The Baptism of Jesus – Year A, 2017
“All the prophets testify about him, that everyone who believe in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” Acts 10:43
The Baptism of Jesus is a bit of a puzzle for us. The custom in many church’s on this Sunday – one which we have observed here in the past, is to use it to remind ourselves of our own baptism. Now that is a good thing to do, and of course in Catholic churches a small stoop of water is provided at the entrance to the church that you might take a little to remind yourself of Baptism before coming to participate in the Eucharist. But it we are not careful we do what we always have a tendency to do, to make this all about us. So we say the point of the Baptism is Jesus identifying with us – but that’s not strictly correct.
Jesus’ baptism is the Baptism of John and has a very clear meaning. It is the baptism of repentance of God’s people who are called to turn back to God in preparation for the coming of the Servant of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah. It is very much a Jewish rite – indeed it had a special meaning in that it was the rite of purification for those wanting to become Jews – for proselytise – that is those seeking to convert The Odd thing about the Baptism of John was that it was Jewish people who were coming to be baptised. As John told the Pharisees ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “we have Abraham as our Ancestor”’ Put another way, “don’t go relying on your Jewish heritage” God is looking for a response, that of Repentance for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.
But the baptism of Jesus was a bit of a puzzle for John also. He protests to Jesus “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” John who declares Jesus to be “The Lamb of God – who takes away the Sin of the world” doesn’t understand why Jesus has come for baptism. Clearly what is happening here is something to which we Gentiles are outsiders (a theme which Matthew comes back to later on in his gospel.)
Yet there is an identification going on here and a very significant one. Jesus replies to John’s amazement with the words “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” Such powerful words which we can discern even more clearly breaking it down phrase by phrase “Let it be . .” Like the words of Mary – there is here a submission to GOd’s good purposes – Let it be to me according to your word.
“Let it be so now!” In other words in the Baptism of Jesus we are witnessing a special Time – that which Jesus announces as ‘The Day of Salvation’ In this moment of human History, something Special is happening – “Let it be so now” – “for, it is proper for us” Note how Jesus draws John in into this moment. Remember a few weeks ago how we heard in Advent that passage from Matthew – and Jesus asks the crowds ‘What did you go out in the wilderness to look at?’ The one about whom it is written, ‘Behold! I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you’.
“Let it be so now! For, it is proper for us” Jesus is saying to his cousin, This is Our moment. From this point on John the forerunner withdraws, becoming less as Jesus comes to fill our vision – but now – it is proper for us in this way (that is through John Baptising Jesus). You John are going to play your Key part Today by baptising me – “to fulfil all righteousness.”
To fulfil – You don’t have to spend long in Matthew’s gospel before you hear what is a several times repeated word – ‘fulfilment’. We have already encountered it once, in our reading just before Christmas – where in Joseph’s dream – he is told by the angel ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means, God is with us’
All this was to fulfil . . . we’ll come back to this in a moment. Then Joseph takes the infant Jesus and Mary to Egypt – ’to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet – “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and then twice more – ‘to fulfil, to fulfil – before now – ‘this is proper to fulfil all righteousness’. Put another way, the other fulfilment seem to be coming to this point – “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”
Jesus doesn’t merely do things to fulfil God’s plans and purposes, He IS the fulfilment of those purposes. And this is revealed in this moment. The purposes of God for his people which he has been patiently working out through the history of Israel. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan – ‘suddenly the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending upon him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”
Throughout the Old Testament story of God’s people – over and over again through the prophets God refers to Israel as ‘My Son’ So the ‘the people of Judea and all Jerusalem and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by John in the Jordan.’ and finally – the fulfilment – The Son of God. The fulfilment of God’s purposes for His people – baptised and affirmed as God’s beloved Son . . . and the question is – ‘What happened next?’
If we are to fully understand the baptism of Jesus, we need to see it in its context and that it is ‘Jesus, who will save his people from their sins’ The context is of God’s people preparing themselves for His coming – They are with John, in the wilderness – they are on the far side of the Jordan – they are outside of the place of promise – and we do not know but we may assume that after their baptism they go home . . . except one . . . Jesus comes from Galilee – like all the rest he has to cross the Jordan to meet John – he has to leave the land of promise but he doesn’t re-enter . . .What happened next? He is sent out back into the wilderness. to save his people from their sins.
All three gospels which specifically mention the baptism of Jesus, next have Jesus’ being led, or as St Mark has it – driven out into the wilderness . . . what is going on here? If we see the baptism as it were a renewal of the story of going into the promised land, Jesus would go back across the Jordan, but no – he is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness . . .
As I said last week as we considered the name of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us, to save his people from their sins. The Name of Jesus, the one who Is the fulfilment of God’s desire to save his people from their sins, the name Jesus – Joshua – ‘The Lord Saves’. John Baptises Jesus to fulfil all righteousness and then he is led back away from the Land and back into the Wilderness. All the others crossed the Jordan, were baptised and went back in – Jesus ‘to fulfil all righteousness goes into the wilderness’
At the heart of God’s work to save his people from their sins was under the Old Covenant through The Day of Atonement – And on this most Holy Day in the Calendar of God’s people two goats were selected . . . one was offered as a sacrifice and its blood was spread on the atonement seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant. The other? The Priest laid hands on the Goat and placed the sin of the people on the goat and it was driven out into the wilderness. After the waters have washed away the sins of all the people from Jerusalem and Judea and along the Jordan – Jesus finally, the sinless one steps into those same waters – and the sins of all the people are laid on him by John who is of the priestly line of Abijah (‘My father is The LORD) — and he is driven out into the wilderness.
Now there is much more to all of this story – but remember ‘it is to fulfil ALL Righteousness’ In the Old Covenant – this was tied explicitly to the Day of Atonement. So Jesus is sent out as the Scapegoat – bearing the sins. It is interesting to note that at times of course the goat didn’t particularly want to disappear into the wilderness, and so to stop as it were a reinfection, it was thrown off a cliff . . . have you ever wonder why St Luke – after the baptism and the time in the wilderness notes that on his return to Nazareth – when he has declared the salvation of God in the synagogue – records ‘They got up drove him out of the town and led him to the brow of the hill . . .so that they might throw him off the cliff . . .’
Well as we know – this isn’t the whole story – for there is a second goat – the one whose blood is scattered on the mercy seat – the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant – for Jesus is the One who will fulfil ALL Righteousness – the entirety of the work of atonement foreshadowed in the Old Covenant – is to be found in Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins.
But this now does become about us – for in our baptism we are included in Jesus Baptism – so that all that was effected through him – the removal of Sin and its final destruction upon the cross – we are included in
St Paul sums this up wonderfully in his second letter to the Corinthians – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Every part of the Life of Jesus reveals who Jesus is – the one who will save us from our sins. He who IS the righteousness of God – who does what he is ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ – bears the Sin of the World, that we might become the righteousness of God. He is baptised and carries away our Sin so that when we are baptised we might know how righteousness. And so . . . when we are baptised we join with the crowds from all across Judea, and now indeed all across the world, an untold multitude – that we might go, not back to the wilderness, but forward into he land of God’s promise in and through Jesus. For ever praised.
(I am very grateful for an article by Alistair Roberts
which helped tremendously with this reading of Jesus baptism)