A sermon for 1st Sunday of Epiphany 1, Jesus’ Baptism; Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
On Monday, our oldest was born. On Tuesday, our youngest was born. On Wednesday, they were driving. By Thursday they had graduated High School. And Friday both graduated College Today they are married with children! How did that happen?
Last week Jesus was circumcised and named. Today, a week later, the fully-grown Jesus shows up at the Jordan River, where John is baptizing folks, and Jesus says “Me too!” John hesitates, but Jesus persuades him, and it is done. But what is done?
We met John the Baptist at the beginning of chapter 3. He wears funny clothes, cries out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2.) He baptizes people for repentance of their sins. He challenges Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a “sons of snakes” perhaps a reference to Genesis 3 and the snake in the garden (Boring) and John challenges them, and everyone, to bear fruit worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8).
John is not the first person to baptize. There are directions in Leviticus that tells the Israelites how to clean themselves up before entering the Temple. It is not about a bath; it is about washing away the impurities of:
- moral failures
- violations of rules like not touching anything dead
- some natural occurrences, and
- some illnesses.
This and other ritual cleanings are part of Jewish life. There were special pools for such cleansings; however, immersions in natural pools or flowing water were also used (Butterworth). John’s baptism does seem to have a different emphasis, he was calling on people to change how they were living, repentance, or change of course, and adopt a life that is a commitment to God, a new direction. (Carter) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). John’s practices are similar to the ascetic community of the Essenes who lived way out in the wilderness in Qumran as a protest to what they believed were the corrupt practices of leaders in Jerusalem and the Temple. Some scholars believe that John belonged to this community (Butterworth).
I am sure you notice that John hesitates to grant Jesus’ request to be baptized. Some people think this is because Jesus is sinless. He is, but that is not a concern when Matthew wrote his Gospel and is not the cause of John’s hesitation (Carter). John hesitates until he realizes that this baptism is Jesus’ commitment to God (Butterworth).
It is interesting to visualize Matthew’s scene carefully. John is Baptizing in the Jordan river. Nothing unusual about this, it happens all the time. There are many people there. Several have already been baptized. It is a day full of usual activity. No one expects anything unusual to happen (Hoezee). There is nothing out of the ordinary for a solitary man to approach John. John’s hesitation is not typical, but it is not dramatic either. There is nothing different about immersing Jesus. And none of the Gospels are very clear about what happens next. At least for the crowd, nothing is different. For us, Matthew’s readers, may before John, and certainly, for Jesus everything is different.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open up, and the Spirit descends. These are signs of revelation and divine gifts that happened in biblical times (Old Testament times for us) but had not happened in a long time, but are expected to come again in the last days (Boring), and the arrival of the Messiah. The dove is frequently associated with the Spirit that hovers the chaotic waters of creation (Genesis 1:2). However, there is no reference to a dove-like form in Genesis. It is interesting to note that for the Romans birds are a sign of divine actions establishing the destinies of imperial officials (Carter). So, the image of the dove may be an indirect challenge to Roman oppression and a commitment to restoring justice (Ellingsen). The arrival of the spirit is a sign that God is equipping Jesus for his ministry, and links Jesus to Old Testament leaders of Judges (Judges 6:34), the Davidic Kings (Isaiah 11:1), and God’s suffering servant (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1) (Carter). Jesus, John, and we hear God’s voice “This is so awesome!” (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). I wonder if Jesus and John react the way Mary and the Shepherds did when the Angel unexpectedly appeared to them. God “declares Jesus’ identity and destiny” (Butterworth) in a way, it is very similar to last week when Jesus becomes a member of Abraham’s descendants and is given his name, which implies his destiny. The pronouncement “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” combines Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, we heard this morning. You recognize Isaiah 42:1 as one of the suffering servant passages. Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms; which is a bit curious because it has been 550 or more years since Israel had a King. That they still included these psalms is in their scripture a testament to Israel’s continuing belief that, God is faithful and the Davidic line of kings will be restored (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).
This story about baptism tells us more about Jesus than it does about the baptism. We hear Jesus’ identity and ministry, as God’s son, affirmed (Butterworth). We hear how Jesus is the agent of the new creation (Isaiah 42:9) because oppression and injustice are not God’s will (Harrelson). We see, in the sign of a descending dove, that Jesus’ mission is divinely empowered (Sakenfeld). We glean how Jesus’ commitment to God is bearing the fruit John is referring to in his rant against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:8) (Butterworth). And we may just catch a glimpse of the inner life of God as Jesus is named twice in his circumcision and baptism, revealing both his fully human and fully divine nature (Scoopmire).
All that brings us to the “So what?” question. What do we learn about us in all this? I suspect the first thing is that this story reminds us to open our eyes and look at the world differently. John knew Jesus because he saw the world differently than the Romans and their collaborators. God’s tells us to “Look at him!” but also to “Look for him!” (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And it is important for us to look because there are those who proclaim another way.
In Jesus’ day, Roman Civil Religion threatened the world. Today an emerging American Civil Religion threatens the world. Its proponents disregard foundational doctrines like Trinity. Perhaps because belief in the Trinity requires belief in a fully human and fully divine Jesus that requires divinity and humanity to co-exist. In other words, Jesus has fully free human will within a divine framework (Mitchican). American Civil Religion rejects the Trinity because it cannot see how truly free enterprise can exist within any regulatory system. It teaches that Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt, to give us the power to claim our prosperity, and to give us our best life right now. American Civil Religion teaches that Jesus is “not the only begotten Son of God,” just the first; and that we’re all divine and have the power to speak worlds into existence (Hughes). If that doesn’t evoke the memory of the original temptation to be like God Gen.3:5) then I don’t know what does.
And once we see the world differently, what are we to do? You know the answer: we follow the shepherds, we boldly proclaim Jesus as Lord and savior, and we preach and teach and witnesses to Jesus’ presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Is it hard? no, all you do is share your stories. Is it scary? yes, but it gets easier with time. How do we know when to speak? Well, you have already learned to look differently, and now is the time to listen differently, and then we will encounter the unexpected opportunity to share. And oh yes, you can relax because just as God was there when Jesus started his ministry God is here for you when you start or continue yours.
Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Butterworth, Susan. “The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany 1(A).” 8 1 2017. Sermons that Work.
Carter, Warren. Commentary on Matthew 3:1317. 8 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 8 1 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 8 1 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1A Matthew 3:13-17 . 8 1 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Hughes, Rosalind. An evangelical warns of “mainstream heresy.” n.d. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/an-evangelical-warns-of-mainstream-heresy/>.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.
Lewis, Karoline. You Are All My Beloved. 8 1 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Scoopmire, Leslie. Speaking to the Soul: Named and claimed. 8 1 2017. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/speaking-to-the-soul-named-and-claimed-2/>.