The first Sunday in
the season of Epiphany traditionally is the Sunday we read about the
baptism of Jesus. The
selection this year is from the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
I encourage you to follow along in your pew Bible as I read the
text from a different translation which I think uses language that is
both more powerful and easier to understand.
Reading then from the Scholars Version, a translation that has
only been done for the Gospels:
Then Jesus comes
from Galilee to John at the Jordan to get baptized by him.
And John tried to stop him with these words;
“I’m the one who needs to get baptized by you, yet you come
to me?” In response, Jesus said to him, “let it go for now.
After all, in this way we are doing what is fitting and
right.” Then John
deferred to him. After
Jesus had been baptized, he got right up out of the water,
and--amazingly—the skies opened up, he saw God’s spirit coming
down on him like a dove, perching on him, and—listen!—there was a
voice from the skies, which said, “This is my favored son—I fully
approved of him!” Matthew 3:13-17
John the Baptist is
one of the most colorful figures of the Bible, sort of a “Howard
Stern” of first century Palestine.
He is often portrayed as a lunatic or a wild man of the Jordan,
living off the land and dressed in animal skins.
So much attention has been given, however, to his unusual
appearance and fiery preaching that the significance of what he was
doing, baptizing people in the Jordan River, has nearly been lost.
Baptism was a
religious rite performed exclusively in the Jewish tradition by priests
and normally in the Jerusalem temple as a ritual of purification for
those converting to Judaism. John,
however, was baptizing not proselytes who wished to become Jewish, but
Jews who wished to prepare themselves for the coming day of the Lord, a
day which will not be kind to sinful people of which John considers the
religious leaders to be the worst. I don’t know if he would have
thought religious leaders today are much different. Using baptism in
this way was a way of ridiculing the authority of those religious
leaders. In other words, this was a way for John to thumb his nose at
them in a very prominent and symbolic way. But they were not the only
ones so challenged.
John could have
chosen any body of water. He
could have baptized them in the Sea of Galilee.
There is a large population in and around that fishing haven so
it would be an easy place to draw a crowd but he didn’t use the Sea of
Galilee. He could have used
the Mediterranean Sea. Everyone
enjoys an outing to coastal beaches, catch a few rays, play in the surf
and drop in on the evening revival for a complete trip.
Think of the possibilities for advertising!
But John didn’t choose the Mediterranean.
For that matter, John could have used the local watering hole.
Get your sins forgiven and thirst quenched all at the same time!
But John didn’t use the local watering hole.
John chose the Jordan
River, not exactly known for its mighty waters, good fishing or vacation
resorts. But the Jordan was
known for one thing and known by all.
Crossing the Jordan was the symbol for entering the Promised
Land. Thus to baptize in
the Jordan River while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah was to
announce the establishment of a new kingdom, the reign of God on earth.
In other words, where baptizing anywhere might have been an
offense to religious authorities, baptizing in the Jordan was an offense
to political authorities.
John’s arrest and
execution by the political authority of that region confirms this
reading of his actions. The Jewish historian of the first century,
Josephus, also confirms this, noting that Herod was alarmed by John’s
preaching and feared that he would
cause “some form of sedition”.
Therefore, said Josephus, Herod
decided it was better “to strike first and be rid of him before his
work led to an uprising.”[i]
This is the man, a
religious maverick and political threat that all four Gospels tell us is
the starting point for Jesus’ ministry.
In some way Jesus identified with the man and his message.
What was that message? From
the remnants of his preaching found in the gospels, we know that John
believed that God was about to intervene in history in some great,
cataclysmic way and that with his coming, there would be a terrible and
swift judgment. Baptism,
therefore, was necessary to prepare people for this coming of God into
expected many things to happen to usher in this new age, including the
coming of the Messiah. One thing he did not expect, we are told, is that he would
baptize this Messiah to begin the new age.
So Matthew tells us that John tried to stop Jesus from being
baptized by him. Taken by
surprise, Matthew depicts John as standing in the way of Jesus and his
prevention of Jesus’ baptism is unique among the four gospels.
It is the way of the gospel writer to elevate the 'baptizee'
above the 'baptizer'. Luke
does the same thing by placing the baptism of Jesus after
the arrest of John. The
Gospel of John does it by excluding the baptism all together.
In that text John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of
God”, but the baptism itself is omitted.
By the third or
fourth century a document of the early church known as the Gospel of the
Nazareans tells a story of the mother and brothers of Jesus wanting to
go and be baptized by John. But
note this response in that story by Jesus: “What sin have I committed
that I should go and be baptized by him?”
In other words, John the Baptist wasn’t the only one who had a
problem with his baptizing Jesus.
Do you see the
problem? You can almost
hear some early convert to the faith saying, “Wait a second.
Let me be sure I have this straight.
Baptism is for the forgiveness of sin.
Jesus is the Son of God who came to take away our sin.
And he was baptized by John for what reason?
Am I missing something here?”
Does it strike you as odd?
Then imagine yourself
in the sandals of John, standing face to face with your Messiah.
Do you know what it feels like to be in the presence of the
Divine Mystery, to suddenly find yourself in the light of God?
When the prophet Isaiah had such an encounter and was faced with
the overwhelming majesty of God’s holy court, he can only wail, “Woe
is me” I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in a
people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of
hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
How can we feel anything else but such a sense of complete
inadequacy and unworthiness?
Most of us I suspect,
have not had such a revelatory experience, at least not to that degree.
Yet we do have them. Our world is filled with epiphanies of
varying degrees when the wonder of God is disclosed to us if we but have
eyes to see them.
It was the summer of
my 19th year, just ten years ago (not!), when I had my first
epiphany experience. I was in Kansas City for the Youth Ministry Congress of the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.
Delegates would be arriving on the next day from all across North
America. I was on the event
planning committee and was also being interviewed for a position in the
youth ministry office of our denomination.
There I was, just a naïve kid from little Albany, Oregon,
suddenly thrust in the limelight of a national event for our church.
It was an overwhelming experience.
That night I
stretched on a hillside behind the dorm where we were staying and stared
up at the universe. “Who
am I,” I thought, “that Thou should take notice of me.”
I felt so small, insignificant, and yet so blessed beyond
reasonable measure. Under the stars of a mid-western summer sky, I
beheld and was touched by the wonder of God.
Sometimes, like Mary
in the garden on that early morn, we find ourselves standing face to
face with our Lord without recognizing whom we have seen.
I’ve shared this epiphany story with you many times, it still
makes me pause to this day. For
those who haven’t heard it, it needs telling and for those who have,
it’s worth repeating. It was the orientation meeting of our elders and deacons.
Certainly not the place anyone would expect Jesus to show up.
We were conducting important business of the church, like how to
coordinate the distribution of communion plates without crashing into
one another. Makes a terrible mess when that happens.
In any event, we were busy doing the Lord’s work when someone
brought to my attention that we had campers out on the front porch of
the church. I don’t know
why people always tell me these things like I am supposed to do
something about it J.
I went out and sure
enough, there they were, just finishing up a nice meal of fried eggs and
ham, with a nice little camp fire.
A middle-aged couple, appeared to have been homeless for some
time. As gently as
possible, I told them they could not camp there. They said they understood and were very apologetic.
I turned to leave when the request came.
“Pastor, can we ask just one favor?”
Here it comes, I thought, the sad story and the need for money.
I grabbed onto my wallet and held it tight.
“Pastor, we were just admiring your windows from the outside
here and we wondered if we could come in and see them from the
inside.” Though I was
certain this was some kind of trick to soften me up, I consented.
two of them came in like children entering a great European cathedral,
with such a reverence as I rarely see on Sunday morning.
They stood there in the middle of the sanctuary, speaking in
hushed tones, pointing to each window with excitement and joy as they
recognized the scenes from Jesus’ life.
“Look, there’s Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem.
And there’s His baptism. And
up there is the Lord’s Supper.”
And so they recounted the familiar story as those who had not
heard it in a long time but knew it by heart. When they were done, they
thanked me for allowing them to come in and were gone, leaving no trace
of their presence and me wondering, who was that, really?”
Afterwards, everything else we did that night in our important
meeting seemed woefully inadequate.
How do you suppose
John the Baptist felt? I’ll
let you in on a little secret I learned from this text.
John is not the one who was called to baptize Jesus.
It wasn’t John. It’s
us. We are the ones called
to baptize him. Now I know
you are thinking the preacher is going nuts, but stay with me just a bit
longer on this. If John
really was so reluctant to baptize Jesus, why is that not picked up the
by the other three gospel writers who also are concerned about showing
why Jesus did not need to be baptized by John?
You know what I
think? I think this is
Matthew the preacher talking to us about OUR mission.
We are the ones called to baptize Jesus, and Matthew is talking
to all of us timid Christians, all hesitant followers of Jesus, everyone
who has ever had some doubts, anyone who has felt inadequate to the
task. Do you hear what
Matthew is saying? John the
Baptist is like us, we are just like John.
We are called to baptize Jesus, to initiate the realm of God in
our midst. It is not Jesus
who needs it, it is us. We
need to do it, we need to get off our duffs, to quit standing
in the way of Jesus and start instead walking
in the way of Jesus.
One more secret.
Do you know how I know this is the case?
The Voice. That
voice from heaven that says, “You are my son, with you I am well
pleased.” At least that
is the way Mark remembers it. That
is the way Luke remembers it, but that is not the way Matthew remembers
it. In Matthew’s story
the voice says, “THIS is my son.”
Third person rather than second.
I know this is rather
subtle, but sometimes it is in the subtleties that the greatest
revelations come. Nicodemus
who comes to Jesus by night. Peter,
the one who makes the Great Confession is the one who makes the Great
Denial. Judas betrays Jesus
with a kiss. The subtleties
of our faith are often its greatest gems.
Using “This is my son” rather than “You are my son”, is
Matthew’s way of telling us once again that it is not Jesus who needs
to hear this. The voice is
not directed to Jesus, it is directed to us.
Jesus knows who he is, the question is, do we?
To move from standing
in the way of Jesus to walking in the way of Jesus is to hear that voice
from above or from within. Are
you willing to step out in your faith, to respond to God’s calling, to
set aside your excuses, to overcome your feelings of inadequacies?
Jesus awaits us, he awaits us at the Jordan.
The reign of God begins there, for those who are willing to join
him at the river.
[i] John Dominic Crossan, The
Historical Jesus. Harper
Collins, 1991. p. 231.