ONE BAPTISM, MANY EPIPHANIES
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.”
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” It is the season where we look at the stories of Jesus’ life to gain an unveiling of the mysteries once concealed. Different stories of Jesus are typically explored during this season as they help us see God’s revelation. The story we will explore for today is Jesus’ baptism. As we look at this story we are given an “epiphany” of who God is for us.
The passage begins with Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. This creates a challenge for John’s way of thinking and at first, he resists Jesus. We see this response played out in our lives and the world at large as Jesus comes to us. The gospel always elicits a response. God is the one who takes the initiative in coming to us and we are left with either resisting or accepting him. In John’s case, as we can often relate, he first resisted and then “consented.”
There is an epiphany in this portion of the story that we can explore before going further. Notice that it is Jesus who takes the initiative to come to John. John’s whole ministry was characterized by preaching in the wilderness and having people come to him. Jesus, on the other hand, does not stay in Galilee waiting for John and others to come to him. He goes out.
We can see a turn in how Jesus will do ministry compared to the way John the Baptist had been doing ministry. This tells us something about God’s heart. God is a sending God who comes to his people where they are. He doesn’t wait till we “find him.” He finds us in our wilderness. When we were lost and walking in darkness, that didn’t keep the Father from finding us and coming to us. This story gives us a glimpse into the Father’s heart. He loves us and moves towards us to make himself known.
We also see in John’s response an effort to “prevent” Jesus from being baptized by John. John knows he is not worthy to baptize Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn’t throw up his hands and walk away. He speaks to John in such a way as to change his response of resistance to a response where he “consented.” So even our response to God’s coming to us is God’s work of grace. He doesn’t let our unworthy responses “prevent” us from being encountered by God. God works in Jesus to sanctify our response, turning our rejections towards receptions of his work in our life. This story begins by revealing to us God’s grace in coming to us and bringing us to himself.
Who Needs to Be Baptized?
In John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus, we can see John wrestling with a question that is essentially, “who needs to be baptized?” We may have that same question today. The Jewish answer to that question was that only Gentiles who want to be part of the Jewish community must be baptized. John’s answer up to this point had been that Gentiles and Jews alike needed to be baptized. But Jesus comes along showing us that in order to “fulfill all righteousness” not only do Gentiles and Jews need to be baptized, but also God himself. This act on Jesus’ part blows John’s thinking of baptism out of the water. John responds with “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
As we let Jesus’ baptism shed light on the mysteries of who God is, we can see that both parts of John’s question can be answered in the affirmative. Yes, we need to be baptized by Jesus. That is, if we are going to be included into the life, the communion, of Father, Son, and Spirit, we must be brought into this life, immersed into it by being baptized with the life Jesus shares with us. The Greek baptizo for baptize carries the meaning “to dip, to immerse or to dye.” The picture is like a piece of cloth being soaked and saturated in a vat of dye. The cloth is so penetrated with what it is immersed in that it shares the same qualities. Like an immersed cloth in a vat of dye, the Trinity has existed for all eternity in baptism. The Father, Son and Spirit have for all eternity lived baptized, continually immersed, soaked and saturated with the love, joy, creativity and overflow of shared life. This baptized life of the Triune God is shared with us in Jesus.
So, we indeed need to be baptized by Jesus for our inclusion and immersion into this communion. But for this to take place, Jesus also must “come to us” and be baptized into our life. Jesus comes in the incarnation and immerses himself into our sinful flesh. He enters fully into our darkness and death. In so doing, he is the Light that overcomes our darkness and he is the Life that defeats our death. Jesus tells John that it is “proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ baptism is not something he does alone, but he does it with “us.” As he brings “us” into his baptism, we are included in his baptized life with the Father in the Spirit.
As Jesus comes up “out of the water” we begin to see what this baptized life looks like. Heaven is opened, the Spirit descends and we hear the Father speak. We get a fully Trinitarian involvement in Jesus’ baptism. Let’s take a look at how these details are used in the story.
First, “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.” Jesus’ baptism is told by Matthew in such a way as to bring in some Old Testament stories loaded with theological content. The most obvious is the picture of creation given in Genesis. There we have the creation of the “heavens and the earth” where the Spirit hovers over the waters and God speaks creation into existence. In the Garden, we see God’s presence with his creation. God never intended for heaven and earth to be a barrier between the Creator and his creatures. In Jesus’ baptism, we are seeing a restoration of this original intent. “The heavens were opened to him.” In Jesus, heaven and earth have once again come together. In Jesus, we have the presence of God walking with us as he did in the Garden.
We can also be reminded of another Old Testament story that has similar patterns—the story of the Flood. In this story, the Ark is on the waters and has a dove descend on it. In both the creation story and the Flood story, we are dealing with God’s creative and redeeming work. Jesus is now the center of God’s work of creation and redemption. In Jesus’ baptism, we have a new creation where heaven has been opened.
Second, we have “a voice from heaven” speak. This is the Father’s voice speaking to his Son. This is the voice that spoke creation into existence and the voice we were created to hear. We may wonder what would God most want to say to us if he spoke to us. What words would he say? In this story, we have those words written down for us. Since Jesus is baptized for our sakes, we can hear the Father’s voice speaking not only to his Son, but also to us as adopted children. So, what is it the Father is saying to you today?
Seeing that this is the Creator, our creator, and God, we would do well to memorize and meditate on these words that he is saying to us in Jesus Christ.
The first thing he says to each of us is, “This is my child.” How does it feel to belong? Is this not one of the deepest longings of our soul – to be claimed and wanted? How many young children’s hearts are filled with joy simply by their father saying, “That’s my boy, or that’s my girl”? Not only is God telling us personally that we belong to him, but he says it out loud for all to hear. If anyone wants to tell you that you are not good enough, that you don’t fit in or don’t belong, they will need to contend with this voice that thunders from heaven, claiming and naming us as his own child. When we listen to this voice, the sting of rejection is emptied of its poison.
The second thing the Father says to us is, “whom I love.” Not only are we claimed and named by the Father, but this Father loves us. Let’s face it, there are some people I’d rather not belong to because I know they do not care one bit about me. The blessing of belonging is found in the one to whom we belong. The Father is one who loves us. To fill that out, remember who the Father is speaking to. He is speaking to his own Son, who he has loved for all eternity. His love for his Son is a perfect love, not a love that is self-seeking or filled with hidden agendas. He is saying to you and me that he loves us in the same way he loves his own Son. Let that sink in! (Although it will take an eternity.)
The final thing the Father says to you and me today is, “with him I am well pleased.” It’s one thing to belong. It’s another thing to be loved. But what an awe-inspiring thing it is to belong and be loved by one who also likes you, adores you and favors you beyond belief. Can we really comprehend what it will mean to walk into the presence of God and by doing so bring a smile to his face? It may be hard to believe the Father is really saying these words to us. But he has said it to his own Son, who is baptized into our lives in order to baptize us into his.
This is some of the mystery unveiled in Jesus’ baptism. The Triune God has baptized us with his life. Heaven is opened and the Spirit is given. May we see this Epiphany season the Father, who says to us through Jesus in the Spirit, that we belong to him, that he loves us and that he is pleased with us. Amen!