Sunday 12 January 2020
Baptism of the Lord
Today we celebrate the holiday called Baptism of the Lord. It’s based on one of the key stories of the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the few stories that is alluded to in all four of the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t agree on much, but they all agree that Jesus was baptized, and they’re all pretty sure that it was John who did it. But the details, and the relationship between John and Jesus are different in each gospel.
In Matthew’s gospel it goes like this: Jesus has already been introduced in the first two chapters. We know that he was born by his mother Mary and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We know that his earthly father, Joseph, is descended from King David. We know that he and his family were from Bethlehem. They actually lived there—they didn’t travel there for a census. We know that they were visited by wise men from Iran within two years of Jesus’s birth. We know that they left their home in Bethlehem and fled as refugees to Egypt when they heard that King Herod was trying to find him and kill him. And we know that when Herod died, they came back, but they didn’t stay in their old home in Bethlehem, they moved to a different region, Galilee, and to a new town, Nazareth. But we haven’t heard anything else about Jesus. He hasn’t had any lines yet. We haven’t seen him grow up. We only know him as a child who was moved from place to place by his parents.
John, though, we have heard a bit more about. Matthew hasn’t told us anything about his parents or his childhood. There is no indication in Matthew that he has any previous relationship with Jesus. But John has at least gotten some lines. He appears in the story, fully formed, out in the wilderness near the Jordan River, preaching a fire-and-brimstone message and baptizing the masses. “Repent,” he says, “because the Reign of God is near!” And when the religious authorities, the Saddudees and Pharisees, come out to be baptized by him, he he does not welcome them. He gives them quite the dressing down. He calls them snake spawn, and he preaches about axes chopping down trees and chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. He says that a new way is come, a new leadership is coming, and their old ways will be destroyed. He might say that he’s putting the fear of God into them.
With very little introduction, the adult Jesus appears on the scene for the first time. He travels down from Galilee, like many others who were attracted by John’s rebellious message, and he wants to be baptized. Only Matthew has the next detail, that John tries to keep Jesus from being baptized, that John tells Jesus their places should be reversed, that Jesus should be baptizing John. We aren’t told how he knows this. According to Matthew, they’ve never met before. No one knows who Jesus is. He hasn’t done anything remarkable in the story yet. At this point, he still hasn’t even spoken. But that is about to change. His first words in the Gospel of Matthew are, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” My lectionary group spent quite a bit of time talking about this verse, verse 15. It’s kind of hard to translate. We finally settled on “Jesus answered, ‘Let me be baptized now to fulfill all righteousness.’ And John let it be.” Though I’ve always associated Let It Be more with Paul than with John.
So John finally agrees to baptize Jesus. He lets it be. But when Jesus is coming up out of the water, that’s when the real miracle happens. Jesus emerges from the water, he looks up at the sky, and he sees something extraordinary. The heavens have opened up. The sky has been torn apart. The ancients had quite a different conception of how the universe was ordered, so it’s hard to say what they imagined when they heard this detail read. Did it look like a lightning storm? Could Jesus see angels flying around up in the divine realm? Did it just mean that it started raining like when God opened the windows of the heavens during the flood in the time of Noah? The heavens were opened. And Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove and landing on him. We aren’t told that anyone else could see these things, just Jesus.
There is also a voice from heaven. In Mark and Luke, the voice speaks to Jesus. It says “You are my beloved son.” But not in Matthew. In Matthew the voice speaks to the entire crowd, everyone who has been gathering around John. The voice says, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
It is miracle. A divine voice rumbles out of heaven and tells everyone the truth about Jesus. He is God’s son. He is God’s beloved. It makes Jesus special. It marks him as unique.
Or does it? According to all four gospels, Jesus never performs a baptism. Not once does he baptize someone else. But he does receive baptism. And so do we. Jesus commands that all of his followers be baptized. But what does it mean?
The baptisms John performed were generally considered to be a sign a repentance, a sign of the forgiveness of sin. But is that what baptism is for Jesus? Don’t we generally think of Jesus as being free of sin? So why does Jesus need to be baptized? That seems to be the same question that John is asking.
Well, for Matthew at least, Jesus’s baptism has something to do with his identity as son of God. It serves to make that identity clear, not only to Jesus himself, but to everyone who witnesses Jesus’s baptism. “This is my son,” says the voice from heaven.
What we don’t always admit, though, is what happens in our baptism. If our baptism were just for the forgiveness of sins, then we wouldn’t baptize babies. Presumably they haven’t done anything that they need to be cleansed. Certainly, most of the sinning days lie ahead of them, not behind. In early Christianity, sometimes people would wait to be baptized until they were near death so that they wouldn’t have a chance after their baptism of getting all dirty with sin again. But, of course, that’s not how we do it. We regularly baptize babies, children, and youth, and we don’t worry about the possibility that they might sin afterward. We know that they will. Cleansing from sin isn’t the main thing that’s happening in baptism, nor is baptism the once and only means of cleansing sin.
So what happens when we are baptized? It might seem a bit strange, but baptism for you and me may not be that different from what happens when Jesus is baptized. We may not hear a voice from heaven. But even if we don’t hear it, we know that when one of us is baptized, God says, “This is my beloved daughter, this is my beloved son, in whom I take delight.”
Baptism is a symbol and sign to us that we are part of God’s family. It is the sign of our adoption. It is the covenant and proof that we are children of the living God.
And as God’s children, we are called to behave accordingly. We are called to reject the spiritual forces of wickedness in our world. We are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We are called to put, not just some, but all of our trust in God. We are called to serve as Christ’s own representatives in the world, to be Christ’s own hands and feet, doing good to all. This is the obligation of our baptismal covenant. This is the call that is laid upon us as children of God, who have symbolically died with Christ and then been raised with Christ, our brother and forbear in the faith.
And today, as is our tradition each year on this holiday, we will reaffirm the covenant that was made at our baptism. We will say again the holy words, make again the promises. We will remember through words and signs who we are… and whose we are. We are God’s children, beloved and chosen, and we belong to God.