Sunday, January 08, 2017

What Jesus' Baptism Means for Us in the Here and Now

First Sunday after the Epiphany – Baptism of Our Lord (Year A)
Matthew 3.13-17
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

I’ve always liked science fiction. In recent years, I have tended to be enthralled by stories that are of “alternative histories” or even “alternative futures” – not that we know what the real future even will be – stories of how things might have been or how they might go if something different might have happened in the past. For example, I am currently hooked on a new TV series this season entitled “Timeless,” which explores the subtle ways the present might be different if seemingly minor changes occurred in historical events. The main characters are a team of time travelers who chase a bad guy back through time. The bad guy is bent on changing history for his own selfish purposes. Of course, the protagonists always manage to foil the bad guy. Sort of. But in every episode, their actions or inactions always result in some minor thing that happens differently from the way we know history. Changing history in ways that have ramifications in their own reshaped present.

What if Jesus' baptism hadn't occurred? What would that mean for us? If it didn't happen, we probably wouldn't be here. If John the Baptist had his way, at least in Matthew’s telling, the baptism of Jesus might not have occurred. As the Gospel tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Mt 3.14). John’s first reaction to Jesus’ request for baptism is to refuse! Why would John refuse a request of the one whom he recognizes as the Messiah? Well, as John says himself immediately before today’s Gospel passage, “I baptize . . . 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” (Mt 3.11). So for John, Jesus’ desire to be baptized is a complete disconnect. The Messiah, one who is without sin, has no need to repent of his sins – of something he does not possess. And John has a point. Just why would Jesus submit to John’s baptism? Jesus doesn’t need to turn his life around.

The short answer is, for us. One of the central things we do as Christians, the way we become Christians, is through the rite of baptism. Instituted by Jesus through his own baptism. We know what the sacrament of baptism means for us. That the outward and visible sign of the act of baptism, of going into the water, produces an inward and invisible grace that fundamentally changes who we are. How through the water we are cleansed of our sins. How by going into the waters of baptism, we die to self. Sharing in Jesus’ death. How in coming up out of the waters of baptism we share in Christ’s resurrection. How through the symbolic dying and rising we are born to new life, whereby we receive our salvation. Where we receive eternal life. We all know this. We learn it in our preparation for baptism, if we are old enough to understand at the time. Or we learn it in Sunday School and in the catechism in preparation for Confirmation. This is the big picture. This is what we can expect for the long-haul of the eternal life we are promised.

But what about the short term? What about in the in-between time after baptism and before our own death and the accompanying journey into new and eternal life? What does this mean in the here and now?

While Mark and Luke also provide accounts of Jesus’ baptism, I think Matthew’s portrayal contains some uniquely important messages about the intended impact of baptism on our lives of faith. So let’s continue with Matthew’s account. As we are told in response to John’s objections, “Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented” (Mt 3.15). Jesus does it is a sign of righteousness. Even though he himself, by virtue of being the Messiah, is the epitome, the very model, of righteousness. But that’s precisely why he does it. Righteousness merely means right conduct. It means obedience to God’s will. By being baptized, Jesus was demonstrating his complete, unwavering devotion to God and to God’s will. Not because he needed to prove anything to John or to himself or to God. But because he needed to prove something to us. He needed to show us what obedience to God looks like.

Jesus’ baptism expresses his faithfulness to accomplish God’s purposes. Even though Jesus carried no burden of sin, in being baptized by John, Jesus invites all who would seek to follow him to a greater level of righteousness than what is even required under the Law. As Jesus later tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. And that the only way is for our righteousness to exceed even that of the scribes and the Pharisees (Mt 5.17, 20). Frankly, not that hard to do when you consider how they interpreted and lived the Law. In his baptism by John, Jesus was modeling for us, inviting us, to commit ourselves completely to a new way of life. To a life that is absolutely, 100 percent devoted to following God’s will and living out God’s purposes.

This is all about inviting us into new life. New life not just in the sense of eternal life, but new life in the here and now. There are two images that show this. First is the imagery of Jesus stepping into the River Jordan to be baptized. This is a reminder of the people of Israel, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, crossing that same river to enter into the Promised Land. Crossing over the River Jordan to begin the new life God had promised them and led them into.

This new life is also demonstrated in what happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism. “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” (Mt 3.16). The Spirit descending on Jesus is a clear reference and reminder of the Spirit active in creation in Genesis when the wind, the Spirit of the Lord, “swept over the face of the waters” beginning the process of creation. Jesus’ baptism similarly begins a new creation. And we are a part of that new creation. We are that new creation.

This act of baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is one of the foundational events in Jesus’ life bookending his public ministry – baptism at the beginning, crucifixion at the end. And the way he chooses to begin his ministry gives us a valuable clue as to what his ministry, and ours, are to be like. For Jesus to invite and even expect John to baptize him is a powerful recognition of John’s own ministry. It acknowledges the importance of John pointing the way to the Messiah. Just as we are called to point the way to the Messiah in our own lives. And it speaks to the depth of their relationship and Jesus’ intent that ministry be collaborative. For Jesus’ public ministry is about seeking partnership. Just as our ministries are to be collaborative. Just as they are to be about seeking partnership – with one another and with those outside our walls who are so in need to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ and to have it shown to them in tangible ways.

There is something else significant about Matthew’s telling of the baptism of Jesus. As Mark and Luke tell the story, as Jesus comes out of the water, as the Spirit descends upon him, God proclaims “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1.11, Lk 3.22). But in our Gospel today, Matthew tells us that God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.17). According to Matthew, God does not speak words of validation or a personal call to Jesus. Jesus already knows this. No, the words that God speaks are meant for us. They are a public announcement of who Jesus is as he begins his public ministry. At his birth, we recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. Here at his baptism, we receive irrefutable confirmation of that fact. In these words, we receive further invitation to follow him into public ministry. And we will hear these same words at the end of the season of Epiphany, just before beginning Lent. Words spoken near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and to what awaits him there – words spoken to Peter, James, and John when Jesus is transfigured with Moses and Elijah. Yet more confirmation of who he is. One more invitation to follow him.

Jesus is empowered by the Spirit for his ministry, affirmed by his baptism. In this way all that he does is an expression of God working through him. Similarly, through our own baptism we are joined with Jesus in this sacred ministry, called to obedient, faithful service, to establish justice and righteousness. By sharing in his baptism, we too are empowered by the Spirit and called to proclaim the Good News of salvation for all. In this way, the world sees the reality of Christ and the love of God working through us.

This is the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany meaning manifestation or appearance. In the Gospel lessons for this season, we see just how Christ is revealed as the Messiah, the Son of God. As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, this season is also about how we ourselves manifest how Christ is the Messiah through our own lives. How we reveal the reality of Jesus as the Son of God through our own ministries.

William Willimon, a contemporary United Methodist theologian, neatly sums up the significance of baptism; eloquently sums up the need for our own baptisms, now more than ever:

The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern. The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.

Baptism takes us there. Baptism takes us out of ourselves and out there, into the world.

With Willimon’s insights in our hearts and minds, let us now reaffirm our commitment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we renew or own baptismal vows.

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