Is Baptism Still Relevant?
The Scripture reading last Sunday, you recall, was from the Gospel of John which offered a unique epiphany of Jesus. Frequently, we read of the Epiphany of Jesus to the Magi, or the three wise men. This is the first presentation of Jesus to the Gentiles, the Son of God has appeared in the world and that the message Jesus brings will include all of humankind, to both Gentiles and Jews. Instead we hear the words of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. As Susan Hedahl says, that reading ties the implied presence of Jesus the Christ to God and as God from all eternity. The birth of Jesus is told not in human terms of geographical location, genealogy or human realities but in terms of time, space and matter. The Word, the Christ, was an agent of creation.
The mornings reading moves to the Gospel of Matthew, and the baptism of Jesus.
I’m going to step back a moment and put this reading into context. The 3rd chapter of Matthews begins with the proclamation of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea, beginning his own ministry of Baptism. His message is Repent, for the Kingdom of God draws near. In the Gospel of Luke John addresses the crowds who ask what actions should be taken as part of their repentance. He tells them to share resources, coats, clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors to only collect only the amount prescribed. He tells the roman soldiers to be satisfied with their pay, and not to extort money by means of false accusations or by threats.
Perhaps John’s overarching message is to be good citizens in the community. Care for one another, Treat each other well. Do not abuse power or authority entrusted to you. As subjects of the Roman empire, anyone who was not a roman citizen was vulnerable to exploitation without recourse. The Jewish authorities of the time were appointed by Rome and so kept their jobs by complying with the wishes of the local Roman officials. I believe the Baptists message was one of reconciliation and an encouragement to affirm Judaism’s culture expressed in their sacred texts. So, this would be of concern to the temple’s priests.
John the Baptist is for real but he tells the crowds another is coming who is greater than I. The waters of the river Jordan will be nothing compared to the baptism of Spirit and fire which will characterize the coming one. Repent, the Kingdom of God draws near.
Keeping in mind that both John and Jesus would have been raised in the Jewish faith tradition, what change of mindset was being asked of those who agreed to be baptized? Repent, change your ways that more closely aligns with Kingdom expectations. Perhaps a mindset of scarcity? Not enough to go around? If you have two coats give one away? Share your food with the sojourner and migrants. Don’t manipulate the system, twist the rules for you own gain? Bear fruit worthy of repentance, in other words those in your tribe should be able to see the difference in your heart by the difference in your actions. To those in power John tells them don’t expect your family heritage to save you, for judgement is coming and you are no greater than the rocks from which God could raise children.
Into this scene comes Jesus. Jesus would have observed John and his disciples standing in the rushing waters of the Jordan river, immersing men, women and maybe children under the water, symbolizing cleansing and a new start. When Jesus approaches John and asks to be baptized, John recognizes Jesus as the one who is to come and says no, no you need to baptize me. The scripture reading has Jesus saying: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.
I wonder why Jesus thinks this is an action he should take. Scholar John Nolland suggests that perhaps Jesus wanted to affirm John’s ministry in light of the crowds that were at the river. Here I quote “Perhaps Jesus wanted to be publicly identified with the radical orientation towards God to which people were committing themselves in coming for baptism.” Is baptism a radical thing in the 21st century? Are we still following John’s words to share our resources, obey just laws, and work together as a community?
Or perhaps Jesus was simply following the leading of the Spirit. We’ll never know, but we do know that John acquiesces to Jesus’ request for Baptism. Nolland suggests that “the act of baptism is a fitting beginning for Jesus’ ministry. It begins a sequence of events which will build on John’s ministry of fulfilling all righteousness.” I take that to mean in our daily lives we should strive to be kingdom citizens, right living, right actions, right words which reflect God’s love for God’s people. Being restored and striving for right relationship with the Holy. Restoring the Shalom between heaven and earth.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew reports that heavens were opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice, this is my son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.
The heavens opened to him, I assume Jesus, and Jesus saw the anointing of the Spirit gently descending on him, not a smack in the face but like a leaving falling. And Jesus hears the voice of his Parent who is pleased with him. This apocalyptic revelation is somewhat common in the Hebrew scriptures. The book of Ezekiel opens with the prophet reporting that the heavens opened to him and he had a vision of the Holy. Many of the prophets hear the voice of the Lord or see visions.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew reaches into this rich Jewish history and puts Jesus squarely in line with experiences of the prophets. The author makes no mention that others around Jesus heard or saw anything so I make the assumption this was a very private epiphany, meant for Jesus alone, to help sustain him for the road he would walk.
The words echo those of the prophet Isaiah this morning where we read Here is my servant, who I uphold my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
We further read how this servant will function as the hands and feet of the Lord. The servant will not grow faint or be crushed until justice has been established and the coastlands wait for instruction. The bruised one will be tended to and those with faintly burning passions with be nurtured, not ostracized. Their wicks will be carefully trimmed to encourage further flame, not extinguished.
It is common to ascribe this passage as speaking about Jesus but perhaps it is really calling into existence the body of Christ. Just as John the Baptists message invited a radical response to the culture wars in first century Judea so to does the message to Isaiah from the Lord invite us to be live contrary to our cultural norms. I believe this requires us to reject our societal idols of power and money and instead pursue kingdom values of compassion, love of God and neighbor, and mercy. In the litany for baptism this morning we prayed for restoration of our ears to hear God’s word speaking to us to pursue restoration of our mother earth, pursue justice and hold accountable those in power to harken to God’s word.
If that is our desire, truly our desire, then true repentance and renewed action to achieve these goals must follow. I invite you, beloved, to sit with this morning’s Scripture readings and consider what journey God is calling you to undertake, as a suffering servant to pursue.
May it be so.