Baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
When I was 12 years old, I was confirmed by Bishop Ralph Wicks at Ekibin Anglican Church. I was confirmed at my grandparent’s urging. I was also baptised at my grandparent’s urging. My family didn’t attend church, so it didn’t really matter to my parents.
But for my grandparents, this was important. After I was confirmed, I didn’t attend church or even think about God again until much later in my life. I was “all done” wasn’t I? I mean, I’d been baptised and confirmed, so the journey was finished right?
And there is the problem – despite the church’s best intentions and all we try to communicate, usually the baptism of the baby or young person is seen as the end of the faith activity, and we are “all done”. Today’s reading from Matthew about the baptism of Jesus, tells us the exact opposite. We don’t see the ending of a ministry but the launch pad and commissioning of it.
For some of us, the Old Testament and Gospel readings today might feel like comfortable and familiar territory. The prophetic words from Isaiah about the coming of the servant Jesus and the miracles that will accompany his work – “a light for the Gentiles, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing those in captivity”. We remember the familiar story about John the Baptist in the desert, this wild man eating locusts and honey, baptising his cousin Jesus in the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and God’s voice is heard. Every time we step into this church, we even walk past the descending dove / carved into the side of our baptismal font.
But the baptism of Jesus is hugely significant for the gospel writers. It is described, or at least made mention of, in all four gospels. Even the birth of Jesus, which we have just spent great energy and enthusiasm celebrating, is recorded in only three of the gospels. So this is something to take special note of. To attend, listen carefully and ponder on this.
The Isaiah reading that we have heard today has generated much discussion about how it relates to the New Testament. Who is this “Servant of God”? Is it a single person, or is it a group such as Israel, or is the identity symbolically describing a set of behaviours rather than a specific identity? The important point for us today is that the author of the Gospel of Matthew found in this passage a prophecy about the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus shaped his ministry using the symbols, imagery and visions of the scripture that he was familiar with. And on this Sunday when we remember his baptism, we should try to hear the words of Isaiah as Jesus would have understood them. Jesus clearly felt inspired by the model of ministry reflected here. After all, when he comes to the Synagogue in Nazareth, he quotes directly from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Jesus received these words of Isaiah as powerfully as it is possible to receive them. His ministry did take care of the bruised reed. He cupped his hands around the dimmest wicks until they shone. Thomas Merton says “his place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, those who are denied the status of persons. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.” The practices cherished by the prophet Isaiah inspired Jesus and they should inspire us as well.
When Jesus rises up out of the Jordan waters, newly baptised, he embraces this vision of leadership expected from one called by God: patient, non-violent, merciful. A portrait of tender care and justice for the vulnerable. Can you imagine our modern politicians standing on a platform of tender care and support – unlikely to succeed I think. However, Isaiah insists that this vision of leadership / which is merciful and hungers for justice / is tougher than most. The life of Jesus was a passionate response to God’s call for this new way of living.
Baptism as we understand it today, is a sacrament of the church, and the way that people are formally brought into full membership of the Christian Community by having water poured over them. But what does the baptism of Jesus mean? What is the purpose?
Theologians, such as Calvin, have commented that if John is preaching a “baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), then this is clearly not something that Jesus requires. In the gospel today, John expresses his confusion when Jesus arrives at the River Jordon and even states that “John would have prevented” Jesus from being baptised. Jesus has to convince him to go ahead.
In verse 11 (a couple of verses before our reading today) the Greek word used to describe the baptism John offers is meta-nonia which has connotations of transformation or turning. There is certainly a point here of Jesus turning from one way of life to another. The biblical record of his life has been silent since the childhood and birth narratives, and here he is moving from his life as a carpenter, and responsibilities associated with being the eldest son of his family, to those associated with his public ministry and messianic purpose.
In his baptism, the identity of Jesus in relationship with the Holy Trinity is affirmed and confirmed. Today’s Psalm reminds us exactly who it is who is calling Jesus “beloved Son”– it is the God of heaven and earth who spoke all things into being. In Psalm 29’s powerful nature imagery, it is clear that the God who broke the cedars of Lebanon, and tore the skies open, this God of all elements, earth, fire, wind and water, sends the Holy Spirit as a winged messenger into the river Jordan. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have been there and witness the revelation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit powerfully converging in a poor Galilean man, praying on the muddy banks of the Jordan.
In his baptism, Jesus is also called into solidarity with humanity. In the mystery of his baptism, Jesus shows what it means for the Logos, the Word of God, to become incarnate. Entering the messiness, chaos and vulnerability of humanity.
The celebration of the baptism of Jesus gives us time to reflect on our own baptism and what it means. Rowan Williams says that just as Jesus came up out of water, receiving the spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptised Christian, the voice of God says “you are my child” as that individual begins their new life in association with Jesus. But our Christian life is never a one-stop event, it is a continuing engagement with God, being drawn and being called.
God continually calls us to step out, to take God’s hand and engage in God’s loving work in the world. Each Easter time there is time to renew our baptismal vows to witness to the new things that the spirit is stirring and birthing within us. There are no guarantees that the road won’t be challenging. In fact, Rowan Williams also suggests that baptism should come with a health warning! “If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very very dangerous.”
We certainly see this in Jesus as he steps into his ministry which leads to the cross and beyond. I’m not suggesting that baptism should be approached with terror but the vows we commit to should not be entered into lightly. We are called to stand in solidarity with humanity, in the pain, grief, sin and fear of the world, while at the same time entering the heart of God’s love, forgiveness, joy and peace with renewed commitment.
Malcolm Guite’s poem, The Baptism of Christ, speaks to the solidarity, commitment and renewal that God continually calls us into.
Beginning here, we glimpse the three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Spirit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings,
“You are beloved, you are my delight!”
In that swift light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river,
To die and rise and live and love forever.”