January 8, 2017
The Baptism of Jesus
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and this year our reflection on this event is inspired by Matthew's telling of the story. In his telling, John has set the stage for Jesus’ arrival, and Jesus immediately offers a very different vision than the one that John is expecting. Today I intend to focus on that element of surprise.
While all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include the news of Jesus’ Baptism, and end with the voice from heaven which says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased...”, Matthew adds a whole additional piece that the others do not include. That is, the piece about John the Baptist: Just prior to this morning’s reading, John has made the point that those receiving baptism from him, are doing so for the purpose of repentance. Using N.T. scholar, N.T. Wright's translation, John says, “... the one who is coming behind me is more powerful than me! I’m not even worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! He’s got a shovel in his hand, ready to clear out his barn, and gather all his corn into the granary. But he’ll burn up the chaff with a fire that will never go out.” In other words, according to John’s expectation, the One coming will stand in judgement of and deal with those who have not repented; the One coming will stand in judgement of and deal with their oppressors – their Roman rulers who are diminishing their quality of life; the One coming will scoop them up with his shovel and remove them. The One who is coming is to be mighty and strong; One who will wield power in ways that the people understand. With all this in mind it's not hard to understand why, in this morning’s passage, John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and – yet – you come to me?” In other words, this makes no sense to me.
As N.T. Wright reflects on Matthew’s telling of Jesus baptism, he likens it to attending a concert, expecting one thing, and yet when the time comes, experiencing something radically different. Imagine going to Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall where the place is packed with enthusiastic and excited music-lovers. Imagine that we’re there to see the biggest, grandest musician that we could ever wish to see... We all have our programmes in hand, waiting for the thunderous music to begin. We know what it will sound like, and we're filled with a heightened sense of anticipation. N.T. Wright says, “This music will offer victorious sounds, with thunder and lightning and explosions of wonderful noise.” In the midst of all this anticipation, the concert manager comes on stage and informs everyone that the famous musician has arrived. He gets us all on our feet, to welcome with an ovation the person who is about to fulfill all our expectations.
As we stand there, full of excited anticipation, a surprisingly small figure comes on to the stage. He doesn’t look at all like what we expected. He is carrying, not a conductor’s baton, to bring the orchestra to life, but a small recorder. As we watch, shocked into silence, he plays, gently and softly, a tune quite different to what we had imagined. But, as we listen, we start to hear familiar themes played in a new way. The music is haunting and fragile, winging its way into our imaginations and hopes and transforming them. And, as it reaches its close, as though at a signal, the orchestra responds with a new version of the music we had been expecting all along.
Now, with the encouragement of N.T. Wright, listen to John as the concert manager, whipping us into excitement at the soloist who is about to appear. Using N.T. Wright’s translation, it sounds like this, “He’s coming! He’s more powerful than me! He will give you God’s wind and God’s fire, not just water! He’ll sort you out – he’ll clear out the mess – he’ll clean up God’s farm so that only the good wheat is left!’ And we’re on our feet, expecting a great leader, perhaps the living God himself, sweeping into the hall with a great explosion, a blaze of light and colour, transforming everything in a single blow.
And instead we get Jesus - the Jesus we have only met so far, in Matthew’s Gospel, as a baby with a price on his head. A Jesus who comes and stands humbly before John, asking for baptism, sharing the penitential mood of the rest of Judaea and the surrounding regions. A Jesus who seems to be identifying himself, not with a God who sweeps all before him in judgment, but with the people who are themselves facing that judgment and needing to repent.
John, of course, is horrified. He seems to have known that Jesus was the one he was waiting for; but why then would he be coming for baptism? Suddenly, the programme – the agenda – seems to have completely changed! What’s happened to the clearing out of sinners and oppressors? Surely, if anything, Jesus should be baptizing him!
Indeed, at first glance Jesus' request to be baptized by John is confusing, and John questions Jesus about how this could possibly make sense, but it begins to make sense when we consider Jesus’ reply. And, Jesus' reply also tells us something important – vital – about Matthew's whole Gospel story that is about to unfold. Yes, he is coming to fulfill God’s plan, the promises which God made so long ago and has never forgotten. Yes, he is coming to fulfill the very promise which God made through the Prophet Isaiah as we were reminded in our first reading this morning, “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...” Yes, these are promises which will blow God’s wind, God’s spirit, through the world, which will bring the first of God’s just judgment on evil wherever it occurs, and which will rescue God’s penitent people once and for all from every kind of exile (such as Isaiah’s audience in our first reading)... every kind of exile to which they have been driven. But if he, Jesus, is to do all this, this is how he must do it; by humbly identifying himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life and ultimately dying their death. When John challenges Jesus’ request to receive baptism from him – John the Baptist – Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way...” Through his Baptism, Jesus becomes intimately connected to each of us. Through our Baptism, we become intimately connected to him.
Jesus comes on to the stage, not with an overt sense of grandeur. Instead, he comes on to the stage in a spirit of humility; he comes on to the stage playing the harmonious melody that is God’s Presence and God’s grace, but in ways that give new meaning to the nature of God.
Part of the challenge of this passage is to learn – to discover – new ways to be surprised by Jesus. From one generation to another he comes to fulfill God’s plans, not ours. He will not always play the music we expect. But if we learn to listen carefully to what he says, and watch carefully what he does, we will find that our real longings, the hunger beneath the surface excitement, will be richly met.
I think – at this moment – at this time – within the life of the church, Jesus is surprising us in ways that we have not yet fully discovered. Those of us who grew up in the church in the 1950’s and 60’s experienced church as an extension of the culture in which we lived. Church was a given. Unless you were attending a local synagogue earlier in the weekend, church is where you went on Sunday morning. I once heard Bishop Victoria Matthews say that she attended a Roman Catholic Private School, and yet at the same time, grew up in a family full of atheists. She said that because of her family background, she was the outsider attending a religious school within the context of a Christian culture. Now, as a Bishop in a declining church, she’s the outsider in a culture that is no longer Christian.
And indeed, this church in which we live and worship and share ministry, is a radically different place than what it was decades ago. And our job is to diligently search for ways in which Jesus is surprising us. At this moment in the life of the church, Jesus is appearing in more modest and humble ways, and yet - much like his appearance in this morning's story - I believe great things are about to rise out of the smallness of this time.
Here at St. Peter’s, we believe that Jesus is surprising us in some exciting and life giving ways. We believe that Jesus is opening our eyes to new ways of experiencing ministry and leadership. We believe that Jesus is helping us recognize that ministry and leadership are to be shared – collaboratively – among clergy and laity. We are in the process of making great strides toward living into this new model of shared ministry and leadership. Our goal is to live into this new shared leadership model in ways that maintain faithful, top quality leadership, ministry and worship. If you have not yet heard of this bold new direction, have a look at the Elm Leaf where this is explained in more detail.
Indeed, Jesus surprised John the Baptist by asking him – John – to baptize him; Jesus surprised John by asking for baptism at all! Why would he who was without sin need a baptism of repentance? Well, he needed it, because it was his way of becoming intimately connected to us. Through our baptism, we are intimately linked to Jesus – as family; through our baptism we are called to serve Him in ministry, and leadership; we are called to continue his work in the church and the world in which we live. Those of us who grew up in the church in the 50’s and the 60’s understood this as the responsibility of those who were ordained. But now, in this new time, Jesus is surprising us with the news that our call to leadership and ministry begins with our Baptism, and must continue to be informed through regular Bible and Theological study.
Those who in repentance and faith follow Jesus through baptism and along the road where he leads us at this moment in history, will find, if we listen, that the same voice from heaven speaks to us as well. As we learn to put aside our own plans and submit to his, we may be granted moments of vision, glimpses of his greater reality and his unfolding plan for his church. As we remember Jesus’ baptism, and reaffirm our own in ways that recommit us to ministry and leadership here at St. Peter’s and beyond, let us catch a glimpse of the heavens opening up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and a voice which says, “This is my son – my daughter – with whom I am well pleased.”