Matthew 3:13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him 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, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The time of Epiphany is here – the revealing of the one we’ve awaited has arrived. The time of preparation is past. John has made straight the pathways, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. In Christmastide we heard word that the promised one had been born in Bethlehem and then after a sojourn in Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous attempt to eliminate competition, had taken up residence in Nazareth – as had been foretold (Matthew 1:18-3:12). Yes, the time of unveiling is upon us.
In the course of his ministry of baptism John began pointing beyond himself and his baptism to the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit and Fire. Power and judgment – that was the marker of the one who would follow John’s baptism with water for repentance. The choice before us concerns whether we follow the way that leads to forgiveness and empowerment or to judgment (recognizing that fire need only consume the chaff and not the grain). In the passage before us, John and Jesus come together, with Jesus coming to the river to be baptized by the one called to be his forerunner. As the moment unfolds, one will recede into the background and the other will take center stage.
The focus of the day is on the baptism of Jesus. As we contemplate his baptism we are invited to consider our own baptisms. Whether we were baptized as infants or in adulthood, with a sprinkling of water or full immersion – how does this sacramental act speak to our own sense of identity? How has it marked us? In what way have we become identified with the one revealed to be God’s son in the baptismal waters?
The story of Jesus’ baptism might present us with a dilemma. John preaches a message of repentance – but is Jesus in need of such an action? Was he out of step with God prior to this moment? Were his sins washed away in the Jordan? While Mark’s account might leave us with such an impression (Mark1:9-11), such is not the case with Matthew. When Jesus approaches John, the baptizer asks that Jesus baptize him instead. Although Jesus doesn’t baptize John, we see here Matthew’s determination that we not consider Jesus in need of restoration to fellowship with God. Instead, Jesus tells John that he undergoes this baptism to fulfill righteousness. It is an act of obedience to the will of God. It is the necessary step prior to God’s revelation of Jesus’ true identity.
In the moment that Jesus rises out of the waters the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and then a voice from heaven speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Note the use of the word this in this version. The voice speaks not to Jesus, as in Mark, but to the crowd. It is a distinctly Trinitarian moment that connects us to the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus commissions the disciples to go into the world, making disciples, and “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19-20). For Matthew it is not that Jesus needs to hear his calling, but rather his calling is affirmed to the world. This is the one – hear him. But before his ministry can fully begin – the one who is filled with the Spirit and is affirmed as God’s son will face a time of testing (Matthew 4:1-11).
What might we hear in this passage that pertains to our own life of discipleship? How might we identify with Jesus and his baptism? Unlike Jesus, I expect all of us have some sense of needing to repent, receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God and neighbor. The first purpose for John’s baptism would still seem to apply. But John makes it clear that we need more than to repent and be forgiven. That is the first step, but the second step is to be filled with the Spirit of God. In identifying with Jesus and his baptism, might we also receive this gift of the Spirit?
Moving further with this sense of identifying with Jesus and his baptism, it would appear that this is a time of ordination for Jesus – he receives his anointing. In Matthew it’s not a sense of adoption as son of God, but recognizing what this means of Jesus. His pathway is set out for him. Is not the same true for us? Is not our calling sealed by the Spirit in the act of receiving baptism?
As we attend to this story, and its implications for finding our identity revealed in Jesus, I wonder if we might draw as well from Paul’s take on baptism in Romans 6. Even if in this moment we don’t see anything revealed about either death or resurrection, Paul makes the connection rather clear. In baptism Paul writes, we are buried in death with Christ and are raised to life (resurrection) with him “so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom.6:1-4).