Every once in awhile, I wish the Gospels had a really good novelist as an editor. I want someone to send this manuscript back to its writers and say something like, “Interesting story, but the motivations of Jesus are unclear. Why does he want to be baptized if he has nothing for which to repent? Why does John resist? How does Jesus feel when he gets in the water? Your use of detail is insufficient, please expand.”
The authors of the Gospels are just not interested in giving us all the details. They are not interested in thoughts, feelings and motivations. They are telling us a theological story, not a psychological one.
So we’re left with this very brief description of a momentous event. Jesus’ baptism was so important that each of the four Gospels have an account. Matthew’s is the longest, and is an expanded version of the baptism in Mark. The version in Luke is extremely similar to the one in Mark. And in the gospel of John, we don’t see the baptism take place, but John the Baptist refers to it.
After Jesus is baptized, a dove comes from the heavens, and rests above Jesus’ head. This dove floating above the waters evokes the Spirit moving above the waters in the Creation story. God is creating something new. Some major change is coming.
This event is important because by this time in Jewish history, God had pretty much stopped showing up in momentous ways. When we read the Old Testament, God appears all the time in dreams and visions, even occasionally allowing someone to catch the briefest glimpse of him. But God had not revealed himself in that way in a long time. For God to break into our world, to a send a message, however brief, was heart poundingly exciting.
In the three synoptic gospels, the dove is accompanied by a voice from heaven. In Mark and Luke that voice speaks directly to Jesus, but in Matthew the voice speaks to everyone within earshot. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Two thousand years later we hear that statement and we think, “Aw, isn’t that nice. God’s giving his son a little pep talk! I bet that made Jesus feel awesome!” But if we keep in mind that the writers of the Gospels are interested in making a theological statement, we take another look at what God says about Jesus. That short sentence is extremely loaded. It evokes Psalm 2, when the author of the Psalm says that
I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
The Psalms are associated with David, and the Messiah is supposed to come from David’s line.
The sentence also evokes Isaiah 42:1
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.
In Isaiah, this describes the suffering servant. Jesus being linked to the suffering servant is really important. When Jews pictured a Messiah, for the most part they imagined a mighty warrior. The suffering servant in Isaiah was just a character of his time, not an archetype for a Savior. But in one little sentence, God begins making the link for people that this Messiah is going to be different.
God’s words also evoke his own words to Abraham. When he instructs Abraham to bring Isaac on the near fatal walk, he says,
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.
We can’t help but hear those instructions when God refers to Jesus as his beloved son. Where God spared Abraham’s son, God’s son will not be so lucky.
Each of these men, Abraham, David, and Isaiah were critical players in God’s salvation history. He used each of them to further define his relationship with humanity. God makes a covenant with Abraham that he and Abraham’s descendents will belong to each other. They will be God’s people. He will be their God. God makes a covenant with David, too, that kings of David’s line will be the rightful kings until the Messiah comes.. Isaiah was a prophet who urged the people of Israel to return to keeping their side of the covenants they had made with God.
Each of these men, and the covenants made with or defended by them, is a key part of God’s history with humanity. For God to reference them as he introduces his Son, demonstrates that Jesus is part of the same salvation history. Jesus is deeply connected to these men who have come before him in faithfulness to God. But God also distinguishes Jesus by so clearly announcing their relationship. Jesus is not just another human in relationship with God. Jesus is God’s flesh and blood. His son. Jesus is the same substance of God. And yet, Jesus chooses to immerse himself in the same baptism as ordinary humans, to identify with us completely. To immerse himself in our experiences, our sorrows and joys.
Today [at the 11:00 service] we will celebrate three baptisms. While the voice of God may not break through our roof, and we may not see a dove flying in, we do know that the Holy Spirit will be present. Baptisms are not merely our culture’s version of a baby naming ritual. Today, our two adult baptismal candidates remind us that a baptism is a leap of faith, the beginning of a new stage of life, a response to that Jesus who so confidently accepted his own baptism and role as our savior.
Baptism is a reminder of the Covenant that God makes with us through Jesus. No longer are we bound by sin and death, but through Jesus we are set free and invited to live new lives. When we say yes to life with God through Baptism, we are letting go of our old ways of life. No longer are we bound by our accomplishments, keeping ahead in the rat race. No longer are we defined by cruel words that have been spoken about us. No longer do we need to surround ourselves with people who do not have our best interests at heart. No longer do we need people to be impressed by what brand we wear or what car we drive. Baptism frees us from the need to gird ourselves with earthly things, because now we are joined with Christ. Now we are bound to love and service; humility and patience. We have moved from darkness into light.
Today, as we renew our own Baptismal vows, we are invited to remember that the Holy Spirit remains with us, and even if we’ve slipped back into old ways of life, the Spirit still dwells within us, ready to help us walk back towards the light. God’s covenant with us will not be broken. God’s beloved Son has made sure of that.
We may not know all of Jesus’ motivations for becoming baptized, but we do know why God became Incarnate in Jesus. We know why Jesus was willing to die at our hands. We know why Jesus was resurrected. Jesus was extending the story of God relationship with humanity. Jesus was showing us how far God is willing to go to make and keep covenants with us. Jesus was reminding us just how much God loves us.
Thanks be to God.