Baptism of the Lord Sunday – January 12, 2020
What is the meaning of Jesus’ baptism for us? In a world where there is so much disinformation and misinformation, where the truth is distorted, we seek refuge. Where can we seek refuge?
I would daresay that Jesus’ baptism actually affects our perspective on the dilemmas that lurk all around us.
While we are in the season of Epiphany, the season of growing light, the season of the revelation of Christ to all the nations, the season when we celebrate Christ’s baptism, and the miracle of the wedding at Cana, we celebrate Christ as the light of the world.
In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we read the story of an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. Who was John the Baptist? Why was he baptizing at the Jordan River, and why was Jesus there?
Let’s start by noting that John did not invent baptism. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed the people of Israel to cleanse themselves from impurities, especially before sacrificing in the temple. Ritual cleansing before approaching God was a part of Jewish life. Special pools called mikvehs were constructed for the purpose. Immersion in a natural body of water, especially flowing water, could bring about the ritual of purification. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities.
John, like Jesus, was a Jewish man who led a renewal movement within Judaism. People were deeply stirred by the words, deeds, and example of the holy man, John. Picture a revival meeting, down by the river, folks wading into the water to proclaim the renewal of their faith, emerging clean and ready to encounter God. A popular movement, from the grassroots, countering what they considered to be the corruption of the religious structure of temple worship centered in Jerusalem. John had a genuine calling to ministry, one that Jesus recognized and sought out.
In turn, John recognizes Jesus’ ministry. Indeed John says he is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, and hesitates to baptize one whom he recognizes as God’s anointed. But Jesus respects John’s ministry, and He insists: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, his faith and purpose renewed and sealed, ready to begin his public ministry. And God’s spirit descends on Him like a dove, and God’s voice, echoing the prophecy of Isaiah, says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” John and Jesus have acted together in obedience to God. Encouraged by John and anointed by God, Jesus is ready to follow the straight path that has been laid for him.
God is certainly pleased that Jesus is ready to commit to a mission and ministry of justice. Perhaps God is also pleased that Jesus and John have come together. The two ministries were inter-related. Both preached a message of repentance and renewal, freedom and justice. In John 2:35-42, we learn that Jesus’ first two disciples were drawn from the followers of John the Baptist. In John 3:22-30, we find John and Jesus baptizing side by side. They share a common message, criticizing corruption and calling for the cleansing of public life. They urge their followers to live a life worthy of the kingdom of God.
For Christians, baptism is a public proclamation of faith and intention to live a life that pleases God.
However, it is not an intention that we can muster up. It is something that God does in us. Baptism turns out to be an outward sign of an inner change that has been brought about by the Spirit of God.
And indeed, the story is not over yet. I wish I could say that hearing a heavenly voice confirm our identity as children of God will end our suffering, answer all our questions, and silence our enemies. This just isn’t the case. The likes of deception in the world we live in, such as a civilian airplane shot down, people finding reason to go to war, as unnecessary as it may be in our eyes, all of these and more, will still stymie our thoughts.
Does this mean we are left without hope? Absolutely not! Our hope is fed, our view of the future is sharpened, and we are encouraged by God to know that, whether we are baptised or not, God loves us without any preset requirements.
Baptism signals a journey that begins at a fork in the road. This fork in the road is where one path is chosen and another is rejected. It is our surrender to God’s goodness that is not simply every individual’s moral way of living but way, way more. It is a focus on the whole notion that relationships are restored.
Treating one another rightly restores relationships. God’s intention remains to draw from every nation, tribe, and tongue a people who demonstrate the goodness of God’s reign. May each of our imaginations be prepared so that we can be people who seek and see the glory of God in unexpected places. In any place such as Tim Hortons line-ups, at hockey arenas, during heated debates, amidst disinformation and misinformation in the media that we are exposed to. In the exact places where we expect God’s presence the least.
It is in these places that Jesus wants to be present. These are the places where Jesus reminds us once again that we have been cleansed, regardless of our past experiences. I’m sure we don’t want to succumb to negativity, but rather to discover the goodness of God to be right in our midst.
Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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