Matthew 3: 13-end
I wonder how many of you have ever found yourself in one of those embarrassing situations where you’re performing a particular role only to discover that you’re in the company of someone with far greater expertise or experience in that area than you?
For instance, you might find yourself cooking for a professional cook or chef, or perhaps discover you’re singing or performing alongside a professional musician.
In the context of preaching you might, as I was not too long ago, be a new curate preaching to a congregation comprising a number of very experienced and distinguished clergy!
In such circumstances it’s hard not to feel rather inferior. It’s difficult not to be a bit embarrassed, especially if those people have travelled a distance for the event.
And that may well be how John the Baptist felt when his cousin Jesus travelled what would have been over 20 miles from Galilee to the River Jordan to be baptised by him.
It’s one of the distinguishing features of Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism that he highlights this embarrassment.
Matthew’s account differs in a number of respects from those given in the other two Synoptic gospels of St Mark and St Luke and this is one of them.
His account highlights John’s protest when Jesus comes to him for baptism and, in contrast to the other gospels, features a dialogue between Jesus and John. We find Matthew perhaps trying to explain why it is that Jesus on this occasion submitted to John’s authority and why a sinless Messiah would need to be baptised by John in the first place given John’s baptism was, of course, intended for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew addresses the problem by having John feel unworthy and by Jesus giving him permission to baptise him by explaining that this is something they must both do (note the use of the word “us”) in order to “fulfil all righteousness”.
Righteousness in Matthews Gospel is said to refer to doing God’s will by obeying His commandments. God’s word was, of course, often revealed by the prophets. To “fulfil all righteousness” seems to be a reference to biblical prophecy. At Jesus’ baptism we not only see the Holy Spirit descending to alight upon him but we hear God’s voice speaking of his pleasure in him, both aspects which feature at the very start of today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah. Remember? “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him;”
Because prophecy declares God‘s will, to fulfil prophecy is to fulfil righteousness. Since John is God’s spokesperson at this point in the Gospel Jesus submits himself to John and his baptism as being in accordance with righteousness and identifies himself with those others baptised by John, the renewed people of God.
We are told that the Holy Spirit descends and alights like a dove upon Jesus. Doves had various symbolic functions in ancient scripture and the most widespread and relevant for Jewish hearers would be the dove’s role as a harbinger of a new world (e.g Genesis 8. 8-12).
Likewise, water is often used in the Bible to mark new beginnings, as when Israel passes through the Red Sea into the desert, or indeed in the accounts of the Creation. At his baptism Jesus inaugurates (begins) a new creation with the Spirit now hovering over human beings as well as water. Jesus’ status as the son of God is openly declared to the people as God’s voice comes from the heavens. Note that in Matthew’s account God addresses the people rather than Jesus. “This is my Son” not “You are my son” as recounted by Mark and Luke.
Here it is the crowds who are addressed by God. Jesus’ divine identity is revealed to all.
Most biblical scholars view the baptism of Jesus as one of the two historically certain facts about him (the other being the crucifixion). Their reasoning is because obviously this is not the sort of story the early Christian church would have wanted to make up - why would they want to position John above Jesus and to have him baptising the sinless Christ?! I spoke of embarrassment earlier and this type of argument whereby an account likely to be embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true, is referred to as the “criterion of embarrassment”. But I won’t embarrass you afterwards by asking you to recall its name!
Whilst this important event in the life of Christ is viewed as the basis for the Christian rite of baptism the emphasis of Matthew and of the other evangelists, is on the person of Jesus, the Jesus who obeys the word of God, the Jesus who submits to the authority of another, the Jesus who identifies with the people, the Jesus who, in company with John and others, fulfils God’s will.
And, of course, it’s the same Jesus, who very shortly after this very public declaration of his divine pedigree, nonetheless undergoes temptation, trials and testing in the desert before beginning his public ministry. I don’t know about you but I find that rather reassuring!
Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as both the son of God but also his servant, as referred to in Isaiah, reminds me of that other significant event described in St John’s Gospel, that of the foot-washing, where Jesus presents himself to be washed by a resistant Peter.
But there’s something else I’m reminded of when I read this particular account of Jesus’ baptism. Something I think of when I read those words “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Because I find myself asking, what it is, specifically, that God is pleased with? As humans most of us are accustomed or even conditioned to others being “pleased” with us by reason of something we have done. Our parents are often described as ‘taking delight’ in our various achievements. But we’re not told that Jesus has done anything specifically to earn God’s approval or pleasure. Indeed, when we read the gospels we notice the gap, that chasm in the biography of Jesus’ life, between his childhood and this point in time. We are told nothing in Matthew’s gospel about what Jesus actually did up to this point and the most we’re told in any of the gospels is what we read in Luke of his visit to the temple as a twelve year old.
So, it seems that God here is simply taking pleasure in and delighting in his love for Jesus the person, His son.
And just as that descent of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism reminds us of the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1, so too is God’s delight in Jesus reminiscent of the delight God takes in all that He creates at the beginning of Creation. As part of that Creation we know that God likewise loves and takes pleasure in each and every one of us. As today’s New Testament reading from Acts reminds us God shows no favouritism. None of us is treated by Him as inferior. He delights in and loves each one of us, not because of our achievements nor by reason of what we do (even though we may, if we love Him, want to please Him), but simply for who we are.