Baptism of Jesus | Jeff Nowers | January 12, 2020
Have you ever wondered why Jesus was baptized? In Matthew’s Gospel, which we just heard read, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is the first significant event in his public life. Why baptism? We think of baptism, as it developed in Christian history, as a rite of initiation. It’s a ritual by which one is made to belong—to belong to God and to the people of God. When we baptize our babies, isn’t that what we desire for them? We want our children included with us and all others on the journey of following the Way of Jesus. But for many people, baptism is more than that. It’s a sign of repentance and moral cleansing. And in that sense, baptism represents a turning point, even a watershed marker that separates the former life of sin from the embrace of new (eternal) life.
Many Christian people continue to understand baptism in this way, and it begs the question: Why did Jesus—the one named Emmanuel or “God with us”—need to be baptized? That very question was being asked in Jesus’ own day by John the Baptist. And Jesus responds that he needs to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” The word “righteousness” in New Testament Greek can just as easily be translated “justice.” I did a little bit of homework this past week and found that the term appears five other times in Matthew’s Gospel. Each occurrence has to do with God’s will for the world, which is a world infused with divine love and justice.
So when Jesus says that his baptism is necessary to fulfill all righteousness, what I think he’s saying is that his baptism marks out his life as devoted to the justice of God. And in that sense, Jesus’ baptism can be seen as one of repentance because his life was now about to change radically. That’s what repentance is in its most basic sense: a turning about, going in a new direction. Up to this point, Jesus’ life had been rather ordinary, even boring, so much so that the four Gospels hardly comment about his upbringing and coming of age into adulthood. But that ordinary life is now going to fatefully change. Jesus will go about proclaiming and practicing the justice of God; and because of that, he’ll find himself increasingly at odds with the social powers of his day, culminating in his execution by crucifixion. That trajectory of his life begins with his baptism.
But what about the actual event of his baptism? What happened as Jesus waded into the Jordan and then emerged baptized? We’re told three things. First, Jesus saw heaven opened to him. In other words, things became clearer. He had an awareness of God’s intention for the world, and this gave him direction and purpose for how he would now live. The second thing we’re told is that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. In other words, the power of God came upon Jesus to guide him, to strengthen him, to inspire him to persevere in the life that he would now lead. And the third thing we’re told, through God’s own resounding voice, is that God is well pleased with Jesus. Even before Jesus launches into his very public life, rife with confrontations, God is well pleased with Jesus.
How does all of this inform our own baptism? Let me suggest that part of why we seek out baptism for ourselves—and why we seek it out for our young children—is that we want to see heaven opened. We desire clarity about what God wants for the world; we want to live into a sense of divine justice as we relate to all those around us; simply put, we want to know God. That’s exactly what baptism offers us. We may not see heaven opened quite like Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus seeing it, but our baptism—through the vows we make—provides clarity about how we should live before God. Baptism is the doorway to a life of embodying the same good news that Jesus proclaimed. In fact—and this is the challenge before each one of us—baptism does not afford us a comfortable life of private faith. It exposes us publicly and politically, as we seek to resist evil in all its forms.
That can be scary. But we don’t do it on our own. We’re all in it together. The same Spirit that came upon Jesus is the Spirit who empowers us today and builds bonds between us, shaping our conscience and emboldening us to live out our baptismal vows. And there’s more: we can take comfort in that voice from the clouds. Before we even attempt those first post-baptismal steps, God calls us beloved, just as the voice declared that Jesus was the beloved in whom God was well pleased.
That affirmation is empowering. Like Jesus, our baptism sets our lives on a radical course. We’re given a new identity. My identity, your identity, our identity as a church, is to be a light shining through the darkness of our world. And does our world ever need light! This new year and decade has gotten off to a horrendous start—I don’t need to recount the sinister news. People are hurting and on edge. Light and love are gifts that we all possess. That might mean giving your neighbor a listening ear or a kind word. It might mean confronting the powers at Nathan Phillips Square and Queen’s Park. It might mean seeking out others who are striving to live into their baptism, to network and learn from others and to be inspired, and then to pass that along to those we encounter. We all have our gifts; let’s share them freely and without reservation, as we seek to live into our baptism, just as Jesus lived so fully into his.