Lessons for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Do you remember your baptism?
You might remember your baptism if you were an older child or an adult. You might even recall the words spoken or have memory of how the water felt as it hit your head or what is was like to go under. You might remember the aroma of the Sacred Chrism or the sight of the flickering light emanating from the Paschal candle. But if you were a baby as I was – I was just 33 days old, baptized on January 4, 1972 at Saint Anne’s Catholic Church on the bottom of Murray Hill, Cleveland. My Uncle Frank is my godfather and I’m told he even wore a suit for the occasion. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins were all there – even my dad’s Methodist side came to that Catholic Church. There was the baptismal candle, long gone now but that was used for a few years at least on the anniversary as a remembrance of the day. And I wore a white gown – a beautiful white gown. I was cute as my mother reminded me or handsome as my grandfather Emilio would remind me. It was a family heirloom, that white baptismal gown. (I’m not sure where it is now, though – maybe with a cousin.) It was old and lacy. The thing with that gown, though, was that it didn’t look right if the baby was wearing a diaper. Apparently, as my mother reminded me whenever she could, I peed on the priest. That the story of my baptism. It’s a strange story. I peed on the priest.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is a strange story, too. I am sometimes a little puzzled by it. Why did Jesus go to be baptized? We are baptized today in Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and to be made members of the household of God. Jesus did not need this! In fact, John the Baptist himself (as is reported in the Gospel of Matthew) was perplexed at Jesus arrival to be baptized insisting, instead, that Jesus needed to baptize him (Matthew 3:14). So today we might ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of the baptism of Jesus?”
The explanation, I think, lies in the sequence of what happened when Jesus had been baptized and was praying:
“…the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus, then the voice of God is heard. Strange things!
To make sense of these strange things, let us take notice of three other incidents in Luke’s gospel that echo that language found here at the baptism:
- At the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), we hear the very same words echo from the heavens, “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35 51). Jesus is given identity as son and as beloved (or chosen) after being “overshadowed” by the divine. While there is a lot going on in the Transfiguration narrative, it is enough to notice that it is, for the Lucan narrative of Jesus life, the moment of final preparation when Jesus will “set his face to go to Jerusalem” as the fulfillment of his earthly mission and ministry.
- In the Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-4), the reader might observe that Luke places a similar emphasis on the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit. While in Acts it is “a violent wind” and “tongues, as of fire” and at the baptism it is the “physical appearance of a dove,” in both cases there is a recognition that the physical is a metaphor for an interior confirmation of the Spirit’s habitation. In the Pentecost story, the Spirit gives ability as a precursor to the Apostolic mission when Peter and the rest begin out to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
- In the Infancy narrative, the angel announces (Luke 1:26-38) that the Spirit will descend and overshadow Mary, telling Mary that the child will be called “Son of God.” Then, in the angelic song that follows (Luke 2:8-14), we find the heavens open and an angelic chorus declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” “Favor” – the same word used of Jesus at the baptism. Indeed, the hovering dove and the divine voice foreshadow Mary’s act as Theotokos, God-bearer, and the angels foreshadow Jesus’ coming mission of peace and goodwill.
So, what is happening at the baptism of Jesus is the proclamation by God of who Jesus is – the Son of God, the Messiah, the beloved. It is, moreover, an identification that also initiates what Jesus came to do, i.e. his mission.
It is useful to understand that when it came to Jesus’ mission, there wasn’t really a manual for Jesus to follow. There were the Law and the Prophets but in many ways – in the little day-to-day ways – Jesus had to work out for himself what he was to be and to do. He had to proceed on his own terms in the world in which he lived, filled with its variety of traditions and expectations of what it meant to be the Messiah and the beloved. There were, indeed, many directions Jesus could have chosen.
Jesus could have followed the example of John the Baptist, taking on the ascetic life, and preaching a rigorous moralism. Like John the Baptist, Jesus could have confined his ministry to the people of Israel, waited for the wrath to come. Many thought the Messiah would be like that. John the Baptist was actually thought to be the Messiah precisely because he did these things.
Jesus could have become an anti-Roman agitator, a Zealot trying to overthrow the evil empire. He could have organized an army and restored to God’s people their rightful heritage by force of arms. Many were expecting a Messiah like David would conquer the lands.
Jesus could have looked to the Hebrew Bible and chosen one of its many and varied images of what those books say it looks like to be the beloved of the Father. He might have taken on the persona of the Maccabees, soldier and politicians, symbols of Israel’s past greatness and power. He might have looked to the Book of Daniel, taking on the apocalyptic vision of divine triumph, judging the nations with wrath and trials. He could have turned to Haggai or another of the lesser prophets who saw the Messiah as the one to purify Israel and destroy the gentiles, cleansing the temple and creating a religiously pure community.
Those and others were popular visions of who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah would do. In Jesus day and in the years before and after, there were a great many self-styled messiahs who modeled themselves on each and every one of those images. Jesus, however, did not choose those – at least not fully and certainly not primarily. Instead, for his vision of what it meant to be the beloved of the Father, Jesus went to a more obscure image and a generally ignored part of the Bible that few had paid much bothered with. Jesus went to the Servant Songs of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 504-7; 52:13-52:12). The Servant Songs are four powerful and perplexing poems that imagine God’s chosen one not as a king or conqueror but as a servant who is gentle and patient, burdened and suffering. He is the one who somehow, mysteriously through obedient suffering service, redeems not only Israel but all of humanity.
When Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, he was given his identity just like we were at our own baptism. Jesus was named beloved of God, just like we are. The Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, just as the Spirit comes upon us. And Jesus had to decide where to look to discover how he was to live out his identity. And so do we.
There is a striking and quite lovely instruction on the sacraments from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem from the 4th century. Cyril wrote about baptism:
“Now that you have been baptized into Christ and have put on Christ, you have become conformed to the Son of God…since you share in Christ, it is right to call you ‘Christs’ or anointed ones… You have become ‘Christs’ by receiving the sign of Holy Spirit….”
The celebration of the Baptism of Jesus is an ideal opportunity to open ourselves to the Spirit and to reaffirm our commitment to God’s call to be participants in God’s saving work. In this world of violence and war, of racism and misogyny, and where materialism and greed are so highly valued, it is easy to give up and to cease our baptismal work to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people (“Baptismal Covenant”, BCP 304-305). It is easy to forget that we have seen liberation and and that it is sweet. It is easy to forget that we are invited to the gracious work of healing our world and its peoples.
But, this week we are reminded that God is still at work in the world, the Spirit is still our guide, our sustenance, and our strength. We are also reminded this week that God is at work in the world most often through us who are overshadowed by the Spirit and on whom the Spirit descends like a dove and as tongues of fire. We are invited to be the bearers of peace, the initiators of justice, and bringers of grace. We are where love has a home. We are invited to seek to do good as participants in the trajectory of compassion.
On this Sunday, the Church bids us reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant to remind ourselves that we have been named beloved of God and that we are invited by God to live that out day by day. What does that look like? What will that look like today and for the rest of our lives? Jesus thought about this. Of all the options he could have taken, he chose the image of the suffering servant, the one who gives up everything for others. Today, choose Jesus and that vision. That is our glory and our challenge.