FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD – THE CLOSE OF THE CHRISTMAS SEASON (2021)
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7Psalms 29:1-4, 9-10Acts 10:34-38Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
It is rare that the gospel proclaimed gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the place of Jesus, but today’s gospel gives us such an opportunity. All Christians share in the baptism of Jesus, and the Scriptures are unanimous in the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John, all four gospels recount a version of Jesus’ baptism, so important was it to the early Christians. While our baptisms were mostly celebrated without our specific knowledge (since most of us were babies), they have much in common with the account given to us today by Mark. Our baptisms did not happen in the Jordan river, but they were moments when God declared us His beloved sons and daughters, just as God declared His special relationship with His Son, with whom God was “well pleased.” We are the fulfillment of what John predicted: “one mightier than I is coming after me… [and] he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Our baptisms were celebrated with the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, coming down upon the water used to wash away our sins and commit us, as much as is possible, to follow in the footsteps of the Lord.
Our first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, from one of his ‘Suffering Servant Songs,’ sets the stage for Jesus’ baptism. Isaiah speaks to a nation who, like his Servant, has suffered a great deal, and Isaiah tries to bring them hope as he speaks to them of one who shall “bring forth justice,” and this will be done not by force (“not crying out, not shouting… a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench”). God will “take them by the hand,” and lead them to “the victory of justice.” God’s Servant will be “a light for the nations,” he will be a “new covenant,” who “will open the eyes of the blind” and bring those who “live in darkness” into the light that is Christ. It is the ‘Suffering Servant’ who is baptized in the Jordan in our gospel account, and it is that baptism which is spoken of by Peter early in the Acts of the Apostles as a baptism “which anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,” “who went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” It is that same Holy Spirit who came down on the waters of our baptism, and who enables us to go “about doing good” and providing healing to those who need to be healed.
The Synoptic gospels, especially, were a little reticent of Jesus partaking of what was known as a “baptism of repentance,” for it might cause some to believe Jesus needed healing of personal sinfulness. Mark, in particular, in verses just preceding our gospel passage, identifies John as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” while Matthew cites throngs who came out to be baptized “by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” The throngs of Matthew even included Pharisees and Sadducees, who Jesus will rail against calling them a “brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy. Clearly the sinless Son of God, Jesus, did not have a need to have His ‘sins’ forgiven. Which raises the question, why did Jesus see the need to be baptized?
We know very little of the thirty years which preceded this baptism event, but we do know a great deal about how Jesus behaved after this initiatory event – He “went about doing good,” acting in a way that others were meant to imitate. Baptism was not invented by John the Baptist, but drew on the “cleansing and ceremonial baths” that were taken by many good Jews, especially before the Sabbath. Jesus was already a God who “humbled himself” by taking on human flesh, leaving behind the trappings of royalty. His desire to be baptized by John would be an act of humility that would add a dignity to what John was doing, for John knew there was one mightier than he that was coming after him, and He would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and power,” a power that comes from the God who opens the heavens and declares that Jesus is “His beloved Son” with whom He is “well pleased.” With the heavens opened, the Spirit was free to come down and empower Jesus for His public ministry. Jesus set an example for all of us, who are in need of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” for if the truth be told, we are a sinful people, and admitting such is the first step towards being open to the grace that saves us. It is for people like us, sinful people, that the entire Christmas event took place, and with the baptism of Jesus the most important three years of Jesus’ life begins.
We have all, already been baptized, and while the water of baptism washes away the stain of original sin, it is not a universal pardon from preventing us from sinning again. Indeed, unlike Jesus, we are not sinless, and we are meant to spend our lives doing the best we can to be faithful to that fellowship of Christ into which we were baptized.
God would confirm what happened at Jesus’ baptism when He once again would rend the heavens open and claim God as His beloved Son, and the Scripture tell us that He then advised the small number present on Mount Tabor to “listen to Him!” We are meant to listen to Jesus, and to take His words and actions to heart, that we might become more faithful Christians. May Jesus’ baptism, and our own baptisms, remind us of who we are and whose we are, that we might be better examples of the God who is our Lord and Savior.