The Baptism of the Lord
One of the blessings of pastoral ministry is the chance to be a part of some of the most memorable moments in people’s lives. To stand with a couple on their wedding day or to gather with a family as they say goodbye to a loved one, to speak words of scripture and offer up prayers during these times—these can be powerful and significant opportunities to share in the lives of those we serve.
As many pastors would likely attest, these moments are special not just because of the ceremonies themselves, but because of the way they connect to something bigger. They allow us to look beyond the moment and see how that moment fits into a larger view of God’s work.
Of all these powerful and holy moments that we as ministers and as members of a Christian community get to share, perhaps none is as significant or as important as a baptism. To stand at a font or in a baptistery with a person who is just beginning his or her first steps in the life of faith, to speak words of encouragement and exhortation, to pray as a community for the continued growth and sustained faithfulness of the candidate for baptism – this is such a heavy and joyful and emotionally charged event that words can hardly do it justice.
We come to such moments, and we walk away from them, convinced that God has been at work in some mysterious way to bring new life, and that we have been blessed to participate in the fulfillment of God’s promises, with the knowledge that what has just happened connects us to something bigger than ourselves, a story of salvation that God has been telling for generations.
Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, for all its power, has also inspired its fair share of conversation, debate, and even puzzlement. Readers have long wondered what it means that Jesus would make the journey, at the age of thirty, from Nazareth in Galilee to this wilderness region of Judea where his cousin John is preaching and prophesying, in order to receive John’s baptism.
To be fair, it seems that we are in good company in our confusion. In a characteristic display of humility, John himself seems to be resistant and even a bit perplexed as to why Jesus would want to submit to this rite. “Why do you come to me?” he asks.
Our own questions about Jesus’ baptism seem to come from another place, however. We seem to get hung up on what Jesus is trying to accomplish here. What is this event achieving in terms of results? And while these questions have been around a long time, they take on a new tone in a culture that is dominated by an individualistic approach to religion.
In this context, we are tempted to consider baptism as a sort of formula, or as an exercise designed to attain favor or to produce some good in our lives. After all, much of modern religion, including modern Christianity, approaches the life of faith in this way. Whether we’re talking about the latest version of the Prosperity Gospel, which offers material blessings as a result of faithfulness, or one of the many iterations of so-called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which promises emotional well-being and a positive sense of self, religious practices, including the sacraments, are about offering us goodies that make life better. Baptism, like any Christian performance, has the potential to become a sort of transaction. It is a thing we must do in order to get something for ourselves.
In this context, Jesus’ baptism makes little sense. Surely the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, doesn’t need this sacrament in order to attain salvation in the sense that we so often understand it. He who was fully obedient to the will of the Father doesn’t come to that water harboring any sins that need to be cleansed. And the only begotten, beloved Son doesn’t need baptism to make him feel better about his status before God. Thus, we scratch our heads and wonder at this strange action.
For many, the recourse has been to reduce this event to the level of object lesson, as if this were nothing more than a teachable moment. Jesus gets baptized to show us that we need to get baptized. But ultimately, this explanation of what transpired on that day in the Judean wilderness proves unsatisfying, as it leads us to the conclusion that Jesus’ baptism was a kind of pantomime of faithfulness, a demonstration of what he wants us to do, rather than an event of real significance for his life and ministry.
Everything about Matthew’s account would seem to argue against this, from the way that the heavens opened, with the dove descending and the voice of God speaking, to the fact that this event occurs right before Jesus’ time of trial in the desert. This is clearly an important moment for Christ, a pivotal point in his life of faithfulness to the Father. When Jesus tells John, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s ascribing great importance to this baptism that he is urging John to perform.
As the lectionary passages for this week help us to understand, Jesus’ baptism is not about a transaction, or a formula, or even a moment isolated unto itself. It is a crucial element of the story that God is telling about the Messiah, the savior who was coming into the world. Jesus’ baptism is less about doing something in order to attain some favor or benefit, and more about participating in that story. “Fulfilling all righteousness,” involves telling that story in a powerful and unforgettable way, enacting the drama of salvation so that those who witnessed it would see that God was doing something significant.
Among the gospel writers, Matthew places a particular emphasis on the ways that Jesus’ life and work fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. A passage like the one from Isaiah 42 is seen as foretelling the shape of Jesus’ ministry, the message he will proclaim, the miracles and acts of mercy he will perform, the hope he will bring to those living in the darkness of their imprisonment. (Matthew will use a similar passage from Isaiah in the fourth chapter of the gospel, when talking about the early days of Jesus’ work in Galilee.)
When describing the agent of this proclamation and power, Isaiah uses images of humility and gentleness, and at the same time invokes language of covenant and vocation. This servant will be set apart by God. God’s spirit will be upon him so that he might bring justice and mercy and truth to the hungry and hurting children of God.
It is not hard to see these elements at work in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus’ unwavering resolve, his humble submission, and the divine proclamation of approval—all of these can be seen as fulfillments of Isaiah’s prophecy, and they signify that the ministry Jesus is about to embark on is indeed the one foretold by the prophets. This baptism, as a moment of setting apart, is a crucial component of the story of the work that God will do through the ministry of Christ.
A few years later, in the early days of the church’s mission, Peter would also point to this moment as a significant one. Called upon to share the gospel with Gentiles in the home of Cornelius, Peter tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, culminating in his death, resurrection, and glorification. In verse 37, Peter points to “the baptism that John announced” as a kind of starting point for Jesus’ work. He mentions the anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, an anointing that led into his work of preaching and healing, and ultimately an anointing that led him to the cross. Thus, Peter points to John’s baptism, including his baptism of Jesus, as a key element of God’s work of salvation and God’s plan for all creation, including even the Gentiles.
Far from being an isolated event by which Jesus gained something for himself, or an object lesson for us, that moment beside the Jordan is a crucial part of the story of who Jesus was and what God had promised to accomplish through him. It wove together the words of the prophets, the work of John, and the ministry of Christ, serving as a catalyzing moment in which righteousness was fulfilled and in which God’s purposes were revealed.
Baptism, like all sacramental practices, is at its heart a mystery. This is just as true for our own baptisms as it is for the baptism of Christ. And so, as long as we engage in this practice, and reflect on this practice, we will be compelled to ask what it is for. What is going on? What are we achieving? What are we getting out of this? It is is human nature to ask these sorts of questions. But we must never see baptism as an isolated event, divorced from the story of our lives and from the drama of salvation among God’s people. When we submit to the waters of baptism, we are participating in something much bigger than ourselves. We are becoming part of a community and being initiated into a work that extends well beyond that moment.
In the act of baptism, God fulfills his righteousness in us—not because of the goodies or benefits that we attain, but because of the way that baptism incorporates us into a larger story. It is a moment of setting apart, a moment of transformation, a moment in which God’s purposes are revealed in our lives and in which God prepares us for all that will follow.
Image: Ceiling mosaic from a fifth century baptistry in Ravenna, Italy, built under the Arian Ostrogothic King Theodoric.