Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria.
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
In his speech at our wedding, my Dad asked a question.
Looking around the church hall at the 150-or-so friends and family members who had just witnessed our wedding vows, Dad asked who amongst those gathered had also been present at and witnessed my or Matthew’s baptisms. About 20 people raised their hands – parents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, and godparents.
Like many Anglicans who have been baptized, I don’t remember my baptism. I was three months old when it happened. But I have heard stories of it – there was even a write up in the diocesan newspaper about the six of us who were baptized that August morning.
But my Dad’s recollection of it at my wedding, and all of those raised hands, was a reminder of the community that was around me then and remains around me now, and it was a window into a bigger story.
Which brings us to our readings this morning. In this first story that the writer of gospel of Matthew tells of adult Jesus, Jesus has traveled a bit of a ways south from his home in Galilee. South to the Jordan River.
The Jordan River is one of those places that immediately evokes memories for the people to whom Matthew would have been writing. Perhaps you have a place or places like that – someone mentions “The Lake” and you immediately think of learning how to swim one summer when you were at the cabin on the lake. And then your mind goes back to stories you’d heard of your grandfather fishing on the same lake … Memories and stories and decades – even centuries – of connection and relationship.
Not only is the Jordan River THE River that flows through the land where Jesus lives, but it is a river that has been a part of the stories of his people for centuries. The river that is the site of miracles like a man cured of leprosy or an ax head that floats … and the River that was crossed by his ancestors as they came to The Promised Land out of the wilderness …
And here is Jesus, going down to this River to be baptized by his cousin, John. He has left his immediate family and the place he is familiar with. He has traveled south from Galilee to the Jordan River. And when he arrives, there is a crowd; John has drawn quite a lot of curious people out to the Jordan River to see what is going on there.
And in this first adult story of Jesus, he asks John to baptize him. That is why John was at the river, after all: he was baptizing there. But John adds a twist to the story – he says no to Jesus.
No – I am not the one to baptize you. In fact, you should be baptizing me!
I am not going to get into a technical discussion about the why and how of baptism and possible theologies for why Jesus should or should not be baptized. Jesus himself doesn’t really get into it other than to say to John – “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” For Matthew, this language is code for “this is what God wants”
John consents and baptizes Jesus. Jesus goes down under the water. While more familiar baptism scenes for us likely involve fonts in church with a safe splattering of water, I suspect many of us can picture the scene.
Jesus and John, standing up to their waists in the flowing water of the Jordan River. John is already wet from head to toe because he has been baptizing people all morning. Jesus has just waded in to join him. We don’t hear the discussion that went on between them, we just see the scene when John helps Jesus through the simple, familiar actions of baptism.
And for all of us watching the scene, it is done.
But for Jesus, it is just the beginning…
The dove descends and the voice speaks… “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased…”
And with those words, Jesus’ identity is confirmed and his ministry is launched. This is my Son, the Beloved…
God is announcing, once again, that God is become flesh and is dwelling among us. And God is doing it with words meant to evoke a particular ministry. For just as the scene of baptism, the Jordan River, would evoke a set of memories, so would the words…
They bring us back to the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning:
Here is my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him … I have given you as … a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon … to faithfully bring forth justice …
This song of Isaiah is generally considered to be one of the so-called “servant songs.” Scholars are not in consensus as to whom the servant songs refer. Many of the New Testament writers use them in reference to the Messiah, to Jesus. Others suggest that they may be referring to the nation of Israel.
Likely, there is truth in both: ministry is both individual and communal.
Jesus’ ministry is launched at his baptism – he is publicly acknowledged as God’s son and then he goes – first to the wilderness and then to pull together a group of people to journey in ministry with him.
In a few moments we will together walk through the liturgy for the renewal of baptismal vows. For some of us, they will be familiar words that we have spoken many times. For some of us, they are less familiar words that others may have spoken on our behalf and we are only just learning how we might live into them. For some of us, we are struggling to connect them to our lives.
And all of that is okay.
In saying these words, whether baptized or not, whether we remember our baptisms or not, we commit to this ministry that Jesus launched and that we heard outlined in Isaiah:
A ministry that commits to continuing in community – in fellowship, prayer, and breaking bread together,
A ministry that proclaims the good news of God in Christ,
That seeks and serves Christ in all persons,
That strives to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, respects, sustains, and renews the life of the earth,
And that strives for justice and peace among all people and respects the dignity of every human being.
And it recognizes that we cannot do it on our own – not only do we need God’s help, but we need each other. We need each other to walk with, to hold us accountable, to encourage us along the way … And it places us all – as individuals and as a community – as an integral part of a bigger story, a story that holds us and sustains us and a story that connects us across time and place, not only to believers everywhere, but to Jesus, the one who felt and lived our full humanity and who calls us, like he called the disciples, to “come and follow”
As we journey that calling together, remember the words spoken by God at that baptism: You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.