Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, January 12, 2020 – The Baptism of our Lord A
The Baptism of our Lord A – January 12, 2020
Prayer of the Day – O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Isaiah 42:1-9 – Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Psalm 29 – The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
Acts 10:34-43 – You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The question that often comes up in churches is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?” Church people are most likely to ask this question, since they will be familiar with the idea that Jesus was sinless and John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Why does someone who is sinless need repentance and forgiveness?” they will ask. Newcomers to the church may not come with this burning question on their minds. In either case, the story gives the preacher an excellent opportunity to talk about the meaning of baptism, the kickoff of Jesus’ public ministry or both.
We read the first twelve verses of Matthew 3 several weeks ago on Advent 2. We learned that John appeared preaching in the wilderness. That alone tells us something. He’s ascetic, perhaps monastic, seeking a purer spirituality apart from the corrupted religious system and leaders of his day. Reform often begins from the fringes, in this case, the fringes of Jerusalem and the fringes of the Temple system. John does not start and Jerusalem or in the temple, but instead across the Jordan. “All Jerusalem went out to him.”
Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism. (There were, however, dozens.) The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared (3:1). Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. They also felt the mediation of priests and sacrifices was unnecessary, and inevitably tainted by love of money. They would, therefore be a threat to the economic system of the Temple maintained by the priests and by Rome together. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes says they, “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion.
N.T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says, a one-time conversion of repentance. This makes Jesus’ baptism even more curious. Is this a conversion? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic: http://youtu.be/CwWmNT2a7H0
Contrary to Wright, Reza Aslan (Zealot) points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. The Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times.
We also learned back in Advent the core of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)
By the way, get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke and 2x in John. (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times.) In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This would suggest Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community.
Note that John the Baptist says the kingdom is coming to us. We are not going to it. It’s coming to us, and it is close. Jesus will teach his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come… On earth…”
The way to prepare for the kingdom of heaven coming, is to repent. Baptism is a sign of that repentance. This message must have had incredible traction in its day, and in its context (Rome brutally occupying Israel), because Matthew says “all Judea went out to see him.” He is drawing a crowd, and even the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and finally Jesus himself.
Consider this passage from Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
This sprinkling/washing is to cleanse Israel from its idolatry and other uncleannesses. This sprinkling replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and puts God’s Spirit in them.
John is in line with the prophetic voices of the Old Testament:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18:30)
What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt. Idolatry, adultery, neglecting the hungry and naked, robbing the poor through predatory lending (usury).
If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, 9 follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully, such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 18:5-9)
What helps us understand the need for Jesus’ baptism is to move beyond an individualistic interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew) says John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. It’s not just about the individual repenting/turning. The nation as a whole must repent. Those who submit to this baptism therefore are saying, “Yes. I’m in.” Certainly Jesus was all about Israel turning to God, because the kingdom of heaven, where the poor are blessed, is coming. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed it did, in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus, in his baptism, repents on behalf of all Israel.
It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word:
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Even John protests to baptizing Jesus.
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. (Matthew 3:11)
Jesus says it is proper “to fulfill all righteousness.” Eric Barreto points out that “righteousness” is a difficult term. It means: justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence and redemption. He suggests it means something they are doing in obedience to God. Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Perhaps Jesus is just saying, “Relax John, and roll with it. It’s the right thing to do.” John finally relents and Jesus is baptized. John sees the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Then there is a voice from heaven.
In his sermon from January 6, 1534, on Jesus’ baptism, Luther understands Epiphany as the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is 30, he posits. Jesus’ baptism is the christening of his earthly ministry. Luther says he wishes Epiphany was called, “The Baptism of Christ.” He would be delighted to know we now have a Sunday called just that.
Jesus need not submit to baptism, Luther says, but he does anyway. He does more than what is required. The gospel frees us from the law, but it always invites us to do more than what is required, not less.
Jesus’ vocation and calling are confirmed by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Luther points out God’s voice comes with nothing but kindness, grace and mercy. If you want a gracious, loving God, cling to Christ, Luther tells us.
When we submit to baptism as Jesus did, we too are embraced by the loving grace of God. We too are called into ministry. Make no mistake, baptism is a call to repentance, a call to grace and a call to ministry. We emerge from the waters of baptism as beloved sons and daughters, called to carriers of God’s grace to the world. We are cleansed of our sin, and filled with the Spirit.
Everyone needs to hear that they are God’s beloved child, loved unconditionally, precious. We also need to hear the call to share that with others, to be a part of what God is doing and saying in the world.
It seems to me we must do affirmation of baptism on this day. We must sprinkle the people with water calling to remembrance their baptism, and inviting them to reflect on the ministry to which God has called them. Perhaps as a preacher, it would be good for you to reflect on the ministry to which God has called you, and share some of that with your people, reminding them that all the baptized are called into ministry, not just pastors and deacons.