Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
I heard some good “It’s so cold out” jokes this week. I heard it was so cold out that grandparents were overheard saying, “When I was a youngster — naw, forget it, this is colder.” It was so cold out that police officers were yelling, “Thaw!” while chasing robbers. It was so cold out that that teenagers were actually seen pulling up their pants.
I am glad to see that everyone survived the Polar Vortex last week. Evidently the vortex was so strong that after our record-setting cold on Tuesday, the vortex was able to suck the weather from Florida up to Virginia by Saturday as we had a 55 degree shift in only a few days!
We have just finished our Advent series, which is kind of depressing. Moving from Advent to Regular Time can be just as jolting as a 55 degree shift in the temperature. We took our Christmas tree out to the curb this week (less about half of the needles, that is), the decorations have been removed from the church sanctuary, and we probably won’t be singing about a baby born in a manger for some time. Even our Scripture text for today is a bit of a shock as just last week Jesus was a baby receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And today he is a 30-year-old man coming to be baptized. My, they grow up fast, don’t they!
However, I have good news! Much of the 2014 Lectionary Gospel text comes from Matthew. This means more of the fun, ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount than ever before (pause for applause).
Matthew is probably one of my four favorite Gospels.
Our text for this morning provides an occasion where Matthew lacks theological commentary. Matthew provides a unique perspective on the baptism of Jesus that I hope we can learn a thing or two from today, but we can learn a few additional things by reading through Mark and Luke’s account of this event. So I also want to draw from the parallels to this story as we look to see what God wants to teach us through this story. But first, some context.
In the first century there were a number of subgroups of Jews living throughout what we call the Middle East. We know some of them better than others: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Zealots, and the Priests. One that we do not hear a lot about in the Bible is the Essenes. The Essenes were a sectarian Jewish group, which is to say that they had broken away from the main body of Judaism and they went out into the wilderness where they could worship and serve God away from the distractions of the rest of society. It is believed that they broke away because they believed that the priestly system had become too corrupt. So the Essenes moved away from Jerusalem, away from the temple, and began a new settlement where they could dedicate their lives to living according to God’s Torah.
One of the main Essene communities was in the region known as Qumran. Qumran was relatively obscure until the year 1946 when a young shepherd boy was out watching sheep and he became rather bored. So this boy started picking up rocks and throwing them into caves. He got one of those rocks pretty deep into the cave and he heard a crash, the sound of pottery shattering. He ran to tell some adults, and they found the oldest known existing manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible preserved inside clay pots. The location of these caves is about 1 mile from the Dead Sea, which is why they called the scrolls The Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Essenes were known to practice asceticism. They lived very simple lives, ate simple yet strange meals, and wore simple yet strange clothes. They dedicated themselves to the living out and study of the Law and the Prophets, particularly the Prophet Isaiah. They believed Isaiah had foreseen the path for the Jews to take back to God. And since the Essenes strictly followed the Law, they participated in ritualistic washings, the practice known as the mikveh. When someone touched something that they were not to touch, they washed in a pool of water to become ceremonially clean again. When someone did something that they should not have done, they washed in the mikveh as a sign of repentance. And when someone became a part of their group, they washed in the mikveh as a sign of death to their old way of being and rebirth into a new existence.
Wanna guess who some people believe to have been an Essene?
Mark and Luke both connect Jesus’ cousin John to Isaiah’s prophesy. Mark tells us that he ate locusts and wild honey and wore camel-hair clothes. We call him John the Baptist, not because of his denominational affiliation, but because he was helping people participate in the mikveh of repentance, cleansing, and beginning anew.
Bible scholars disagree on whether John was a part of the Essenes or not. Either way, it seems as if John had a lot of things in common with this sectarian, separatist, ascetic group of Jews who had removed themselves from the rest of society in order to practice what they believed to be a purer and more correct form of their religion.
We are told elsewhere that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. Remember that the Jewish mikveh was used to bring about ceremonial cleansing when someone had touched something impure, said something impure, or done something impure. When you do these things you ask for forgiveness and participate in the mikveh as a sign of a change in your life. Nobody actually believed that the mikveh provided forgiveness – only God could do that. But the mikveh was an outward sign of one’s decision to rededicate their life to following God.
Is it any wonder, then, that John is a little hesitant when Jesus arrives? Verse 14 tells us, “But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”
I picture Jesus walking down the banks of the Jordan and John is there trying to redirect him, perhaps nudging him to go back to the shore. Because really, if this baptism thing is about repentance and forgiveness, why would Jesus need to participate?
I don’t think that Jesus was baptized because he was a sinner. I think he was baptized because we need to be forgiven. You see, the baptism of Jesus teaches us humility. Though Jesus was without sin, he still chose to publically submit to baptism. We find Jesus’ response to John’s hesitation in verse 15, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Somehow Jesus’ baptism fulfills all righteousness.
What we can see in Jesus’ baptism is a humility that we can all strive to achieve. There’s not a single person that has not done something for which they need forgiveness and Jesus pointed this out a few times through his ministry. When the crowds were gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus instructed the one without sin to cast the first stone. They all walked away.
But yet there is something within us that always wants to prove that our sins, our mistakes, our brokenness is not as bad as someone else’s. I wonder if this isn’t the reason why reality television shows and gossip magazines are so popular today. We find some comfort in watching others live their lives and do it poorly. We say, “Sure, my relationship with my spouse is terrible, I’m kind of selfish, and I don’t do anything to make the world a better place, but at least I’m not a Kardashian!”
I fear that sometimes this is the approach that we take in the church (not my church, but the Church in general). Christians are quick to point out the sins of others while ignoring their own shortcomings. It is that whole “ignore the plank in your own eye while pointing out the sawdust in another’s” way of interacting with others.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Christians should not be accountable to one another. Just the opposite is true. What I believe may be best understood using some visual aids (which I will do on Sunday and describe here).
Imagine the water of baptism representing cleansing, wholeness, and forgiveness. Too often Christians try to stand behind others, pushing them toward the waters of baptism. And we hold them down under the water until they are clean or pass out from lack of air!
These Christians are probably well-meaning individuals. But we all need to experience the baptismal waters of cleansing, wholeness, and forgiveness. I think a better image is not of the Christian standing behind someone else, pushing them along, but standing alongside the one another, seeking cleansing, wholeness, and forgiveness each and every day.
When Jesus, the one who knew no sin, submitted himself to baptism and invited us to follow him, he invited us to a new experience of humility. Anyone who thinks that they do not need grace and forgiveness because they aren’t as bad as someone else, or haven’t done anything that bad simply needs to look at Jesus. Though he was without sin, he publically declared his need for cleansing, wholeness, forgiveness. Even Jesus needed God.
Jesus’ baptism was also about identity. I can’t say the word “public” enough when I describe baptism. This was not something that Jesus did with John in his bathtub at home. He was baptized publically where other people could see him voluntarily walk into the water, get either dunked or had water poured on him, and then stand up and walk out of the water.
Jesus’ baptism was a way of showing that he was a part of this group that was looking to bring God’s kingdom to this world. Granted, Jesus had some new ways of accomplishing this goal. But baptism is meant to be a way of publically declaring our desire to follow God. It is a bit of an initiation or a credentialing. It is a way of proclaiming that you belong to this movement.
And there are indeed advantages here and now to being a part of this movement. The identity that you acquire at baptism brings you into a new relationship with God and with others.
Matthew tells us in verse 17 that after Jesus is baptized he sees the heavens open up and the spirit of the Lord descends upon him. And he hears the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Mark and Luke tell the story slightly different. But in Matthew, this display of the spirit and the audible voice of God are meant for Jesus alone. Nobody else sees it and nobody else hears it.
This affirmation seems to be entirely for Jesus.
This reveals to us a part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human. Do you think Jesus ever questioned his role or his duty? I think so. At the very least he requested that God allow what needed to be done to be done in some other way. On the night Jesus was handed over to be tried, beaten, and killed, Jesus gathered with friends in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed for God to allow “this cup to pass” from him. Jesus need encouragement. Jesus needed reassurance. Jesus needed to be reminded that the Father dearly loved him.
I think we all could use a little more assurance of this as well. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are co-heirs to his kingdom and we share one Father in heaven. Granted, we do not have the same father/son relationship that Jesus and God enjoyed, but Jesus himself taught his disciples to address God as “Father.”
Every now and then we need to hear, “This is my son/daughter, whom I love; with him/her I am well pleased.”
I think the humility and affirmation of baptism are intentionally linked together. Things like reality television, gossip magazines, and even social media are so popular because we want to be loved. We want to be appreciated. We want someone to “like” our status, our pictures, our jokes. We want to like ourselves. Some of us even go into certain professions to please other people so that we can feel loved and appreciated.
You are God’s child, his beloved. With you he is well pleased.
I see my congregation for about one hour each week. That leaves 167 hours each week when you are not in church. And for those 167 hours we hear the rest of the world tell us that we are not good enough. Every ad on television tells you that you need something to make yourself better. Take this pill and you will be thinner. Use this toothpaste and you will be more attractive. Our shampoo will make you beautiful. Our phone app will make you more intelligent.
You get that for 167 hours each week. If only for one hour each week, we need to be reminded that we are God’s children, with us he is well pleased.
I think that we can do better.
God chose a baptism of water to be a sign of cleansing, wholeness, forgiveness, and love. And there are few if any items that we come in contact with more on an average day than water.
We come in contact with water every day, many times each day. We wake up in the morning and we brush our teeth with toothpaste and water. We make our morning coffee with good old H2O. We are told to drink about eight glasses of water every day. We wash our hands every time we go to the bathroom, before we eat, and after changing the baby’s diaper. We cook with water. We take showers on a regular basis. The earth itself is 70% covered with water. Even our very bodies are made up of about 60% water.
With every drip, splash, guzzle, and sip, we are reminded. We are reminded of our Lord Jesus who submitted to baptism and calls us toward that symbolic act of cleansing, wholeness, forgiveness, and love. We are reminded, like Jesus was reminded, that we are sons and daughters of God, his beloved. With us he is well pleased.