- Isaiah 42:1-9
- Psalm 29
- Acts 10:34-43
- Mathew 3:13-17
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translations, here.
Baptisms are pretty special. It appears that a baptism can be incredibly personal while being entirely communal – when someone in the world is baptized, the ceremony is as much about the whole church as it is about the person being baptized. I think that’s a pretty cool thing.
Because of the nature of baptisms, I want to start a little bit before the Gospel reading for today. And I want to spend a little time talking about the uniqueness of three kinds of baptism: the baptism offered by John the Baptizer, our own baptism, and Jesus’ baptism. Different from each other in meaning and context, yet somehow linked in one very particular way.
We’d spoken about John’s baptizing the many people who come to him in the wilderness at the beginning of the Advent season. A quick recap on what John was doing may still be a good idea.
John the Baptizer was calling on the people of his faith community to repent: to turn around from their current behaviours, to remember all that God has done for them, and to recommit themselves to their relationship with God through the act of baptism. The story of the Jewish people is changing a bit.
We can sort of understand John’s call to the people to be baptized. I have always felt that what John was doing in the wilderness was the beginnings of what we as Lutherans have come to know as Confession & Forgiveness with a smattering of what would make up a portion of our own Baptismal rite.
I teach that Confession & Forgiveness is a time in each worship service of reorienting ourselves to God’s will. We know that we are all too capable of sin, daily, sometimes willingly and sometimes unknowingly. We confess what we have done or not done, and things we have failed to do, because we are aware that without the help of God, we always fall short. The words of forgiveness offered after our confession take us out of the potentially overwhelming dark sense of failure and shortcomings, and provide us with the light of God’s promise and eternal hope so that we can live our lives in tune with God’s will for us and for the world. We are reminded of God’s action.
Through Confession & Forgiveness, we are reminded of the promises of baptism.
I teach that baptism is a ritual of becoming a member of our faith community; it is a dying to sin and rising in faith; it is about salvation: a form of cleansing, a washing away – if you will – of our sinfulness. It is the ultimate Forgiveness. It’s overly simple to say that, or to say washing away. Because, all of human history has shown that  it doesn’t seem to matter how much the one being baptized wants to be clean or that  the pastor, or any person for that matter, pouring water over the head of a new baptismal candidate is not going to keep any person from being a sinner. It’s not a washing like that of a daily shower, or doing dishes or laundry. All things that get dirty generally need to be cleaned – but unlike the water used for those daily chores, the waters of baptism are more than. That dish or shirt, when cleaned is still the same dish or shirt. Through the cleansing waters of baptism, our story changes a little bit – we change a little bit, and not simply because of our going in and out of the water.
Baptism is the water combined with God’s words, promise, and the gift of faith, is not about our actions but about God’s action, in us and in the world. We enter the waters of baptism by way of our public and communal ceremony; we are invited into God’s promise of relationship and life eternal, and we emerge with an identity that claims us as members of the body of Christ, heirs of the eternal promise, and precious children of God. God’s action.
So, let’s return to our Gospel text.
Back in the wilderness, John the Baptizer is offering the people of his faith a reorientation to God’s will. He is preparing the way of the one who will show everyone The Way: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And, at that time, Jesus came to Galilee, to the Jordan River, so that John would baptize him.
I suspect that John may have been a little surprised and overwhelmed by this. After all, he had proclaimed to all who could hear that the mighty Lord, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire was so great that John was unworthy to even touch his sandals. That Lord just asked to partake in John’s baptismal rite that was for the repentance and reorientation of the Jewish people to God’s will.
When John baptizes Jesus, the story changes a little bit.
This text about the baptism of Jesus is not about particularly about baptism itself. It’s not about a baptism like those John has been offering the people out in the wilderness, and it’s not like our own baptism. It is a sort of culmination of a story about identity.
The story of Jesus birth and childhood in Matthew are written in a way that wants to make clear that Jesus is the Son of God and Son of Man. In the first two chapters of Matthew we hear and learn that Jesus “has been:
- contextualized in God’s life-giving, ruling activity among Israel and the nations (1:1-17),
- divinely commissioned from conception to manifest God’s saving presence (1:18-25),
- born of Mary (1:25-2:1),
- threatened by the murderous King Herod (2:1-23),
- homaged by the magi (2:1-12),
- neglected by the Jerusalem leaders (2:3-6),
- protected by Joseph (2:13-23),
- attested by the scriptures (2:1-23),
- guided by God (2:1-23),
- and witnessed to by John (3:1-12).”
Today’s Gospel reading a lot like one of those required biblical steps in the story of identity. In the Gospel of Matthew, the very first thing Jesus does as an adult is to step into the Jordan river and ask John to baptize him. Jesus goes down into the Jordan river to be baptized – not to reorient himself to God’s will, but to announce who he is as he accepts the call and commitment to God’s promise to the world and begins the ministry of God in the world.
In many ways, Jesus’ baptism is nothing like ours. His is not a story about seeking forgiveness for his sins and a re-commitment to God’s will. Jesus’ baptism is God speaking into the world: “This is my Son.” The baptism of Jesus opens the heavens and shows the world the Triune – the I AM, the Father; Jesus, the Son; and the Holy Spirit. The story is all about God’s action breaking into the world.
The story of God’s action.
That’s something that we have a little bit of experience with.
When Jesus is baptized, not only is the identity of Jesus as the Son of God confirmed, but God’s love and relationship to Jesus is affirmed. These two things are made tangible in hearing the voice of God and having the Spirit of God descend from heaven and rest on Jesus.
Jesus life and ministry is not easy. He will face questions that seek to show him to be a fraud, anger at actions that challenge the status quo of Jewish law, temptations to turn from God, and followers who constantly fail to understand his teachings. Despite all the struggles, challenges, and dark moments – God’s love and relationship to Jesus never changes.
That is an important message for us. Especially at this time of year.
When most, if not all, of creation around us is in slumber, we wait in darkness for the growing light. In this time of Epiphany, we do something similar – we look for those moments of Light: Christ revealed and announced to the world. And we remember that no matter the struggle, challenge, or dark moments – God’s love for us and God’s relationship with us never changes.
The story is always about God’s action.
May we always have Light to see.
Let us pray,
God of grace and glory, you call out to us with your voice of flame, inviting us to be your people, faithful and courageous. Help us recall our own baptism as we remember that by the Spirit and the baptismal water, Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved son. As your beloved Son, Jesus, embraced his mission in the waters of baptism, empower and inspire us with the fire of your Spirit to participate in your story – your transforming action in us and in the world. We ask this in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
- Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” Preach This Week: Gospel, January 09, 2011. Working Preacher.
- Warren Carter. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” Preach This Week: Gospel, January 08, 2017. Working Preacher.
- Karoline Lewis. “You Are All My Beloved.” Preach This Week: Dear Working Preacher, January 01, 2017. Working Preacher.
- David Lose. “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name” Dear Partner: January 04, 2017. …in the Meantime.
- Martin Luther. “‘This is My Son, The Beloved’: Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus: The Epiphany of our Lord (January 6, 1534).” World & World, Volume XVI, Number I (Winter 1996, pgs. 7-10).
- Karyn Wiseman. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” Preach This Week: Gospel, January 12, 2014.
This week’s image is entitled, “The Baptism.” It is a hand-coloured etching from the Rosentaler Suite by Adi Holzer, created in 1997. You can find out more about the artwork here, and of the artist here. This image is free to use and modified for the purposes of this blog.