On the Baptism of Jesus
And 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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
At the Baptism seminar I lead for parents who have expressed an interest in having their children baptized I ask them to tell me what they recall or what they know of their own baptism. The polity of the United Church requires that at least one parent (or guardian) be a baptized Christian—parents do everything for their child, feed, house, clothe, nurture, and, at this early stage, they believe for them as well. If you have been baptized do you remember your baptism?
I remember mine vividly. I was raised in a Church that did not practise infant baptism—a person had to be old enough to make the faith commitment for themselves. I was eleven years old and there was concern expressed that I was perhaps too young. The deacons along with the pastor of the church interviewed people who had expressed a desire to be baptized. I remember being interviewed and then being informed that I could proceed with baptism. We were immersed in a tank of water—we got wet. The symbolism being that we died with Christ as we went under the water and raised to new life in him in coming out of the water. These are memorable experiences.
Perhaps you were baptized in infancy so what you have is a photograph of you on that day and godparents or relatives who remind you that they witnessed your baptism. It may be that you remember the day of confirmation in faith. A point came when the faith your parents baptized you into became your own; a day when you made your personal profession of faith and owned Jesus Christ as your own. No longer because your parents and Sunday school teachers taught you but now because faith is yours.
It may be that you have not been baptized. You have come to be connected with this congregation and faith in Jesus by a different road. Maybe you are exploring Christian faith. You might have even considered baptism but are unsure. You have seen children baptized here and once in a while an adult is baptised. Something (someone) compels you as you witness the baptism of others.
I invite all of you—the baptized, the confirmed, and those who have not been baptized—to come to Jordon river with me today and witness afresh the baptism of Jesus. There is something here we need to witness that will reveal why the church has this sacrament we call baptism. It arises out of the church’s conviction that in Jesus Christ we experience the knowledge surpassing love of God for humanity.
1. To do this we need to start at what we might call the 50,000 foot view of how this instance of Jesus’ baptism fits into the entire narrative of Jesus’ life. We will zoom out from our close up position at the bank of the Jordan and consider the broader view from the perspective of Matthew’s entire gospel.
I would concur with many scholars that Matthew writes this gospel just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 72 A.D. (or CE). By the time he writes Peter and Paul have been executed in the madness unleashed by Nero against the Christians. The church has now been in existence for about 35 years and many of the generation that would have witnessed Jesus alive have died. What is clear is that it has become the practise of the church for those who believe in Jesus to be baptized. In other words the sacrament of baptism has been foundational.
Come to the end of Matthew’s gospel and hear his recounting of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance pronouncements. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)
Matthew is reminding his hearers the source of what the church has been practising. We know from Luke’s gospel that in the days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension that Jesus showed them from the scriptures the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. He connected the dots for them and here in Matthew we have an instance of that teaching. Matthew tells you in the beginning of his gospel the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And here at the end of his gospel what that means for his people—make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
In Matthew’s mind this commission is directly linked to the story of Jesus own baptism. Why does the church Matthew writes to thirty-five years after Jesus resurrection and ascension baptize new disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Note that when Jesus comes out of the water the Spirit of God descends like a dove and alights on Jesus while we hear the voice of the Father—“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Note that the Triune God is present at our Lord’s baptism. Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit arises from Jesus’ baptism.
Now come back with me to the bank of the Jordan River. Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, he lines up with others who have said yes to John’s invitation to repent and get ready for the coming of the Lord. Jesus steps forward; John recoils and refuses to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John is correct, but Jesus asks him to proceed anyway “to fulfil all righteousness.” It must be this way, Jesus insists, if things are truly going to be set right (fulfil all righteousness). John cannot imagine how this could be so but he acquiesces and baptizes Jesus.
Whatever “all righteousness” entails at the heart of it is Jesus complete identification with us sinners. In this baptism story the gospels present Jesus as continuing the ministry of John the Baptist Jesus affirms John’s message that judgement is coming and repentance is the correct response. The one person who truly needed no such repentance joins the throng who do. This is the heart of the entire gospel; God comes among us to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. From the birth story where God takes on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth “to save his people from their sins” all the way to the cross where he will pour himself out without remainder for our sakes—Jesus identification with sinners is so complete that he who knew no sin became sin for us. And here at his baptism Jesus identifies himself completely with us. He does not stand on the bank observing the long line of the reprobates who clearly need some repenting—he joins the line.
Here is the heart of baptism. Just as in Jesus’ baptism he publically identifies himself with us sinners—an identification so complete that it will culminate at the cross, so too we in our baptism publically identify ourselves as belonging to Jesus, our crucified saviour. Baptism, the sacrament of initiation, is our declaration that we are clinging in faith to him. His identification with us sinners means his death so that our identification with him will mean for us life for ever more.
2. I invite you to reflect with me a little further on our Lord’s request to have John baptize him. Jesus said to John “let it be so now.” It is clear that John expected something else to be happening. Jesus’ request to subject himself to a baptism for the repentance of sin does not compute for John. Jesus is asking John to trust him at that point even though he does not understand how this can be for the fulfilment of all righteousness. John, I know this makes no sense to you but you need to trust me, “Let it be so now.” In doing so you will be an instrument with me in fulfilling all righteousness—an instrument in God’s initiative to set all things to right.
Reflect with me about John’s initial reaction to Jesus showing up o be baptized. Matthew’s gospel gives a glimpse into the content of John’s preaching with respect to the coming Messiah. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Perhaps John has just thundered something like this in a sermon. There is a long line of people waiting to be baptized now and to John’s utter astonishment Jesus happened to be one of them. In Matthew’s gospel there is no grand pronouncement from John to single Jesus out for all to see. Instead the picture is so very simple: Jesus just shuffles up like anyone else. John knows his cousin, of course, and so quietly pulls Jesus aside. “What gives? What are you doing in this line? Now’s your moment, Jesus! You take over now. You do the baptismal dunking, and then I’ll get in line to be baptized by you. Go for it!” But Jesus responds, “Shhhh. Don’t make a big fuss right now. Let’s just do this thing for the sake of righteousness. I know this feels like the wrong thing to do, but it’s right. It’s righteous.” Confused but obedient, John goes through with it, baptizing the one man he knows for sure has no sins of which to repent. John gives a bath to the only truly clean person who ever lived.
John is perplexed. “Where’s the fire?” The Messiah is supposed to set things right, to right wrongs, to judge and dispatch evil. Where is the winnowing-fork that will sift the grain and chaff? Instead Jesus shuffles up in the line with a group of repentant sinners to be baptized along with them. And Jesus implores John, “Let it be so now.” The idea here is “for now.” He is not saying that judgement is not coming but that something else has to happen. The judge must first take the place of the judged. This is why Jesus is in line for baptism.
We may wonder similar things to John. If Jesus, now risen from the dead and ascended, is in the place where all authority in heaven and on earth is his, why does wrong continue? Why does he allow the evil of disease to persist? Why do armed conflicts grow in number rather than recede? Why doesn’t’ he just show up and send the bad guys packing so the rest of us “good folks” can get on with making the world a great place uninhibited by setbacks and reversals?
Just as John wonders why Jesus was in line and not fixing the world in a more direct way we may wonder what possible purpose the incapacitation of a loved one due to illness serves. Jesus asks us to look to him and trust him that for now our daily care given for our loved one serves a purpose beyond what we can see and will lead to all things set right.
Just as John wondered why Jesus is in line we may ask,” Jesus what is this church thing you called us to do?” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Just as Jesus said “for now” to John, he says “for now” to the church.
We may not see how our witness to Jesus Christ can be part of fulfilling all righteousness but Jesus says to us “Let it be so now.” Just as Jesus said to John “it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” so to the church it is proper for us—meaning us along with Jesus. He asks us to trust him that he is calling a people through our witness to him. Trust him that though we would like all things set right now, it is best for us and the fulfilment of all righteousness that we “let it be so now.” Note that John baptized him; John obeyed. We too need to obey—making disciples and baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On November 7, 2016 the Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen died. The popularity of his music propelled many to write about his influence in their lives. I was intrigued what New York writer Sean Curnyn wrote in the journal First Things. Curnyn described Cohen as “the poet laureate a nation of … souls seeking truth through the fog of modernity.” I want to read a paragraph of this article for you; Curnyn’s assessment of Cohen is his own—what I invite you to hear is how Curnyn expresses his own spiritual journey.
“I plead guilty to having been one of those lost and (on a bad day) bitter souls attracted to the sound of Cohen’s mysteries. I became a listener in the 1980s, during my adolescence. At a certain later point, I fell out of love with Leonard Cohen’s songs, having acquired a notion that he was only fooling around. (A notion Curnyn later notes as incorrect) This notion likely had something to do with my hearing that he had moved into a Zen Buddhist monastery; this news came alongside my awareness that his songs were filled with all kinds of religious images and references, which cannily pushed the buttons of a broad panoply of wandering spirits. But I didn’t want my buttons pushed as a form of spiritual entertainment. I didn’t want to indulge in even the most clever ramblings of a disconnected religious tourist. I wanted to hear from someone who wasn’t playing around at all. (Emphasis mine) Eventually I settled on Jesus as being that one.”
When Jesus came to be baptized he is no religious tourist trying on various religious experiences. He isn’t pushing John’s spiritual buttons for spiritual entertainment. He isn’t playing around.
And 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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.