by Fr. Ron Stephens, St. Andrew’s Parish, Warrenton
Today’s feast concludes the Christmas season, and so we continue to probe the mystery of Jesus as son of God and son of Mary, the mystery of Jesus who is totally human and yet also fully son of God. But at this point in our Christmas reflections on the coming of Jesus into our world, we also look at the event of his baptism, which is recorded in the three synoptic Gospels: of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three Gospels that have the closest kinship of content.
In each of these Gospels the scene is presented as a very pivotal point in the life of Jesus, a very important turning point. As we reflect on what is happening here in the life of Jesus, it is important for us to connect it with our own lives, with our baptisms and what that means for each one of us.
Mark describes the baptism of Jesus a little differently from the way that Matthew and Luke do. As you remember, Mark was written first, the soonest Gospel to have been composed after Jesus had died, was risen from the dead and was raised to heaven. The early community at that point was still trying to grapple with the whole idea of who Jesus was, his identity. So they were very aware of his humanness. These are disciples who had lived with him and seen him as one like us in every way; they were still trying to get used to the idea that this Jesus is also son of God. Fully divine.
One of the problems of Mark’s Gospel that was beginning to worry the early Christian community was Christ’s sinlessness. If Jesus was the Son of God, he would have to be sinless. So Matthew’s problem was the sinlessness of Jesus—how could the sinless One submit to a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin?
In the earliest Gospel there is not a trace of concern about Jesus’ sinlessness in the narrative. All the stress is on the persons of John and Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” This made it very clear for Mark’s readers who was the more important person.
Another problem existed because there was a “baptist” sect which held that John was the bearer of God’s final revelation, in competition with the Christian Church. This made the story of Jesus’ baptism embarrassing for Christians. It would seem that by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus tacitly admitted John’s superiority to himself, and therefore sided with the “baptists” against the Christians.
In today’s Gospel Matthew explains Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism by inserting this little dialogue, in which Jesus gives the reason: “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” This word recalls the same use of the word in Isaiah 42:6 in the first reading today from Isaiah: “I have called you in righteousness,” that is, in order to fulfill my purpose in salvation history. Thus, Jesus’ reply to John underlines the servant place of Christ in the baptism narrative. Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism was part of God’s plan, so that Jesus would be manifested as the servant of God, now about to embark upon his mission.
Matthew’s second change is in the wording of the voice from heaven. In Mark’s Gospel as you read about the baptism of Jesus you discover that Jesus, in his humanness, isn’t sure about himself, his own identity and what God wants of him. So when Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, rose from the water, Mark describes what happened as a spiritual experience of Jesus. No one else knew what was happening when Jesus deep in his own spirit heard those words: “Here is my chosen one, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus heard those words within himself, Mark says, and because he knew the scriptures so well, he immediately connected them with that passage from Isaiah, which was our first lesson today; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Jesus began to have a sense of what his call was.
In Matthew’s Gospel, as you heard a moment ago, the story is somewhat different. Matthew’s Gospel, written later than Mark’s, and more aware that Jesus was fully God put more of an emphasis on that. It was also a time when the some of the followers of John the Baptist still were refusing to follow Jesus. Matthew now has God speaking for everyone to hear. It was a way for the church to declare: “Jesus is God. God says it all here, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.‘ ” It shows us how gradually the church began to understand Jesus and came to accept fully the profound mystery that Jesus was son of God and son of Mary. Fully human and fully divine. A mystery that we rejoice in and celebrate as we have these past few weeks every year.
The other thing that is so important today is what Jesus heard about himself and what this meant. As a human, he was beginning to understand his identity and his call. He heard God saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.‘“ Again I remind you that as Jesus started to reflect on those words, he would have known immediately what they meant. He knew that Isaiah said: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you: I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
But Matthew wants to make it quite clear that the baptism is more like an ‘epiphany’ declaring to the Church the true identity of Jesus: he is the servant of God, fulfilling in his person the mission of the servant as depicted in Second Isaiah.
Jesus had a mission to change the world, to go out into the world and transform it, but what is especially important, and Jesus had to reflect on this deeply, was how he was to bring justice to all the nations, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness.
How? Again from Isaiah: “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 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
It’s clear, isn’t it, that Jesus has a very special way in which he’s called to bring justice. Not by proclamations cried out in the street, a call to war, to violence. That’s what those words mean in the Hebrew text. Calling out in the streets was calling people to arms. No, that’s not the servant of God. Rather you will act always with gentleness, with love, with compassion, in a nurturing way. He will not quench the dimly lit flame, but rather nurture it, draw it to fullness. He will not break the bruised reed, but again nurture, bring to life, to care in tenderness and love. That’s the way of the servant and clearly Jesus begins to understand that’s how he must act. This is how he is to bring true justice which will bring true peace to all the nations. This will truly change our world from a place of violence and hatred, killing and war to as close an image to the reign of God as possible.
Why was Jesus baptized? Christ has come not only to reveal the divinity to us; he has come to reveal us to ourselves. Not only is he truly God. He is truly human. And he is truly human precisely because he does not sin. All of our sin is nothing other than the rejection of the truth of our humanity. Jesus’ utter acceptance of our humanity, his drinking of our cup fully, his sharing of our wounded condition, reverses our sinful rejection of our creatureliness.
His baptism, then, is at the heart of his mission to heal us. He accepts full solidarity with us even if it means being seen as sinner. Jesus’ baptism is one of his earliest great transformations of our human condition. The first was that the Word itself could take human flesh. And that is what we have been celebrating this whole Christmas season.
Just as we now baptize our children to announce a new fate for the human body, the baptism of Jesus is the inauguration of that fate. Announced as sinner, wholly one with our condition, Jesus, hovered over by the very spirit of God, is gazed upon by the Father who sent him and who now says to him and all of us who share his flesh—“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It is significant, it is an epiphany, it is good news, that Jesus hears he is the “beloved Son, with whom [God] is well pleased” before his public ministry begins. This exalted identity revealed at his baptism is the starting point for all that he will undertake—his self giving ministry, death, and resurrection. It is because Jesus knows who he is that he does as he does. What Jesus does and will do throughout his ministry flows from understanding clearly who he is. The Son of God is called, not to power or privilege, but to service and self-giving.
As we begin Ordinary Time next Sunday, we do so knowing that in our own baptism God has named us beloved sons and daughters. Like Jesus, all that we undertake must flow from who we are—God’s beloved.
How refreshing for American believers to realize that Jesus, too, had to discover his identity, discern God’s will for him, and pursue his destiny. Jesus’ beliefs helped him. How do our beliefs help us?
Baptism identifies us as God’s beloved children and our mission is to follow Jesus to help create the kingdom of God—a kingdom of justice, healing, liberation, etc. In our baptism there is a purifying by water, but also an enlightening by the Spirit who asks us to go beyond our boundaries, beyond the familiar, beyond our level of comfort. Our natural lives go into the waters and begin a rebirth to shine our lights in the same direction as those of Jesus. He began going public by becoming obedient to his true identity. Let us pray that we find out identity through Christ in OUR Baptism, and that we too can hear the words You are my son and daughter, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
And this is the Good News of Jesus’ and our baptism today!
Baptism of the Lord (2010)
by Fr. Charles Irvin
The Baptism of the Lord: His Beginning and Ours
by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild
Theophany - The Baptism of The Lord
by Fr. Andrew
The Power of Baptism (Homily for Baptism of the Lord)
by Fr. Phil Bloom
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Denaha (the Baptism of Jesus Christ)
The Sacrament of Baptism
The Sacrament of Repentance
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