This is a sermon on The Baptism of Jesus based on Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.
I remember the day well, even though it was many years ago. I was a disciple of John then – John the Baptist as you call him.
John was a unique and charismatic figure in the life of the people of God. He’s been viewed by many as the last in the line of the Prophets. At the time I began following John – before Jesus came along – there were a number of us who were beginning to wonder whether John was the Messiah.
You see, John ticked all the boxes of what many of us thought the Messiah would look and sound like. John lived in the desert, wore rough clothes, ate locusts and wild honey and constantly called the Jewish people to repentance.
There were many of us who believed that if one Jewish man could keep all of the Law for just one day, then the Kingdom of God would come to earth. Some thought that John would be the man to keep all of the Law and that, in his keeping of it, he would be given divine success in calling the whole nation to repentance. Anyway, I followed John because it was clear to me that the power of God’s Spirit was with him, whether he was the Messiah or simply a great Prophet.
So it was a thrill to go down to the River Jordan and listen to John. He preached ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ and hundreds, if not thousand, of people would respond to his call to repent and be baptised.
One day, though, I was surprised when a man came to John to be baptised and John started insisting that he didn’t need to be baptised. Since everyone needs repentance, I wondered about the identity of this man who John seemed to think had no need for repentance.
Of course these many years later, I now know that the man was Jesus, the Messiah, who we as Christians now profess to be both Son of God and Son of Man. Clearly on the day that Jesus presented himself for his baptism, John was confused, possibly feeling humble and inadequate and trying to work out why it was that the Messiah would need to be baptised. Jesus simply stated that his baptism was needed to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ – a statement that I’ve had thirty years to think about!
Jesus’ baptism was, of course, the beginning of his ministry. And obedience to the Father was a mark of Jesus’ mission here on earth, so perhaps it was appropriate that Jesus begin his ministry by behaving in obedience to the Father’s will. To tell you the truth we’re still trying to figure this one out. By ‘we’, I mean me and the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re trying to come to grips with what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. If Jesus was divine, as we believe him to have been, perhaps his baptism was simply following a script that he and the Father had established before the foundation of the world.
But I’m not sure that his baptism was just about inaugurating his ministry. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the presence of the Father’s voice were certainly confirmations of Jesus’ divine mandate but I think that there was something more to his baptism than that.
Maybe the question isn’t ‘What did it mean for the man Jesus to be divine?’ Maybe the question is ‘What did it mean for God to become a human being?’
When we – ordinary people – are baptised, we say that as we go under the water that we are dying to ourselves and rising to Christ. We also say that the water washes away our sins; it’s as if our sins drop to the bottom of the river and are washed away in the current. But, of course, Jesus didn’t need his sins washed away.
This is what I wonder, though: What if all those human sins – the ones I’ve pictured washing away in the current of the Jordan river – what if, instead of being washed away, they attached themselves to Jesus during his baptism? What if, for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might be made righteous?
I hope you understand that I’m not saying that this ‘literally’ happened. I’m thinking of this as a sort of picture or metaphor. But I’m trying to say that there was something important about Jesus’ ministry that was not just about understanding human sin-and-suffering - but actually experiencing human sin-and-suffering even though Jesus was divine.
And just as, in baptism, we die to ourselves in order to live for Christ, so I think maybe at his own baptism Jesus died to himself in order to fulfil the will of the Father, or what he called ‘all righteousness’.
Well, it’s been good chatting with you. I’ve not thought about these things for a long time and I’m an old man now. I think I’ve made my brain hurt and I wonder if yours hurts too. If I could, I’d invite you into my house for a meal and fellowship, but as that’s not possible, I thought that perhaps we could take a brake and have a song.
Of course, we in the early church only had the Hebrew Scriptures. In my time we didn’t have any scrolls of what you now call the books of the New Testament. We had to try to understand Jesus and his mission in the light of Old Testament. And the image of the Servant in Isaiah was a picture that was familiar to us.
Remember that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet just hours before he died. And Jesus constantly said that the last would be first and the first would be last. And so it’s not surprising that we in the early church turned to images of the servant and the suffering servant in order to try to understand Jesus’ mission.
Isaiah 42:1 reads: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Now, back in the old days, before Jesus came along, we Jewish people understood this image of the Servant to have a double meaning: The Servant was, some thought, a promise of a future Messiah. But it was also an image of the role that Israel would play in bringing about God’s kingdom.
So it’s hardly surprising, then, that when we came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, that we understood these texts to be talking about Messiah Jesus and about his followers as the people who would bring about God’s kingdom.
Did you notice, that at Jesus’ baptism, the Father uses similar words as Isaiah? This is my son in whom I am well pleased; This is my servant in whom my soul delights. As a friend of mine joked: ‘God has a good working knowledge of Hebrew scripture.’1
Through my eyes, friends, this is a wonderful passage, especially as I read it in the light of Jesus’ baptism. This is a glorious promise of salvation and justice for a people in exile. And it’s not the kind of justice that will sweep the earth burning everything and everyone in its path, but rather a justice with kindness that acts on behalf of those who have already been broken by the sins of the world.
This is a picture, not of a conquering hero, but of a saviour who takes on my sin and who knows exactly what it means to struggle on earth as a finite human being with limited knowledge. To me, this is a picture of a God in the mess with me. It’s not a God who observes the pain of being human, but it’s a God who experiences the pain of being human. In Jesus, God knows by experience what it means to be rejected and hunted down and what it means to be God-forsaken. 2
But, of course, there is the other side of the coin: our calling to be like Jesus. Just as Israel was called to be like the Messiah, so in Jesus is the Christian church called to be like Christ. Christ was baptised into our sin and we were baptised into Christ’s holiness so that we too could take part in his resurrection.
And so it’s my prayer this morning that the story of the Baptism of Christ will inspire us all to remember our own Baptism. May we give God thanks for loving us so much that he became human and took our sin on himself in order to destroy it on the cross.
And I pray that we will dedicate ourselves anew to being the instruments of God’s justice on earth and that we will be kind and gentle in our dealings with others so as not to further hurt those who have already been broken by sin. Amen
1 From the article ‘Descent into the depths’ by John Pridmore in The Church Times 11 January 2008, p. 18.
2 From a letter to the editor written by Jeremy Craddock in The Church Times 11 January 2008, p. 15.