The Promise and Gifts of BaptismJanuary 9, 2011, 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
Baptism of the Lord
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Each year, on the Sunday following Epiphany, we celebrate the festival of the Baptism of the Lord. As we do so today, I want us to reflect not only on Jesus’ baptism, but also our own. For today’s lessons, though primarily about Jesus and his baptism, give us insights into the promise and gifts of baptism for each of us.
John had come out of the wilderness proclaiming “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He had settled in the Jordan valley where multitudes, from Jerusalem and all of its surrounding territory of Judea, were coming out to him to be baptized in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. Matthew portrays John as the reappearance of Elijah, who, it was believed, would appear again to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming. John seems to understand himself in precisely this way, for he proclaims the one mightier than himself who is coming to baptize not with water, but with the Spirit and fire of God. At the very height of John’s success in ministry, Jesus comes from Galilee, and quite intentionally presents himself to John for baptism. But why; what is Jesus doing, standing in the water before John, asking to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins?
If you’ve asked yourself that question, you are not alone. The question was on the lips of the church of the first century, which was confessing Jesus like us in all things except sin.1 I suspect it is why Matthew takes such pains to have John himself ask Jesus the same question, insisting further that it is he, John, who needs to be baptized by Jesus rather than vice versa. But Jesus answers, “It is fitting in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Fulfill all righteousness: though that initially seems enigmatic, if you read it in light of the servant poem, our first lesson from Isaiah, the mystery of Jesus’ response falls away. He has come to fulfill the will and purpose of the one who sent him to establish a reign of justice and righteousness. By the way, both “justice” and “righteousness,” here, simply mean doing things God’s way.2 Between John and Jesus, in this baptism they will do just that–begin the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry. Double confirmation of this comes as Jesus emerges from the water.
First, the heavens open to Jesus–notice it is only to him–and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending, alighting on him like a dove. The Spirit of God that hovered over the formless void of creation,3 the breath of God, breathed into clay, that brought Adam to life,4 the power of God that conceived Jesus within his mother’s womb,5 brought him to birth and nurtured him in his childhood, is now fully revealed to him, resting on him–his to use and his to give–the power of God with which he will baptize others. This is the first thing confirmed in his baptism.
The second has to do with Jesus’ identity; it is now fully revealed, not simply to him, but to John and to those around them. Whereas the descent of the Spirit was a personal vision, the announcement of his identity as God’s Son is public. The voice does not say, “You are my son,”6 but rather “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is not the moment Jesus becomes God’s son. Matthew has been clear about that in his birth narrative.7 This is the moment in which Jesus’ identity and purpose are revealed and his ministry begins.
But this is not simply a public announcement of Jesus as God’s Son; it is more. It is a reference back to Isaiah 42, identifying Jesus not simply as God’s Son, but as God’s servant sent to usher in the reign of justice and righteousness at the cost of his own suffering.8 “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.”9 In this moment of baptism, Jesus is not only identified as God’s son, he is identified as God’s obedient servant who will faithfully bring forth God’s will, not through a reign of violence or subjugation, but through one of obedience and submission, sustained by the Spirit and power of God. It all begins here in Jesus’ baptism.
What, then, can this tell us about the promise and gifts of baptism for us? First, Christian baptism is far more than the baptism of John, far more than an act wherein we repent of sin and embrace the forgiveness of God. Baptism is that, to be sure. In each baptism we call for the renunciation of evil and its power as it seeks to defy God’s righteousness and love in human life. We promise to live, turning from the ways of sin that seek to separate us from the love of God. But more, we confess Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world and promise to follow him as his faithful disciples, obeying his word and showing his love to our life’s end. And we bind ourselves, not only to Jesus, but to Jesus’ people, fellow disciples, the church, committing ourselves to its worship and ministry, its faith and service, where, through our gifts, prayers, study and service, we continue to grow in faith, love and discipleship. The church is, after all, the school for discipleship. It is where we learn faith, practice it and perfect it. These are promises of baptism, but they are the promises we make, and are only half of the story–our half. What are God’s promises and gifts of baptism?
The first promise is the gift of God’s Spirit in and upon our lives. It is true that God is at work in and upon all of God’s creatures all of the time; were that not true, God would not be God, at least the God revealed in the Bible. But there is a far more immediate and intimate promise made to us in baptism: God promises and gives to each of us God’s own breath, God’s own power to guide, support, sustain and lead us in life. The Spirit that hovered over the formless void at the beginning of creation hovers over you with the wings like a sheltering dove. The Spirit that conceived you and brought you to birth continues to breathe life into you and give you new life. While all else in life is on a trajectory toward death, the baptized are promised the gift of God’s Spirit and its power for constant renewal. The Spirit that descended upon Jesus in his baptism descends upon us in our baptisms to guide and sustain us in our discipleship. And the Spirit that descended to enliven his lifeless body in the tomb is promised to us as well, so that even as one’s body finally wears itself out, God’s Spirit will not abandon us, but continue to sustain us into new life beyond this life. The first promise and gift of baptism is nothing less than God’s Spirit–the One the Creed names, “The Lord, the giver of life.”
Second, we hear the voice of God claiming us as God’s own. Now it is true that everything in creation is God’s; it is from God’s creation and to God’s creation it shall return. But in baptism, you and I are given a more precious relationship than being merely one of God’s creatures–even more important than those created in God’s image, as all humans are. In baptism, God claims us as a daughter or son, one beloved. Here human analogies are helpful to a limit, but then begin to break down because the frailty of humanity has a way of limiting human relationships. But take the very best of the bond between a parent and a child, and press that beyond all capacity for fracture or disappointment. Push it to a love that exceeds your deepest yearnings and attachments to your own child, if you have been blessed with one, or to the familial attachments that you have known that have been precious and life-giving, and you have only begun to catch a glimpse of what it means for God to say to you, “You are my own dear child, my daughter, my son, my beloved.”
But there is more; listen further: “With you I am well pleased.” We may not always be pleased with who we are, what we are up to, or what we have become, but baptism brings this promise: God’s pleasure in us and with us will not abate or exhaust God’s grace. With you God is well pleased, even when you are not pleased with yourself!
Finally, baptism calls you to walk into the life and vocation Jesus walked into, the life of servanthood seeking justice and righteousness. When Isaiah first spoke those words they were thought to be referring to an emerging leader, perhaps the prophet himself, or even King Cyrus. As the promise was not fulfilled, it was pushed further out onto the horizon of God’s future. Was the servant a person, or was this God’s call to all of God’s people? The church answered, “Yes!” First and foremost, the church saw in Isaiah’s words the shape and foretelling of Jesus’ life. But it was quick to say not only that he is the fulfillment of this promised servant, but that all who belong to him, all who call him Lord, are called to lives of servanthood like him. This, too, is the promise and gift of baptism. To enter this bath and emerge signed in God’s name is to bear not only God Spirit and be named Beloved Child, but also to be commissioned to live life as God’s servant, pursuing justice and righteousness in life. Baptism is ordination to Christian ministry. It is the beginning of a life committed to pursuing justice and righteousness in Jesus’ name–doing things God’s way–a life that becomes a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, in Jesus’ name.
Jesus does not ask us to do that alone. He makes one more promise, and it has to do with this table. Here, he comes to us to be with us and in us, so that his life can emerge in and through us. And he meets us here at this table, Sunday after Sunday, to give us power to continue to live into our baptisms, so we can know its promise and gifts ourselves.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!
- 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5
- In fact, the word for righteousness in Hebrew, tsedeq, is sometimes translated “justice” and the word for justice, mishpat, is sometimes translated “what is right.” See, Alan Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible, (New York: MACMILLAN PUBLISHING CO., INC., 1950), pp. 118f; 202f. See also M. Eugene Boering, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.160.
- Genesis 1:2
- Genesis 2:7
- Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30-35
- As it does in both Mark and Luke’s reports of the baptism, see Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22
- Matthew 1:18-25
- Should there be any doubt that this is what Matthew means, read Matthew 12:18-21, where, at the summary of part I of his Gospel, Matthew quotes the entire servant poem.
- Isaiah 42:1 (New American Standard, 1995)
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