Baptism of Jesus 12th January 2014
Of all the events recorded about Jesus biblical scholars count this as one with the highest degree of certainty. Why? The answer is simple, the embarrassment of the incident, Jesus going to John to be baptised. It was well known that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sin so why would Jesus, the one about whom the church even from an early stage was calling the sinless one go to be baptised by John? Further why would Jesus, the one at the heart of the new faith, appear to be subservient to John? Thus we can be sure that this incident, recorded in our three synoptic gospels, those ‘seen together’ that being the meaning of the term synoptic, (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and also alluded to in John’s Gospel, as well as being present in many of the other gospels composed by the early church, which never made it into the final form of the canonical scriptures, most certainly is something which occurred.
Let us turn to our gospel today, that of Matthew. Matthew as we know begins his gospel with the accounts of Jesus’ infancy, which we have been reading over the Christmas season. By those accounts he establishes just who he believes Jesus to be, the divine Son of God from his very birth. That is the purpose of these accounts. Those Christmas accounts are followed now by the account of Jesus’ baptism where once again Matthew is seeking to establish for us just who Jesus is. He does this in a number of ways, all of which would have been abundantly clear to his first readers, but which may be totally lost to us less familiar with the biblical tradition.
The baptism is placed in the Jordan and in the Jordan the heavens open and a dove descends. All of these images were loaded with meaning for those who first heard them. Let us look first to the location, the Jordan. This, of course was the place where the Hebrews under Joshua first entered the holy land after the exodus journey of freedom from slavery. They did so with Joshua repeating the miracle first enacted by Moses, of the opening of the waters. Jesus is the Hellenized form of the Hebrew Joshua with a meaning of ‘God saves.’ Imagine yourself as either a person of a colonised land, or on the other hand, one of the occupying forces. You would have known in either case exactly what John’s baptisms signify. By location and action John is enacting a new exodus, a new message of liberation. Herod Antipas certainly understood it that way. He is the one surely contrasted with John in Jesus’ statement recorded later in this gospel ‘what did you go out into the desert to see, a man dressed in fine clothes, a king or a ruler?’. Little wonder, that Antipas, understanding the threat to his leadership represented by this popular preacher, is happy to do away with him. He knew very well that John by locating himself in the desert and by his actions in the Jordan is presenting himself as being representative of a new Moses/Joshua figure, the one leading a new exodus from slavery to freedom. John is baptising the Jewish people that they may be cleansed and made worthy of the freedom to which they are about to be led. For him it is time to act!
By his being in the Jordan and his cleansing baptism John is inaugurating a new nation out of a new exodus. Yet there is even more to this action, something more profound than that enacted so long ago. What is being done is not only the inauguration of a new nation but even more a whole new creation. Both are picked up here. In the words, ‘this is my beloved son, with whom I am pleased’ we have allusions to Abraham and his son Isaac. It was through Abraham and Isaac of course that the Jewish people believed that God had established them as a nation. Thus through this beloved son a new nation is being created through a mighty act of liberation as that old nation had been established through like act. As a new nation it is to be ruled by a new kind of ruler. The actual statement ‘this is my son with whom I am well pleased’ is drawn from Psalm 2:7 where it was used in the coronation ceremony for a new king. The Jewish people believed that kings ruled them in the stead of God. They were to carry out therefore the policies marked by God’s will, those of justice, peace, and compassion. Of course time and time again the people were disappointed by their rulers. Finally the hope that an ideal king would come was pushed off to the future with the vision of a king, an anointed one or messiah, the words all being interchangeable, who would come to rule in such a manner. Our reading from Isaiah, from which Matthew draws the words, ‘you are my chosen in whom my soul delights’ and also from where he has the Spirit descend on him, was such a reading looking for the true messiah/king’s coming. Matthew’s use of such words then reflects nothing less than his view that the new king/messiah has come to rule his people. The messianic age has arrived for Israel.
But, as I have intimated, even more than this new nation the waters opening and dove descending speak of a whole new creation. The cosmology of the ancients right through the ancient near east was shaped by the view that the earth as a flat plate was encircled both above and underneath by waters which threatened to overwhelm it. The miracle of creation for the Hebrews was that God had displayed the power to order the waters to come thus far and no further. Of course when God so wished they believed, he could order those waters to flood the earth, as in the episode with Noah. Both at the beginning of creation and then in the new beginning of creation associated with Noah, God had shown his power in overcoming these primal waters and bringing order out of chaos. Now God again shows his power by having both the Jordan waters, with Jesus ascending out of them, and also the heavens holding back the waters with the dove descending out of them, open,. The dove will immediately carry us back to story to which we have been alluding; that of Noah where the doves return to the ark with an olive branch in its mouth is the sign that indeed new creation has begun again. Of course earlier the Spirit brooded over the primal waters of creation as creation first came into being. Matthew in using these images is then is making the momentous claim that in Jesus, nothing less than a new creation has begun! Quite a claim!
John in his baptizing then is the one who announces a new exodus, a new journey to liberation. Jesus by submitting to his baptism is aligning himself with that vision of John. So profound is that new liberation it brings into being a new people, but more than that; a whole new creation. In this new creation Jesus is called as the messiah/king, the one committed to lead a new reality marked by a whole different way of being. That way of being then as now stands as contrast to the existing order of things, which is threatened by it. That old order will thus take its vengeance on both John and Jesus, and continues to take its vengeance on those who stand in the line of John and Jesus. Jesus having made his stance clear goes into the desert. There he will be faced with the demonic, however we want to take that term, as reality or metaphorically, of the old order which fights back against the challenge of the new way.
We who follow in the way of Jesus are called to be those then who stand with John and Jesus in leading our world to a new exodus, an exodus so profound it brings about nothing less than a whole new creation. We ought to note that this is not just in the human order but in the whole cosmic and ecological order! Like John, like Jesus, we dare not expect our way to be free of cost. Our vision of what Jesus was to call the reign of God is a costly vision, one that brings us necessarily into conflict with those who do well out of the old order of injustice, violence and exploitation. It is to that task we, however, are called. It is into that task we, along with Jesus, are baptised as a renewed people. John Queripel