Given (with some changes) from a 1996 sermon written by Linda Strohmier
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This passage is what’s known in the movie industry as a “jump-cut.” It seems that just yesterday we were celebrating Christmas, right? Yesterday Jesus was still the little babe, lying in the manger, being visited by tall, imposing, gift-bearing strangers from the East. And here today he is a grown man, coming to the river to be baptized by his cousin John. It’s as if we had cut out a bunch of stuff and jumped straight to the baptism.
Let’s remember, by the way, that John didn’t invent baptism. Way back in the book of Leviticus, God instructs 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 [mik-v hs] were constructed just for that purpose. Immersion in a natural body of water, especially flowing – or trickling -- water, like the River Jordan, could also be used for the ritual of purification.
Of course there were things that happen before the baptism. Joseph is warned in a dream to take the baby to Egypt to escape the murderous insanity of Herod’s rage, and so they go; they return sometime later, settling in Nazareth, in Galilee. Jesus grows through childhood, hanging out in the carpenter’s shop with his dad and learning the Torah, like any good Jewish boy. There is a snapshot in Luke of Jesus at twelve, staying behind in the Temple to debate with the scholars, while his parents search high and low, wondering for where this most precious boy might be. But the most important part of the story begins here, begins now, at the River Jordan, with Jesus coming to be baptized.
He must have thought about it for a while – months, maybe even years. His cousin John has been out there in the hot, desolate wilderness of Judea, preaching by the thin trickle of the River Jordan, preaching sin and repentance and renewal and change. Things are really rotten in Israel; there’s poverty, unemployment, fear, despair. The golden vision of the Kingdom of David, their heritage from the past, seems like just so much fantasy. A fairy tale. Their past seems just a dream, and their present -- a nightmare.
John, like one of the Old Testament prophets, had a vision of the need for all Israel to repent and start over again. He began to preach this stern, tough-love message months, maybe even years, before Jesus shows up. People have begun coming out to hear him, to think about their own lives, to repent, to be baptized, to try to change things. By the time Jesus gets there, John has gathered quite a following. Jesus must have thought about it, considered joining him, weighed its possible meaning for his own life. And finally he makes his way out to hear this distant cousin of his, out in the wilderness.
John is proclaiming the need for repentance so that the Messiah will come – the Messiah, whom God will send to fix the mess of people’s lives, of Israel’s life. John seems to have been convinced that God will send this long-awaited Messiah only when enough people behave themselves well enough to make a place for him.
Does Jesus have any idea, before he goes, of what will happen to him out there? Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he goes not really expecting anything, but unable to stay away any longer.
When he got there he probably stood around and listened for a while. Finally it seemed time, and so he wades into the water, standing in line with the others to repent and be reconciled. But when it’s his turn, when he stands in front of John, something strange happens. John looks at him, startled, shocked, and refuses at first to baptize him. John says, “You’re the one who ought to be baptizing me! I can’t baptize you!”
Does Jesus know in that moment that something powerful is happening? Maybe. Maybe not. Clearly this wasn’t the way it usually happened Yet Jesus is sure that it has to happen the way it usually did: “Let it be so now,” he says, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” To “fulfill all righteousness” – to do it by the book, following the tradition. To dot the i’s and cross the t’s. To live it out, just like everybody else. And so John consents.
He puts his arms around Jesus, lowering him into the murky water of the River Jordan, holding him there for a moment, then lifting him up transformed, renewed.
And as Jesus is being lifted up from the water, something mysterious, something otherworldly happens – what we have come to call a “mystical experience” when it happens to us or to people we know. Just as his head and shoulders come up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens open and a dove floats gently down and alights on him. And he hears a voice, coming from that cleft in heaven, say, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Does John hear it too? Or the people around him? Matthew doesn’t tell us. In fact, how does Matthew even know about the voice and the dove? Were he and Jesus sitting around a fire one night sharing a bit of bread and fish, and did Jesus say, “Did I ever tell you about the dove thing when John baptized me?” I think that Matthew thinks that the experience was a private, intimate moment between God and Jesus alone.
One thing is certain, though. In that moment, Jesus’ whole understanding of his life is affected, maybe even changed completely. He suddenly knows clearly that he has to go off alone to pray and contemplate the message given him that day in baptism as he came up out of the water.
Immediately afterward, says Matthew, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” a time we commemorate with the 40 days of Lent. Instead of wandering in the wilderness, though, let’s stay with the baptism.
Could Jesus have expected it? Well, he probably expects something to happen or he wouldn’t have thought about it so long ahead of time. Did he understand it all beforehand? Probably not, or he wouldn’t have needed to spend those forty days in the wilderness afterward, “unpacking the experience,” as we’d say today, struggling with the meaning of it for his life.
What about the meaning of it for us? Surely our own baptisms don’t compare with our Lord’s experience, do they?
Clearly none of us is called to be the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ who reigns in glory. But, conversely, through our baptism, all of us become one with Christ. As we pray in the baptismal service: “We thank you, Almighty God for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” As Jesus was baptized, so we are baptized – to become who we are called to be, to begin our own ministries.
What? You’re saying that no dove appeared over you at your baptism? No voice issued forth from heaven, in tones sounding like James Earl Jones? Or maybe we’re just not listening clearly. Maybe we expect it to look like a dove and sound like James Earl Jones, but instead it looks and sounds quite different – so that we don’t recognize it as a sign and a voice from God. And maybe we think that because it happened to Jesus, the Lord and Christ, it couldn’t possibly happen to us, lowly followers that we are.
Some of our call we share with every one of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As we are united in baptism with the Body of Christ, we all share in some of the ministry to which he was called. One place our call to that ministry is spelled out is in our baptismal promises. Soon, as we renew our baptismal covenant, each of us will be asked to affirm that we will – with God’s help – undertake a series of responsibilities: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people. These are the ministries shown on earth by Christ, taught by the apostles, required of us in our baptism.
But just as Jesus’ ministry was unique to him, each of us is called to our own unique ministry. We are called, in fact, to grow into the fullness of the selves that we were created by God to be. Part of our life after baptism is to discern just who God means us to be, and then to live that out as fully as we can – with God’s help. The Church regularly reminds us of that.
This season of Epiphany is a good time to review our role as the Body of Christ in mission to the world. It is a good time to renew the work of discerning who God has called us to be, as individuals, as St Mark’s in Montesano, and as the whole Church. Because whether or not we saw a Dove alight on us, whether or not we heard the voice, we are Children of God, beloved ones, and with us God is well pleased.
As the forgiveness of sin is bestowed on us at baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, and we are raised to a new life of grace, may God grant us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love the Lord, and the gift of joy and wonder in all the works of the Holy One. Amen