October 26, 2014

Homily for Baptism of Our Lord

baptism of jesus

In fact, I think we would benefit tremendously from having our identity established in God’s good and gracious acceptance and affirmation of us that comes from Baptism. Sometimes I wonder if amid all of our customary focus on baptism as washing away sin, we have missed the profound words of empowering grace that are spoken here to Jesus and also to us. For we, too, are God’s beloved children, those with whom God is well pleased.

- David Lose,
Baptismal Problems and Promises

* * *

The Gospels do not often let us in on Jesus’ thoughts and emotions. Unlike modern literature, which emphasizes the inner psychological workings of its characters, biblical stories focus on external words and actions to describe and characterize people. Nevertheless, on certain occasions it might not be stretching things to imagine what an event might have meant to one of the people to whom scripture introduces us.

One that invites such contemplation is portrayed in today’s Gospel — the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). I sense something of how Jesus may have experienced that auspicious occasion when I read the story in the Message version:

baptismJesusJesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

First, Jesus must have felt a remarkable sense of fulfillment that day. Peterson’s translation captures it well: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”

Many commentators, spoiled by dogmatic theology and centuries of debates over baptism, sometimes miss the essential Jewish and narrative nature of this story. John, in OT prophet’s garb, calls Israel back to the river where they first crossed into the Promised Land in the days after Moses had led them out of Egypt and through the desert. John is calling them to enter that land once again by passing through the waters as their ancestors did. The first Israelites followed the ark of the covenant through those waters, leaving behind years and years of slavery, wilderness wanderings, sin and rebellion, death and destruction. They entered a new life in a new land as God’s new creation. Led by Joshua, they took possession of God’s promises that day. The dust of death was washed away by the water of life.

Now in Jesus a new Joshua arrives! He steps into the river Jordan to “fulfill all righteousness” — to signify that God’s promise of making things finally and fully right is coming to pass. Taking his place with the repentant who are trusting God to end their exile, he leads them through the waters of baptism into newness of life.

All the Gospels affirm that this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ (see Mark 1:1). But it is not an absolute beginning. It is the beginning of the climax of the story that has been told since the first “beginning” (Genesis 1:1). It is the beginning of the long-awaited time of fulfillment. And Jesus knew it! He tells John here that the day has come. That must have been a profound moment for Jesus. Imagine it. Standing there in the water, on the threshold of a new creation!

BaptismOfLordSecond, Jesus must have felt a remarkable sense of affirmation that day.

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

That is such a pleasing paraphrase, and it drives home to me the deep emotional component of this moment. At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, before he had done a thing — before any teaching, before any healing, before any sign or wonder, before calling disciples, before preaching the Kingdom — God affirms his relationship to Jesus, his love for Jesus, his delight in Jesus.

How bracing, how encouraging, how reassuring that must have been! To know, to see, to hear, to feel, on day one, that he was fully accepted, fully loved, fully called and fully supported. It must have been just the ticket to strengthen Jesus as he prepared to venture forth into the villages of Israel to proclaim the Good News of God’s dawning reign.

* * *

If we accept the notion of Jesus as the one who leads the way for his people through the waters of baptism, then perhaps it is not a stretch to think that we should learn some lessons about our own baptisms from this story.

Perhaps we too can think of our lives in the context of God’s story of creation and new creation. Part of God’s plan to “fulfill all righteousness” — to put all things to rights — includes the promise that we will share in lives made right, relationships made right, communities and nations made right, a world made right forever. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the right, for they will be satisfied.”

Through baptism we enter into the age of fulfillment, and begin to taste of the powers of this age to come. To be sure, vast swaths of life remain disoriented, out of whack, not right. But we find ourselves in the “right” part of the story. The dust from the wilderness is being washed away, day by day. The vistas of the Promised Land lay before us, inviting us to explore them and participate in a growing newness of life and fruitfulness day by day.

Certainly this will be a journey that demands strength and stamina. So we also need to hear and see and feel what Jesus felt on the day of his baptism. For we too belong to God before we even take a step. God has chosen and marked us by his love. God smiles on us and calls us the delight of his life. As David Lose says, “…the message of baptism — that God has declared that we are enough, that God accepts us just as we are, and that God desires to do wonderful things for and through us — may be just what [we] desperately need to hear.”

I encourage us all to hear that message today. Amen.

Comments

  1. I love these posts on Baptism, Mike.

    In our Baptisms, God makes the Cross of Christ, and the empty tomb, concrete, real, tangible, in our lives.

    And He does it to us…totally apart from what ‘we do’, ‘feel’, ‘think’, or ‘say’. Pure gift. Pure promise. Wow.

  2. What you say sounds right.

    I wonder if there wasn’t also some ambivalence, though. Perhaps it is also possible that Jesus felt a sense of dread that day, if he at all anticipated how his baptism embodied an entry into direct battle against evil and sin. And I wonder if that dread isn’t fleshed out by the narrative when he is depicted as immediately being whisked out into the desert confrontation with Satan, and with temptation. It’s almost as if the narrative is saying that his baptism caused this confrontation to start, or intensify, at that particular moment.

    • Rereading this and the temptation passage, it occurs to me that the pronouncement that God makes can be seen as an announcement to the creation of who exactly Jesus is, an announcement that is a statement of blessing, but also, ironically, identifies Jesus before all creation as the one who will fulfill God’s work and promise, which makes Jesus a target of all those who oppose this work and promise. No wonder then that he immediately is whisked into the desert to face the devil and the temptations: he’s just been marked out before the spiritual powers, including the devil.

      Can we too expect, when we are baptized and/or live/die into our baptisms, that, along with being assured that we are beloved children of God, “chosen and marked” by him, that we will also face renewed and intensified attacks by all, both outside ourselves and within us, that opposes God’s reign and work? Perhaps that is the crux, the carrying one’s cross, of discipleship?

      • I know this is a little weird and tangental, but I have always wondered about the epistemology of spiritual beings. How do they know things? Do they have to experience things in time and space, like we do? If so, I wonder if there wasn’t a cloud of angels and demons surrounding Jesus’ baptism. It would seem to explain the apparently intense manifestation of demonic activity surrounding Jesus’ ministry. Anyway, like I said, a little weird and tangental.

        • Well, since they are created beings, angels and demons had a beginning, so they exist in time, even though it may not be the same dimension of time we exist in. From what little I know about it, modern physics sees time and space as inextricably linked, so that wherever the one exists, so does the other, so I would guess that angels and demons also exist in space, although also a different dimension of space than we do.

          If all this is true, the real mystery is how in God’s divine economy the space/time of angels and demons interacts with our space/time. Perhaps it is because human beings exist in both kinds of time/space, although we are far more aware of the one than the other?

          Weird and tangential.

      • Yes Robert, the story is also bigger, richer, and contains darker elements than I have highlighted in this brief meditation.

        • CM,
          I appreciate that you are using the Lectionary in these Sunday meditations. It helps me to reflect and pray around the readings as I hear them in the context of Sunday worship services. It helps me to prepare, to listen and to hopefully hear what the Lord is saying.

  3. Great reminder that our God loves and cherishes us even before we “do” anything…….no matter what our personal view of “doing” means.

  4. My pastor is doing a sermon series on these exact same verses, CM. What you write fits nicely with what I’ve heard him say, especially his focus today on God having chosen us and marked us with his love (which you’ve written about here, too).

  5. Chaplain Mike, what is the beautiful artwork at the top of this essay?

    • Here is the information I found: Baptism of Jesus by John the Forerunner
      About 1450, Tempera on wood 103 x 81.5 cm. The State Russian Museum, Moscow.
      From the festival row of the iconostasis of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, Tver.

  6. Dana Ames says:

    The Orthodox icons Ch Mike has chosen for this article show both the visible and the invisible aspects of the one reality, the latter represented by the angels, and the “ray from above” that calls attention to the Father’s presence and activity in whatever is going on (this is seen in several icons where something of great import is depicted).

    A helpful site for “decoding” icons is iconreader dot wordpress dot com. Enter “Theophany” in the search box; the first result that comes up is an article explaining the icon of the baptism of Christ.

    Fr Stephen Freeman at glory2godforallthings dot com has some good writings on Theophany; use search box near the top in the right-hand column. Robert, I think you would resonate with “The Theophany in Which We Live”.

    This is an extremely deeply meaningful feast, with many layers, and shot through with light.

    Another aspect that is spoken of in the Orthodox services for Theophany is that of God identifying himself with his creation; simply by entering the water, which everything needs for life, Christ is blessing it and sanctifying it, and through it every living thing. The goodness of creation and God’s love for it are affirmed. Orthodox congregations meet at the nearest body of water on 6 Jan and the priest or bishop chants prayers of blessing over it. The members of a church in Denver drive to a place on the Continental Divide, and the priest blesses the water as the snow that will eventually flow through a great swath of this country. Our parish’s priest has blessed creeks and the ocean. Just as Christ descends into the darkness of the waters in order to bless everything with life, at Pascha he descends into the darkness of death in order to conquer it and inaugurate the New Creation in the Resurrection.

    Peterson’s translation as “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” is very congruent with Wright’s “This is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” (Matthew for Everyone, I/20) Much more helpful for understanding the meaning in the text, and the sweep of the narrative, than the usual KJV or similar.

    Dana