January 11, 2015
The Baptism of the LORD
Today, the Lectionary Gospel reading brings to us the celebration of Jesus' Baptism and the end of the Christmas season. As we attempted to remind you during the Advent Season just past, the Baptizer's ministry always intended to point beyond himself to the one who was to come, to the one for whom the nation had been waiting, or should I say, for whom some in the nation had been waiting.
We could say it this way: John's baptism was one of repentance, both an individual and a national heart and life renewal for the coming of the promised Messiah. So, when Jesus finally comes on the scene clearly John's ministry must decrease because the promised one had come. But, then, what a great surprise when Jesus — the promised one — suddenly requests to be baptized as well.
St. Matthew's account of this great event is important to add to today's reading:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. (Matthew 3:13-15)
Jesus submits to John's baptism of repentance not because he needs renewal and repent, but because he wants to identify with the ministry-message of the Baptizer. As he comes out of the water the voice of GOD rends the heavens, saying, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased," and then the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
Before us, then, today's text offers us an extraordinary glimpse of a trinitarian expression of the Godhead -- Father, Son and Spirit, as well as a description of the love and fellowship contained within the LORD, who is at the same time both three and one. To say more about the Trinity beyond what is pictured is to quickly move into very deep water beyond my ability for definition.
Still, some characterization can be made of this text, for the narrative suggests to us several fruitful intentions. Namely, the text:
Recognizes Jesus as messiah, God’s son
Distinguishes everyday reality and God’s reality
And, Depicts Jesus’ anointing for ministry
RECOGNIZING JESUS AS MESSIAH, GOD'S SON
First, I want us to think through the Father and the Spirit's recognition of the man Jesus at this, the pivotal moment of his baptism. Here, it is said of Jesus that he would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and here it is said that Jesus is the beloved Son.
What could this mean?
What Jesus' original hearers could not know — could not have realized at this moment of subtle revelation — was that the one coming up out of the water just as wet as they from their own baptism was none other than the Jewish Messiah -- the promised one of Israel, and a King like unto David himself.
Of course, the disciples eventually have an inkling and a hope that Jesus is the one of promise, the deliver, the one who would finally justify Israel and vindicate the nation. This is why our reading of today's gospel will come to full fruition this coming year in the September thirteenth reading of a text from St. Mark chapter eight when we will hear these words from Peter:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)
At his baptism, Jesus as the anointed one of Israel identifies himself as Israel’s promised one. This means, for example, that we should realize the word Christ, as when we say Jesus Christ, is not Jesus last name, but instead means that he is designate and sanctified as Israel’s Messiah, personified for example in a text like Psalm 2:
1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying,3 ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,6 ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.11 Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling 12 kiss his feet,[a]or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2)
This, then, is what my beloved Son means. Only later will the early church realize that the man Jesus, who is human, the Jewish Messiah and who is the Israelite who fulfilled all God’s promises to Abraham is also more than those designations. It is then that the Son of God language will also be used to explain Jesus inclusion into a trinitarian monotheism! (N.T. Wright)
So, the Holy Spirit comes upon the man who is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, and in so doing begins the fulfillment of many promises foaming forth from the Hebrew Bible. Take for example just two passaged from Ezekiel:
I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (Ezekiel 37:7-10)
DISTINGUISHING EVERYDAY REALITY AND GOD'S REALITY
Clearly, therefore, St. Mark means to open before the eyes of his readers the reality that lies close to us but lies hidden from us as well:
"he saw the heavens being torn open..."
"the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him..."
This view of reality is the distinct understanding of the Bible all the way through. Namely, that there lies hidden beside us the realm of existence where God dwells, and from where the will of the Godhead finds direction and power. That is to say alongside the natural, waking, work-a-day world there is the world that is close, where the Lord exists, lives, moves and has his being. And further, these two worlds, as they coexist, course through each other in dynamic circumstances.
Now, these dynamic circumstances could be outlined in endless scriptural examples. Think first of the mundane, hidden reality behind the movement of nations in the oracles of the prophets. If we take Isaiah as an example, on the surface we see the movement of the unbelieving nations moving against Judah as they make geo-political decisions, great powers subduing smaller ones. This happens every day in our world as it did in theirs. But, one must also look underneath the movement of dictators where Isaiah wants us to know that the God is working his will in the world. God, in fact, uses the decisions of unbelievers to accomplish his will! If Isaiah is not read in this way, then the prophecy makes no sense whatsoever.
But, this reality need not only extend to the mundane. There exists other biblical examples of more spectacular touches between the hidden realm and ours. My favorite is the moment when Elisha's servant's eyes are suddenly opened to see the surrounding hilltops filled with chariots of fire, protecting them from the invading army:
Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)
The upshot of this for our purposes comes when we consider what is needed to find this other realm, this hidden realm, this realm of the Almighty. What is needed is simply faith. Now, notice I did not say simple faith, although there is nothing wrong with simple faith, other than some of us are not so blessed. No. what is needed is simply faith. To say this is to say the what comprises the differences at the very heart of people. Faith is what, in the end, divides people at the very core of existence.
Of course, we must be careful here, for as St. James tells us, even the devils believe and tremble (James 2:19). No, surely, what is in view here is faith that works itself out in obedience. This is true faith, which leads us to the final point:
DEPICTING JESUS' ANOINTING FOR MINISTRY
The Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptismal moment must be seen as more than theatre and symbolism, both of which are important, but which both needs to be thought-through to find the lateral truth. No, what we have here is, at the very least the anointing of Jesus for his wilderness temptation, and I believe even more is actually happening. I believe that Jesus is being anointed for his ministry as Messiah. And now we are close to the first idea we shared this morning, that of Jesus' humanity as God's Son.
This means that Jesus, the true Messiah of Israel, God's chosen deliver, and the man through whom the promises of God would be fulfilled, was anointed by God the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work to which he was called. To show you what I mean I want to end today's homily with several New Testament scriptures that speak to this very idea:
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:34-38)
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)
‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 5:30)
The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (John 12:48-49)
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:4-5)
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:16-19)
15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds[a] followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
18 ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smouldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’