[Scripture readings are found at the end of this post.]
“Then Jesus came from Galilee…”
Matthew’s gospel for today begins with the word “then” – which of course leaves us asking, “what happened before then?” In this particular story – the story of Jesus’ baptism – that’s an important question.
In Matthew’s gospel, after the Christmas story, Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized as a full-grown adult. But what happened in between birth and baptism?
What Matthew skips over, some of the other gospels talk about. Jesus was born the Son of God, but he was also born a human baby. And he had to learn all the things that you and I had to learn growing up: how to eat, how to walk, how to do chores around the house. He did all the things that kids do like playing, and learning to read, and recovering from chicken pox.
It’s important to remember the human side of Jesus. We see Jesus as Lord and Savior – and rightfully so – but he was also human. He lived life day to day just like we do.
Which raises the question, how much did Jesus know about himself being the Son of God when he was growing up? His parents, Mary and Joseph, would have told him about his Father, that he was the Son of God. And they would have told him what the angels said about how the Savior had been born that night, and what the shepherds said and the gifts the wise men brought.
But Jesus would have had to grow into an understanding of what that meant. I suspect that’s why Jesus as a 12-year-old stayed behind in the temple, asking questions of the religious teachers. He needed to know, he needed to learn, what it meant to be Messiah. Scriptures say after that he ‘went home and was obedient to his parents’ – which I’m sure was practice for being obedient to his heavenly Father during his ministry.
And after that, Jesus worked in the family business for a while. He was well liked in the community, and for the first 30 years of his life Jesus led a fairly unremarkable life in Nazareth. He did not, as some people claim, travel to the far east or to Egypt to study mystical religions. And the one thing that was a little unusual about his early life was that he did not marry or have children. Sorry, Da Vinci Code.
And then one day all that came to an end. One day, Matthew says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan”. We don’t know why that day, other than Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit. We have very few details. We do know Jesus was around 30 years old, and we know the place where John was baptizing was about 60 miles southeast of Nazareth as the crow flies (not quite as far as from Pittsburgh to Morgantown WV.) And we know Jesus most likely walked to the Jordan. How long would that take? For someone in his shape – with a carpenter’s build – two or three days maybe?
And more than likely Jesus made the trip by himself. He didn’t have family with him, and he hadn’t called any disciples yet. But the road he was traveling on was well-traveled, and there were probably other people traveling in the same direction at the same time. And he would have walked with his fellow travelers, and chatted, and maybe shared a sandwich. For those of you who travel, you know some of the best memories of a trip is the people you meet while you’re on the road. And I imagine these conversations were an encouragement to Jesus, a confirmation of the rightness of what he was about to do.
Where exactly where John the Baptist was baptizing has been lost to history, but most historians believe it was near Jericho or a little further south towards the Dead Sea. So as Jesus walked, the countryside around him would have changed… from hilly and green in the north, to dusty and dry in the south.
And so at last Jesus arrived at place where John was baptizing. And there in the wilderness, in semi-desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, a large crowd had gathered. In the middle of the river, a man wearing camels-hair clothing was listening to people as one by one they came forward and confessed their sins, and were baptized in the water.
In those days in Israel baptism was mostly a thing done for ritual purity, that is, to cleanse oneself after doing something nasty like burying a dead body. But John taught a different meaning to baptism, a meaning that was taught at the community at Qumran at the time, which was that baptism represents inner cleansing – a way of preparing oneself for the coming of the Lord.
So people came to John and confessed their sins and were dunked, whole body, into the river, and raised out again. In the meantime, at a slight distance, there were observers: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political elite from Jerusalem. They came, not to be baptized, but to ask awkward questions and cast doubts on what John was doing. One theologian I came across said: Remember at the time of John the Baptist, the ‘rulers of the nation… rejected the counsel of God… by refusing John’s baptism’ while the tax collectors and sinners received it. He said, “we should prefer entering heaven with publicans and harlots over being excluded… with the great and mighty of the earth.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines)
So on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus, after standing in line with everyone else, Jesus enters the water and approaches John.
Now John and Jesus were related, as we heard a couple weeks ago in the Christmas story. But they grew up far apart from each other: Jesus lived in the north in Galilee, and John lived in the south near Jerusalem. Whether or not they ever met after birth is unknown. But we do know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, John recognized the Messiah.
(As a side note, I think it’s comforting to know that even John the Baptist – who as baby leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus’ pregnant mother walked into the room – even John had questions and doubts sometimes. In Luke 7:20 we read, “John the Baptist [sent messengers to Jesus] to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Even for John the shape of Jesus ministry was unexpected. And it’s interesting that Jesus answered “go and tell John… what you see and what you hear”. Faith comes by hearing, not by sight as we might expect.)
So back to the Jordan. John sees Jesus, recognizes him as the Messiah, and objects to Jesus being baptized. He says, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?” John knows himself to be an imperfect person, as much in need of baptism as the people he’s ministering to. (Which is true of all of us in ministry.) And so John confronts Jesus, not saying ‘no’, but asking a question, and giving Jesus the opportunity to respond.
Which Jesus does. He says, “Let it be so now” – and Jesus speaks this as a command, but gently – “for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness.” Notice how Jesus includes John in this: ‘It is fitting that we fulfill.’ Jesus is – from the very beginning of his public ministry – looking for people to work with him.
And so Jesus is baptized by John. And as he comes up out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove lights on him. Can you imagine what that looked like? ‘The heavens opened’ – and a voice was heard saying “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
John, and all those who witnessed it, knew they were seeing a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event. The Messiah, the savior of the world, the Son of God, come to earth in the flesh, was revealed this day by the very voice of God.
…and then, Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Does this strike you as odd? It does me. I mean, Jesus has finally made himself known – and God has given witness that Jesus is the Messiah – and no sooner is this made public that Jesus is sent into the wilderness for over a month. This is not the way people usually roll out a new ministry!
But God’s ways are not our ways. And Jesus’ time in the wilderness was necessary, because even though Jesus knew he was the Son of God, there were still some things he needed to grow into. And I suspect the depth of the meaning of his baptism was one of those things – because Christian baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness, it also represents dying to sin and being raised again.
From this point on, Jesus’s future is set. The goal of his life is the cross, and the resurrection beyond it. The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were temptations that called his goal into question… that tempted Jesus to find some other way to achieve his purpose, to find some short cut around the cross. Praise God it didn’t work. Jesus was, and always has been, completely faithful.
So I’d like to wrap up with two thoughts.
The first is just how astounding this event is. After 4000 years of waiting for promises to come true, Messiah is finally here! God says: “my son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” In his baptism Jesus is identified and his arrival is announced to the world.
This won’t necessarily mean what people think it means. In Jesus’ day, many people believed the savior would save the nation from the Romans, and return control of Israel to the Jewish people, but they were mistaken about that. And today there are people who make a similar mistake, thinking Jesus has come to create a Christian nation here on earth. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is our Savior because he saves us from our sins – which makes it possible for us to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven – which is a whole new ballgame. The majority of Jesus’ teaching will be about the kingdom of heaven: what the kingdom is like, how much the kingdom is worth, the things we can do here on earth to take with us to the kingdom. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching.
Which leads us to the second thought, summed up in Jesus’ words to John: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, no uncleanness to be washed from. John’s objection was rooted in an honest, perceptive, and loving heart. And Jesus does not argue with him or find fault with his theology. Rather Jesus overrides John with a higher calling.
Jesus is not in need of baptism, but we are, and Jesus came to take our place in every way. Jesus does not come to earth to judge us or to make demands of us. Jesus comes to identify with us, to become one of us, in order to raise us out of sinfulness and into holiness, out of death and into eternal life. The Word put on flesh and – as the Message Bible says – “moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14)
It’s an astounding thing to take in, that God would become one of us. It’s not quite what the Jewish people expected in a Messiah. And the non-Jews – the Romans and Greeks – were offended by it. They considered it shocking that a god would lower himself to put on flesh. Greek philosophy taught that human flesh was corrupt, and spirit is our higher nature: so much so that some of the early Greek converts to Christianity started to teach that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh at all, but only appeared to.
I point this out because our society today, without being aware of it, is very much influenced by this thinking. There are many today who try to separate body from spirit, flesh from spirituality, as if what a person does in the body has no effect on the spirit and vice versa. As if only the spirit is eternal. The Bible does not teach this. As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body…” and that’s not just Jesus’ body, we believe in the resurrection of our bodies too.
In Jesus, God has become flesh and blood in order to bring us – body and spirit – into God’s kingdom. Jesus is born into our world to stand in our place, and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: by his death destroying death and by his resurrection opening the door for us into God’s kingdom.
And all of this is foreshadowed by Jesus’ baptism.
So Jesus says to John: “let us fulfill all righteousness” And Jesus invites all of us to take part with him in the ministry of reconciling the world to God and God to the world. How will we respond?
(In the Methodist Church the sermon on the First Sunday After Epiphany is immediately followed by a ceremony of renewal of baptismal covenant. See Baptismal Covenant IV on this page for the text of the ceremony. This Sunday we segued into the renewal ceremony with the following comments: )
One of the ways we can respond is by remembering our own baptism. For some of us, who were baptized as children, we were welcomed into the family of faith even before we can remember. For others, baptism may have come later in life. And some of us may not even know if we were baptized.
In the New Testament, baptism is not just for repentance and forgiveness but is also the sign a person has come to faith in Jesus. Over and over in the New Testament we hear the words, “they believed and were baptized.” Most of the time in scripture these were adults being baptized, or adults along with their children.
Today we usually baptize our children very young as a sign of their being received into the family of God. Before we come forward today, we will remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, and recommit ourselves to those promises.
For most of us this will be a service of remembrance, but if anyone has never been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, and would like to be, please let me know after the service. In the meantime, all are welcome to come forward and touch the waters of baptism. Let’s remember our baptismal covenant in the words of this ceremony….
Scriptures for the day:
Isaiah 42:1-9 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. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 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. 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/8/17