Grace Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2017, Baptism of the Lord A
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
To Fulfill All Righteousness
As is the case in Mark and Luke as well, Matthew makes Jesus’s first adult appearance in his gospel the occasion on which he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptizer. While the Gospel of John does record Jesus going out to where John was baptizing, and John witnessing the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, it never does record an actual baptism of Jesus by John, as the other three gospels do.
Matthew’s account is most similar to Mark’s – the one that was most likely written first – but there are a couple of noteworthy differences between the two narratives. One is a simple matter of wording; while Matthew’s account of the post-baptism descent of the Spirit merely says that the heavens were “opened to him,” Mark goes for the much more dramatic suggestion that the heavens were “torn apart” for the Spirit to descend. Now that’s a difference you could make sermons from, but I’m not sure it’s the most important difference from the perspective of reading Matthew’s gospel.
No, the difference in Matthew’s gospel, the one that makes this account unique, is that brief exchange between John and Jesus in vv. 14-15. It is for some an answer to a thorny theological question, but it is also a tremendous clue to what it means, way back in chapter 1 of this gospel, when Matthew starts setting up Jesus as the one who is to be called Emmanuel, or “God-with-us.”
As Jesus approaches John, the Baptizer is hesitant, reluctant in a way that is not at all like the brash character presented in the first twelve verses of this chapter. That John the Baptizer is relentless in message – “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near” – and outright hostile to the Pharisees and Sadducees who show up, not to mention the camel-hair clothing and locusts-and-honey diet. That John,…it’s hard to imagine him hesitating one way or the other about his task.
But as Jesus comes forward, John suddenly is reticent, recognizing the “one who is more powerful than I” he had just mentioned back in verse 11. His words – “I need to be baptized by you” – are remarkable for the self-awareness of his own sinfulness; that this one comes to him – him! – to be baptized is more than John can bear.
And in truth, John has a point.
John says it plainly in verse 11; “I baptize you with water for repentance.” The first word of his message is “Repent.” The people were coming out to the Jordan for John’s baptism, as verse 6 says, “confessing their sins.” Even his chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees challenged those religious authorities to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” in verse 8. Clearly, the principal point of John’s baptism is repentance of sin.
But what, exactly, does Jesus have to repent?
In the later words from the book of Hebrews, we hold that Jesus was “tested as we are, yet without sin.” Back here in Matthew we can see that “testing” played out in the temptation of Jesus, for one, but those final words – something that John recognized in this Jesus who now stood before him – do raise a perfectly acceptable question; if Jesus really was “without sin,” then why would he submit to John’s baptism of repentance of sin? What’s the point?
Actually, we could argue that there are a couple of points. One potential point of Jesus’s human baptism has to do with his relationship to God the Father, and the other with his relationship to us.
In coming down to be baptized, Jesus is on the one hand showing his complete submission to the task set before him in his human ministry. Simply put, Jesus’s action is in accordance with God’s will, and is an initial demonstration that all of Jesus’s actions – be they deeds or words, teaching or ministry or dying or rising again – are going to be in accordance with God’s will. You could also argue that in doing so Jesus presents a model for us to follow, but in this case the act of obedience still holds up whether we follow it or not. Jesus will do God’s will, no matter what. And in the vision that follows Jesus’s baptism, with the heavens opening and the Voice proclaiming him “my beloved son” for all to hear, God confirms Jesus’s obedience and identity for all to hear.
On the other hand, Jesus’s presence at John’s baptizing spot also speaks very directly to how Jesus relates to us, providing at the very beginning of his public life and ministry a demonstration that Jesus is, as Matthew called him way back in chapter 1, “God-with-us.”
Sinless though Jesus is, he nonetheless comes to us in our sinfulness, in our desperate need for repentance. He is with us at the Jordan, standing in solidarity with us sinners that we are, because that’s being God-with-us. Jesus as Son of God will tolerate nothing separating us from him. That’s a huge part of Jesus being God-with-us.
No matter how low, God-with-us; no matter how lost, God-with-us; no matter how estranged or separated, God-with-us.
Even at his very beginning Jesus is, before the temptation, before the Sermon on the Mount, before the teaching and healing and trouble with the authorities and crucifixion and resurrection, God-with us.
And Jesus always is to be God-with-us.
For God-with-us, no matter what, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#375 Shall We Gather at the River
#164 Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways
#688 Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
#480 Take Me to the Water
Credit: agnusday.org. Hmm, good question...