Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
We begin this morning the season of Epiphany, well, technically it actually begins on January 6th, or the 12th day of Christmas. Generically an epiphany can be any sudden revelation but in the Christian tradition, Epiphany specifically refers to the divine manifestation of God to the Gentiles as symbolized by the magi coming to honor the Christ child. The first Sunday in the season of Epiphany traditionally is the Sunday we read about the baptism of Jesus in which his identity is revealed to us through the voice from the heavens, also an epiphany.
The selection this year is from the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. I will use the text from the Open English Bible, a new and very unique translation introduced in 2010 that is open source, meaning it is held in public domain and is a work in progress by a large number of textual scholars. You might think of it as the “Wikipedia” Bible. To date it includes the entire New Testament and about half of the Hebrew Scriptures. Reading then Matthew 3:13-17 after we are introduced to the fiery preaching of John:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to John, to be baptized by him.But John tried to prevent him. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why have you come to me?”
“This is the way it should be for now,” Jesus answered, “because we should do everything that God requires.” So John agreed. After the baptism of Jesus, and just as he came up from the water, the heavens opened, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. and from the heavens there came a voice which said: “This is my dearly loved son, who brings me great joy.”
John the Baptist is one of the most colorful figures of the Bible, sort of a “Howard Stern” of first century Palestine. He is often portrayed as a lunatic or a wild man of the Jordan, living off the land and dressed in animal skins. So much attention has been given, however, to his unusual appearance and fiery preaching that the significance of what he was doing, baptizing people in the Jordan River, has nearly been lost.
Baptism was a religious rite performed exclusively in the Jewish tradition by priests and normally in the Jerusalem temple as a ritual of purification for those converting to Judaism. John, however, was baptizing not proselytes who wished to become Jewish, but Jews who wished to prepare themselves for the coming day of the Lord, a day which will not be kind to sinful people of which John considers the religious leaders to be the worst. I don’t know if he would have thought religious leaders today are much different. Using baptism in this way was a way of ridiculing the authority of those religious leaders. In other words, this was a way for John to thumb his nose at them in a very prominent and symbolic way. But they were not the only ones so challenged.
John could have chosen any body of water. He could have baptized them in the Sea of Galilee. There is a large population in and around that fishing haven so it would be an easy place to draw a crowd but he didn’t use the Sea of Galilee. He could have used the Mediterranean Sea. Everyone enjoys an outing to coastal beaches, catch a few rays, play in the surf and drop in on the evening revival for a complete trip. Think of the possibilities for advertising! But John didn’t choose the Mediterranean. For that matter, John could have used the local watering hole. Get your sins forgiven and thirst quenched all at the same time! But John didn’t use the local watering hole.
John chose the Jordan River, not exactly known for its mighty waters, good fishing or vacation resorts. But the Jordan was known for one thing and known by all. Crossing the Jordan was the symbol for entering the Promised Land. Thus to baptize in the Jordan River while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah was to announce the establishment of a new kingdom, the reign of God on earth. In other words, where baptizing anywhere might have been an offense to religious authorities, baptizing in the Jordan was an offense to political authorities.
John’s later arrest and execution by the political authority of that region confirms this reading of his actions. The Jewish historian of the first century, Josephus, also confirms this, noting that Herod Antipas, not to be confused with Herod the Great under whom Jesus was born, was alarmed by John’s preaching and feared that he would cause “some form of sedition”. Therefore, said Josephus, Herod decided it was better “to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.”[i]
This is the man, a religious maverick and political threat that all four Gospels tell us is the starting point for Jesus’ ministry. In some way Jesus identified with the man and his message. What was that message? From the remnants of his preaching found in the gospels, we know that John believed that God was about to intervene in history in some great, cataclysmic way and that with his coming, there would be a terrible and swift judgment. Baptism, therefore, was necessary to prepare people for this coming of God into the world.
John evidently expected many things to happen to usher in this new age, including the coming of the Messiah. Only for John it is more than an expectation, it is a certainty. Just as Duck fans and Ohio State fans are certain their team will win the national championship—wait, I just had an epiphany, Yes!, it’s the Ducks by 14! John was that certain, but one thing John did not expect, we are told, is that he would baptize this Messiah to begin the new age. So Matthew tells us that John tried to stop Jesus from being baptized by him. Taken by surprise, Matthew depicts John as standing in the way of Jesus and his mission.
This attempted prevention of Jesus’ baptism is unique among the four gospels. It is the way of the gospel writer to elevate the baptizee above the baptizer. Luke does the same thing by placing the baptism of Jesus after the arrest of John. The Gospel of John does it by excluding the baptism all together. In that text John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, but the baptism itself is omitted.
By the third or fourth century a document of the early church known as the Gospel of the Nazoreans tells a story of the mother and brothers of Jesus wanting to go and be baptized by John. But note this response in that story by Jesus: “What sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him?” In other words, John the Baptist wasn’t the only one who had a problem with his baptizing Jesus.
Do you see the problem? You can almost hear some early convert to the faith saying, “Wait a second. Let me be sure I have this straight. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus is the Son of God who came to take away our sin. He was born of a virgin, meaning, without sin. And he was baptized by John for what reason? Am I missing something here?” Does it strike you as odd?
Then imagine yourself in the sandals of John, standing face to face with your Messiah. Do you know what it feels like to be in the presence of the Divine Mystery, to suddenly find yourself in the light of God? When the prophet Isaiah had such an encounter and was faced with the overwhelming majesty of God’s holy court, he can only wail, “Woe is me” I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) How can we feel anything else but such a sense of complete inadequacy and unworthiness? Most of us I suspect, have not had such a revelatory experience, at least not to that degree. Yet we do have them. Our world is filled with epiphanies of varying degrees when the wonder of God is disclosed to us if we but have eyes to see them.
It was the summer of my 19th year, just twenty years ago (not!), when I had my first epiphany experience. I was in Kansas City for the Youth Ministry Congress of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. Delegates would be arriving on the next day from all across North America. I was on the event planning committee and was also being interviewed for a position in the youth ministry office of our denomination. There I was, just a naïve kid from little Albany, Oregon, suddenly thrust in the limelight of a national event for our church. It was an overwhelming experience. That night I stretched on a hillside behind the dorm where we were staying and stared up at the universe. “Who am I,” I thought, “that Thou should take notice of me.” I felt so small, insignificant, and yet so blessed beyond reasonable measure. Under the stars of a mid-western summer sky, I beheld and was touched by the wonder of God.
Sometimes, like Mary in the garden on that early morn, we find ourselves standing face to face with our Lord without recognizing whom we have seen. I’ve shared this epiphany story with you many times, it still makes me pause to this day. For those who haven’t heard it, it needs telling and for those who have, it’s worth repeating. It was the orientation meeting of our elders and deacons. Certainly not the place anyone would expect Jesus to show up. We were conducting important business of the church, like how to coordinate the distribution of communion plates without crashing into one another. Makes a terrible mess when that happens. In any event, we were busy doing the Lord’s work when someone brought to my attention that we had campers out on the front porch of the church. I don’t know why people always tell me these things like I am supposed to do something about it.
I went out and sure enough, there they were, just finishing up a nice meal of fried eggs and ham, with a nice little camp fire, on our porch! A middle-aged couple, appeared to have been homeless for some time. As gently as possible, I told them they could not camp there. They said they understood and were very apologetic. I turned to leave when the request came. “Pastor, can we ask just one favor?” Here it comes, I thought, the sad story and the need for money. I grabbed onto my wallet and held it tight. “Pastor, we were just admiring your windows from the outside here and we wondered if we could come in and see them from the inside.” Though I was certain this was some kind of trick to soften me up, I consented.
The two of them came in like children entering a great European cathedral, with such a reverence I rarely see on Sunday morning. They stood there in the middle of the sanctuary, speaking in hushed tones, pointing to each window with excitement and joy as they recognized the scenes from Jesus’ life. “Look, there’s Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem. And there’s His baptism. And up there is the Lord’s Supper.” And so they recounted the familiar story as those who had not heard it in a long time but knew it by heart. When they were done, they thanked me for allowing them to come in and were gone, leaving no trace of their presence and me wondering, who was that, really?” Afterwards, everything else we did that night in our important meeting seemed woefully inadequate.
How do you suppose John the Baptist felt? I’ll let you in on a little secret I learned from this text. John is not the one who was called to baptize Jesus. It wasn’t John. It’s us. We are the ones called to baptize him. Now I know you are thinking the preacher is going nuts, but stay with me just a bit longer on this. If John really was so reluctant to baptize Jesus, why is that not picked up the by the other three gospel writers who also are concerned about showing why Jesus did not need to be baptized by John?
You know what I think? I think this is Matthew the preacher talking to us about OUR mission. We are the ones called to baptize Jesus, and Matthew is talking to all of us timid Christians, all hesitant followers of Jesus, everyone who has ever had some doubts, anyone who has felt inadequate to the task. Do you hear what Matthew is saying? John the Baptist is like us, we are just like John. We are called to baptize Jesus, to initiate the realm of God in our midst. It is not Jesus who needs it, it is us. We need to do it, we need to get off our duffs, to quit standing in the way of Jesus and start instead walking in the way of Jesus.
One more secret. Do you know how I know this is the case? The Voice. No, I am not talking about the TV talent show, rather that voice from heaven that says, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.” At least that is the way Mark remembers it. That is the way Luke remembers it, but that is not the way Matthew remembers it. In Matthew’s story the voice says, “THIS is my son.” Third person rather than second, the more personal “you.”
I know this is rather subtle, but sometimes it is in the subtleties that the greatest revelations come. Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night. Peter, the one who makes the Great Confession is the one who makes the Great Denial. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. The subtleties of our faith are often its greatest gems. Using “This is my son” rather than “You are my son”, is Matthew’s way of telling us once again that it is not Jesus who needs to hear this. The voice is not directed at Jesus, it is directed at us. Jesus knows who he is, the question is, do we?
To move from standing in the way of Jesus to walking in the way of Jesus is to hear that voice from above or from within. Are you willing to step out in your faith, to respond to God’s calling, to set aside your excuses, to overcome your feelings of inadequacies? Jesus awaits us, he awaits us at the Jordan. The reign of God begins there, for those wiling to join him at the river and ready to cross to the other side.
First Christian Church, Eugene
[i] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus. Harper Collins, 1991. p. 231.