us is that we turn to God in repentance and faith and “put our whole trust in his grace and love.” This sacrament is for adults who can make a commitment to follow Christ, and for infants and children, who are welcomed into the family of God by those who promise to teach them the faith and nurture them in the way of Jesus. So baptism is both the sacrament of God’s cleansing and transformation, as well as our response to the unconditional love that is offered to us.
Baptism is also our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s death and ressurrection. In Romans 6:3, Paul asks his hearers: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? That’s actually kind of scary, if you think about it! Baptism isn’t a cheerful ceremony where we are sprinkled with a bit of water and then there is a celebration afterward. Baptism costs us our very life. It is an immersion into the way of the Cross, the way Jesus walked, where the love of God is at the center of everything and we are willing to walk the way of sacrifice to live always in the way of love, justice, and mercy. In baptism, the glorious mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes our mystery, our journey. In the waters of baptism we die to the old way of life where our own ego and its limited vision rule us, and enter into the spacious freedom of a life centered in Christ. In the waters of baptism, we share with Christ in his sacrificial life of love, service, compassion, and grace, and we are raised from sin and death into new and abundant life, both now, and in the world to come.
Finally, baptism is our commissioning to work as bearers of the Kingdom of God. It is, in a sense, the ordination of every Christian to ministry. Did you know that you are all ministers of the Gospel? Those of us who have been ordained priests and deacons and stand up here in vestments aren’t the only, or the most important ministers of the Gospel. You, the gathered people of God, are also called, as the priesthood of all believers, to share the good news of the Gospel with the world. Without you, Christ can’t be known! You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. That is your call in your baptism! Look at Jacob, who is about to be baptized here today. He is the newest minister in the body of Christ, and in a few minutes we will promise to raise him in the Christian faith and life and to support him in his ministry. Friends, I also say to you that because of the covenant we made in baptism, we are to support and nurture each other in the Christian faith and life as we seek to grow in Christ and share the Gospel with the world. For in baptism, we not only receive the grace of regeneration and renewal in Christ, we also commit ourselves to living the life he did, of “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” to working for justice and human dignity, to care for each other and the earth, and to never forget our constant need of grace and forgivness. In baptism, we respond body, soul, heart, and mind to Jesus’ invitation, come follow me.
So welcome into the household of God, Jacob! Pray for us, too, and by your life may you reflect the glory and beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ forever. Amen.