Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Baptism of Christ
I have no memory of whether or not I was baptized as an infant but I do remember being baptized for the first time when I was around 21 years old. The church that I joined insisted I needed to be baptized in order to be saved and to make certain that upon my own death I would inherit the celestial kingdom – although in order for that to happen – I would also need to get married.
I remained in the church for about five years but eventually left for reasons both personal and theological. I joined another church and when the pastor found out about my baptism, I was told it didn’t count and so after a series of consultations I was baptized a second time in 1971.
The one thing both churches had in common was their insistence that one had to be immersed, under water, in order for the baptism to be valid. It was important enough that they both had built-in baptisteries - a sunken receptacle used for baptism by total immersion.
The first was an outdoor baptistery with steps leading down into the water and steps leading out the other side. It was outside the church. The water was cold, very cold. The second was an indoor baptistery built inside the church behind the altar. When the time came for the baptism to occur, a curtain would open revealing a receptacle behind a glass wall. This time, the water was heated.
Down through the centuries, the practice of the Christian church has varied when it come to the celebration of the sacrament of baptism. There are those who insist on total immersion while others sprinkle and still others pour. Needless to say the debate about what makes for a “proper” baptism continues.
Many insist that when Jesus was baptized by John in Jordan, he was immersed and therefore we must also be immersed. I imagine when Jesus was baptized, it was probably a refreshing event given the surrounding heat of what essentially desert country.
I do not imagine that Christians living in the Arctic circle would think it practical to be baptized outdoors. As for us here in Hawaiʻi, well, we have a big ocean but even then there are limitations shaped by weather conditions – whether or not there is a storm on the day a baptism is to be celebrated or if there is beach erosion from seasonal storms.
Now I realize that for those of us who have grown up in the church and for those of us who are accustomed to the way things are done, we may find ourselves hard-pressed to give up what we believe is a proper baptism. Over the years, I have come to realize that whatever the visible or outward form of the sacrament of baptism may be, what is important is understanding its significance.
I do not mean to trivialize the theological differences that have emerged in the church, but it does remind me about Medieval scholars who sought to determine “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” I also do not mean to trivialize the discussion over angels that some attribute to what was written by Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Italian Dominican friar and philosopher, in his best known work Summa Theologica.
Aquinas writes about angels but nowhere does he address the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Still, I have always appreciated the deep theological insight attributed to Charlie Brown who, after a moment of contemplation, responded to the question by answering: “Two if they’re fat and three if they’re skinny.”
In our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew this morning, we discover that Matthew appears to be oblivious to what makes for a proper baptism. He is more concerned about explaining or clarifying other matters open to misunderstanding that some see in The Gospel According to Mark.
Mark seems unconcerned about the reason for Jesus’ baptism. “That Jesus was baptized is a historical certainty; the church would never have created such a story. After all, why would Jesus go for baptism by a preacher who called for repentance and forgiveness of sin?” (Preaching the Word, Year A, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1992, page 82).
On the other hand, Matthew makes three clear statements about why Jesus was baptized. First, Jesus went to the Jordan deliberately “to be baptized” by John (Matthew 3:13). It was an intentional act. He was not caught up in John’s preaching or the movement that developed around John.
Second, John recognized that Jesus did not fit the image of those coming in repentance, seeking forgiveness. Somehow, Jesus transcended John’s baptism and that is made clear when Matthew points out that John would have prevented Jesus from coming to him to be baptized when he questions Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
And third, Jesus responds to John by saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It is as though Jesus is saying, “It is what God wills.” And so it becomes an act of fidelity to the commands of God (Matthew 5:20) (Op.cit.).
What becomes important for Matthew is the focus not on Jesus but upon what God announced at his baptism. We began this week with the Epiphany and the sign that drew the Magi to Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all attest that Jesus’ baptism was also an epiphany – a sign of divine revelation. “The heavens were opened, a sign associated with divine revelation (Matthew 3:16; Ezekiel 1:1); the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus empowering him for the ministry before him (Matthew 3:16; 4:17); and the voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 42:1)
So for Matthew, it is not the baptism that he is most concerned about but the proclamation that followed. Matthew had earlier offered the birth of Jesus as a statement that Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 1:18-25).
For Matthew the proclamation was not to Jesus but to those who were present at the river that day. It was a public announcement. On the one hand, the voice from heaven joins Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 together. For the psalmist the announcement is a coronation proclamation that Jesus is sovereign and for Matthew the words of the prophet Isaiah affirms that Jesus is God’s suffering servant.
Having said all of this, Matthew is clear that John recognized Jesus as someone greater than himself. Moments before Jesus appeared before him at the river, John declared to the Pharisees, Sadduccees and others who were coming to him to be baptized: “I baptize you with water for repentance but one more powerful than I is coming after me . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire ” (Matthew 3:11).
Jesus’ teaching and his life were never separated from his identity as God’s “beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). Neither were they separated from the life he shared with his beloved disciples.
I would say to you that our in baptism we were each called out by the voice of God’s love. We were baptized not only with water, but with the Spirit. “This is what makes [our] work for the kingdom [of God] possible” (“Reflections on the Lectionary,” Mihee Kim-Kort, Christian Century, January 1, 2020, page 19). As the church, as the body of Christ, we are God’s beloved, called to a life of service in the world.
Let us pray: God of life and new life, you are indeed splendid and strong! Your voice thunders above the sound of loud waters. You sit enthroned above the floods of life. As Jesus heard you speak to him in his baptism, so we have heard you calling us your beloved at our baptism and for that we give you thanks in his name. Ke mahalo nei mākou iā ʻoe. Amen.