Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 42:1-9
Pastoral Prayer: Lord God Almighty, it is clear our world is organized to bruise the weak and dim any light of hope we see. Jesus’ words that describe every human era as always on the verge of war find an illustration all too often. Yet in the midst of that violent flood, you sit enthroned above the waters re-creating all things new. Remind us that in Jesus’ baptism he identifies with our muddy predicament and carries us from our own wilderness and into life with him. And all God’s people say … Amen.
“There is a satanic lullaby here. All the Christians are sleepy and I’m feeling sleepy.”
These were the words of the wife of an Iranian couple who took the opportunity to live in the United States for a few months. She surprised her husband with the request to move back to Iran. Frontier International Alliance released a second documentary last August in their Sheep Among Wolves series. This edition chronicles what is considered the fastest-growing Christian church in the world, the underground church in Iran.
Of all the sights and sounds we generally hear about and out of Iran, that Christianity is growing quickly is not among them. Our concerns tend to be political. Images of flag-waving angry protestors set us up not to consider the plight of a people and culture we don’t know much about. These sights are used to strike fear in us. Who knew that in the middle of what we are fed by our political leaders and our media there are other sights and sounds — those of life and hope?
One Iranian church leader posed this question,
“What if I told you the best evangelist was the Ayatollah Khomeini?”
The point the Iranian church leader made with the question was that the way a person represents their faith tradition may have the opposite desired effect. Rather than persuade it may repel. Before we chalk one up for Team Jesus in Iran, we may want to consider what sorts of evangelists are we right here in our own land. When people need to hear the sights and sounds that come with the Good News of Jesus, do they? Oddly we are often more driven by fear than in repeating the reassuring line often heard from prophets, angels and Jesus,
Stop being afraid.
It is hard not to be afraid. We have been more discipled by fear than love. Take for instance our always-on election cycles. Pundits and politicians sound the alarms every day. Each one predicts the end of life as we like it. We are led by Parties represented by animals. Think about that. Elephants and donkeys. The reality on the ground is nothing really changes. We are spurred by fear if this or that Party gains leadership. We pass around Facebook memes repeating things about people we don’t even know as if they are the devil incarnate.
Maybe it really is a lack of time in the Scripture. One recent study revealed that the fewer times a week we spend in the Scriptures the least likely we are to be encouraged by the Good News found within its pages. Nothing like stating the obvious.
Could it be our problem is familiarity? After all, here we are again reading about Jesus’ baptism on the first Sunday after a Christian celebration that we know very little about. Before Christians began celebrating Christmas on December 25, they held a feast on or around January 6. While it was important to take up the two places we learn of the birth of Jesus, early Christians seemed taken in by the story of Jesus baptism that is four in all four gospels.
Epiphany marks the revealing of who the baby born in Bethlehem would be for the world. Given that we know little of Jesus’ life prior to his baptism by John in the Jordan, it seems appropriate we return again and again to the one location that signals the story of God in Christ that will not only alter the world as we like it, it will change our understanding of the world as we know it. Even more, the Good News is that God is making Godself known to us in ways not known in sights and sounds that come with flesh and blood.
The writer of Hebrews is convinced God let people know who he was prior to Jesus’ coming. Yet it was through other people like the prophets. Now the writer points out, God is telling us who he is in the flesh, in Jesus the Christ. Jesus’ baptism inaugurates that story by calling back and pointing forward. The imagery of baptism calls back to Creation, the Flood, the Exodus and Israel entering the Promised Land. It points forward to the way God identifies with us, washes us, restores us and reconciles us into Godself. The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ baptism prompts us to ask, What is going on?
Given what we read of John’s baptism, that people were going out to hear him and were compelled to be baptized, confessing their sins, we wonder what was Jesus doing there? “Why was Jesus baptized?” After all, John clearly recognizes something in Jesus, something about Jesus that draws from John a humble response to Jesus’ intention to be baptized by him.
Jesus makes the point the Good News is about what he must do.
There they were, likely on the East side of the Jordan, the very side from which Israel crossed over into the Promised Land told about in the book of Joshua. The East side of the Jordan represented the period of wandering in the wilderness. Faithlessness, the failure to trust God, kept the people from entering the land God promised them, a land in which their ancestors had once lived.
Traveling to the Jordan to hear John certainly reminded the people of their past and their present. Confessing their faithlessness and all its forms upon hearing John issue the call to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near must have come with the hope that God was on his way to and for Israel. They had not found a Good News message in Jerusalem for the Temple leaders had made alliances with Rome. John’s message of a future hope was enough to drive them to the place of their past, to reckon with their unfaithfulness in all its forms.
Jesus insists on baptism as the means to fill up all righteousness. Jesus comes to identify with people in need. He takes up a place with them in the muddy water of the Jordan. For Matthew, Jesus will become for the people their faithful representative. That is, as Matthew lays out the story of Jesus he proves faithful to God in the way the people had not been. Rather than make the event about John – who shifts our attention to the contrast between John and Jesus – Jesus insists that this is his mission.
Jesus must do what he does for he also keeps God’s promise. It is not just that Jesus will be our faithful representative, but he is God’s faithful representative to Israel, and to us. What he does, he must do for God will be a God that is faithful to his promise.
Jesus’ baptism signals that his life will be marked by sights and sounds that reveal God to us.
The sights and sounds at Jesus’ baptism serve as important signals that God is revealing something about God’s way in the world that will be revealed in Jesus. Jesus fulfills the promise of God not to remember our sins any longer, to put an end to our enemies not by traditional means, but by his life. First, the Spirit descending as a dove indicates the manner of Jesus’ work. The symbol for Rome’s power was the eagle. Aviary signs, birds, were believed to serve as signs a Caesar was divinely selected. An eagle seen flying at a particular moment, even landing on he would be Caesar became the lore that established evidence the person would be a powerful leader.
If there were an opposite sign to the eagle, it would be the dove. Here Matthew points out that the Spirit that descended – the affirming presence of God came not in the political sign of power, but of peace.
he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
Again we are getting a call back to the pre-story of Israel. After the Great Flood, Noah received a sign that all was well. A dove brought an olive branch indicating peace had come after all. Many have understood the flood as a cleansing event, a baptismal image.
Second, the sound heard at Jesus’ baptism reminds of God’s affirmation of the manner Jesus will bring healing to the world.
Jesus’ baptism affirms that God has not abandoned the bruised and dimmed.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. The above manuscript is incomplete. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.