We celebrated yesterday, January 15, as the Baptism of Our Lord and the primary text for the day was Matthew 3:13-17:
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Also, it helps to understand the sermon to know that I announced to the congregation at the beginning of the service that I learned the previous day that my stepmother was in the hospital, critically ill and had been place on palliative care only. I had to leave the service early to catch a flight to be there.
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
Water is a powerful and primal image. We know that life came from the sea. We know that the child in the womb is surrounded by fluid. We know that without rain the earth cracks and dries and all life perishes. We know that the rain makes the hills green and the deserts bloom. We know that a hot shower or quiet bath can wash away the shame and hurt and frustrations of the day. We know that water cleanses. We know water heals, whether it is the cool washcloth on the forehead of a feverish child or the wounded veteran limping towards the shrine at Lourdes. Water is joy and play – whether a sprinkler on the lawn or a pool or a beach. Water is calm and peace like a lakeshore in the evening. And water is dangerous and destructive, unstoppable and powerful, as we have seen in the flooding last week. There is something primal about water, something that is very much about death and life and healing and transformation. We can talk about baptism logically, but it is far more than logic.
We have talked before about the development of the Gospels – How Mark’s gospel was the first telling of the story of Jesus. It was an oral Gospel that got written down and passed around to other Christian communities in other cities. Mark was composed and recorded sometime during or in the raw aftermath of the Judean war with Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.
In the decade or so that followed, the authors we know as Matthew and Luke took Mark’s Gospel and used it as an outline to write Gospels that contained other stories and sayings of Jesus. Their Gospels were written gospels – made to be read to the community, to be sure, but composed on paper. (And so, for example, they did things like fix the grammar of Mark’s Gospel.)
As Matthew and Luke assembled their gospels, they shaped the stories to speak to their communities. This shaping is generally pretty subtle. For example, Matthew changes the phrase “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of Heaven.” There is a tendency in Jewish piety to avoid using the name of God (lest you use it in vain), so presumably Matthew’s congregation has more traditional Judean roots. (In the same way, I will tend to talk about “the reign of God” rather than “the kingdom of God” because we don’t live in a monarchy anymore. I think it connects better with our experience of the world to speak about a world governed by the Spirit of God.)
So although all three of these Gospels talk about John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, there are slightly different accents to the way each one tells the story. Mark said that the voice from heaven spoke to Jesus and said: “You are my Son whom I love.” Matthew wants to be sure that we understand that everyone heard the voice – and that we are to hear that voice – so Matthew has the voice of God say: “This is my son, whom I love.” Mark didn’t think God and Jesus were having a private conversation. Mark has God say “You are my son,” because for Mark this is something of an enthronement. God is declaring to the world that this Jesus is his anointed one who shall dispense the gifts and victory of God on God’s behalf. But Matthew, writing to a slightly different audience, wants to make it clear that God is testifying to the world that this Jesus is his anointed.
As we hear this account we have to remind ourselves that the phrase “Son of God” has two references. First, it is used of the king in Israel. In the ancient world it was common for kings to present themselves as members of the pantheon of the gods. But the language Israel used was that the king was the “Son of God”: the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. So the voice from heaven is declaring that Jesus is the “Son of God”, the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. Christian reflection will deepen our understanding of the relationship of God and Jesus, but here, at this point in the Gospel, the declaration being made is about kingship: Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. Jesus brings the reign of God. Jesus comes and governs as God will govern when all things are again brought under his dominion.
For Jesus to come to John to share in his “baptism of repentance” would seem to make John the more important person, but this is backwards if Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. So Matthew records for us that John said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And he gives us this response from Jesus: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
More importantly, if Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on God’s behalf in the world, why does he need to undergo a baptism of repentance? For what would Jesus need to repent?
And before you go too far on that question, I want you to remember this: We are not asking if Jesus has done anything bad for which he should feel sorry. We are asking why should Jesus need to change his allegiance back to God and God’s way in the world? If Jesus represents God, if he brings God’s reign, it doesn’t make sense for him to be rejoining the cause.
Now this is where we talk again about Josephus. He was a general in the Judea army during the rebellion from Rome. When he was defeated and captured, his opponent, the Roman General, spoke to Josephus the exact same Greek words that we translate in the Gospels as “Repent and believe.” Josephus was being offered the chance to switch sides from the rebels to the Romans: to ‘repent’ (change his allegiance) and ‘believe’ (show fidelity to Rome).
Since John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance” to bring the people back to an allegiance to God and God’s reign, why Jesus should need to turn and show allegiance to God? Matthew wants to be sure we understand what Jesus’ baptism means: Jesus is not changing sides; he is standing with people who need to change sides. It is an act of solidarity. It is a gesture that says “You and I, we are connected. We are one people.” Jesus doesn’t show up and say: “You need to change.” He shows up and says: “We need to change.” Jesus is showing righteousness; Jesus is showing fidelity to us. He stands with us as one of us.
This brings us to the second meaning of the phrase “Son of God”. The Son of God was the king, but it is also used to refer to the people of Israel. The most famous place this shows up is in the prophet Hosea where God says, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (11:1) – a Biblical passage Matthew has just referred to a few verses before. (And remember, these people knew their Bibles, so to reference one verse is to reference the entire chapter)
The passage from Hosea is an amazing and wonderful message where God talks about the people of Israel in wonderfully intimate terms. God declares all that he did for his son, how his son turned away from him and was scattered among the nations, but how God cannot give them up. It declares God’s passionate attachment to his people and his intent to save.
So God’s people are God’s faithless son, and John is calling God’s people to return to faithfulness, to return to this way of God, this life for which God had brought them out of Egypt: a life of justice and mercy and compassion, fidelity to the stranger and love of neighbor. (To fulfill what the prophet Micah said: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”) This is why John’s baptism is a baptism of changed allegiance. Jesus will express this idea of a world brought under the governance of God’s Spirit as love God and love neighbor: showing fidelity to God and to one another, being faithful to God and to others.
In his baptism by John, Jesus is not subordinate to John, and he does not need to change his allegiance, but he is standing with the people in their journey back into God’s way of life. He is fulfilling all righteousness; he is fulfilling what fidelity to the people requires.
So when God declares that Jesus is his son whom he loves, he is not only using a royal title to announce that Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world, God is also revealing that Jesus is the faithful son that Israel was supposed to be, that we are supposed to be.
Matthew has told his story to accent this. Jesus embodies our story as the people of God. So the wicked king tries to kill the baby Jesus just like the wicked pharaoh sought to kill not only Moses, but all the male children of Israel – and, thus, to destroy any future for the people of Israel. But God saved the child Jesus as God saved his people.
And Matthew has Jesus go down into Egypt and then come out of Egypt – just like Israel did. And Matthew arranges the teaching of Jesus into five blocks of material just like the Torah of Israel has five books. Jesus is the faithful Son, who teaches and lives the way of faithfulness for the world. Jesus is what Israel was called to be. What we were called to be.
And here is the big point: as Jesus stood with us in the baptism of repentance, as Jesus stood with God’s unfaithful people, so in our baptism we are drawn to stand with him as God’s faithful son.
Jesus became one of us, and walked with us, and shared our unfaithfulness so that we might become like him and walk with him and share his faithfulness.
I hope you are getting this, because this is really a big deal. He shared our faithlessness that we might share his faithfulness. He shared our life that we might share his life.
So I find myself thinking what would this mean to my father if he were among us this morning. His mind and heart are totally preoccupied with his sorrow and loss. And none of all this great stuff would mean much except that it all drives to this point: Jesus is one of us. He walks with us. He walks with my father through the hallways of that hospital and sits at the bedside of his beloved. He shares the tears. He prays the desperate prayers. He embraces his family members and listens politely to whatever the pastor has come to say and remembers none of it except that somehow the presence of the pastor has reminded him that God is here, even here. And that there is a community, a people, a congregation, whose hearts go out to him, who stand with him.
But, here is what my dad also needs to hear. As Christ is with him and with his beloved; his beloved is in Christ. She is all that Christ is. As Christ is beloved of the Father, she is beloved of the Father. As Christ is anointed with the Spirit/Breath of God, she shares in the Spirit/Breath of God. As Christ is the faithful son, she is the faithful daughter. As Christ is risen from the dead, she shares his resurrection life.
Christ is faithful to us and stands with us in the tears of the River Jordan. And Christ is faithful to us and brings us to stand with him in the waters of life.
It is a mystery. But it is a mystery full of grace – and a mystery to which we cling.