This is my sermon for the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord.
Referring back to the circumcision
Last week we celebrated the circumcision and naming of Jesus. There we saw an important moment in his infancy – only eight days old – which was common to all Jewish lads. That day he received the name Jesus, as instructed by the angel who visited Mary and Joseph, and he received the rite of circumcision, as instructed by the Law of Moses. That day we looked at how Jesus was subjected the requirements of the covenant – the lawgiver placed himself under the law – and this was the necessary first step for Jesus to go on to “fulfill the law” for the rest of us who could not.
That holiday, being part of the Christmas season, especially brought before us the humanity of Jesus: what he has in common with the rest of us. But now we are in the season of Epiphany, which tends to turn our eyes more to the divinity of Jesus. Here, beginning with the baptism of Jesus, we look not at how Jesus is the same as us, but at how he’s different from us. You might think, at first, that the baptism of Jesus is another event like his circumcision that puts him on the same page as the rest of us. And to limited extent that’s true; but as we plumb the depths of this moment in Jesus’ life, I think you’ll find that the differences between Him and us are far more significant than the commonalities.
The baptism offered by John was not quite the same as Christian baptism. It was not a replacement for circumcision, there was no sense of entering into a covenant with God associated with John’s baptism. It was strictly a “baptism of repentance.” It was a voluntary ritual that people underwent if they were convicted by John’s preaching to repent of their sins and prepare for the arrival of the Christ. When Jesus came forward for this baptism of repentance, he was choosing to do so of his own free will; there was no requirement of the law that forced him on this course.
John, you probably noticed, was well aware of the voluntary nature of the baptism he administered. He had refused baptism to people before – some Pharisees had come to him and he’d rebuked them for their hypocrisy, coming forward without actually having repented for their sins. And now John wanted to refuse baptism to Jesus also, not because Jesus wasn’t penitent, but because Jesus didn’t’ have anything to repent for. Where the Pharisees were too wicked for this baptism, Jesus was too perfect!
John took his refusal to another level: “I have need to be baptized by you” he said to Jesus. John knew that he was a sinner and that Jesus was to become his Savior. John’s words here are to be our words too – we need the baptism that’s administered by Jesus; we are all sinners in need of cleansing. But Jesus gives a peculiar answer: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In that particular “now,” that moment, it was fitting, proper, it was meet and right so to do, that Jesus should be baptized by John. And the only explanation that Jesus gives is that in so doing they will “fulfill all righteousness.”
Once again, I need to point out that Jesus is choosing to associate and identify with sinners. He doesn’t have to do this. In fact, as John observes, he shouldn’t do this; he deserves better. And, as I also said before, it was in his circumcision that Jesus fulfilled the law. Now, in his baptism, he is to fulfill righteousness. What does this mean? John obviously understood, considering he immediately consented and baptized Jesus, but it’s a phrase that can prove rather elusive to the casual reader today. So let’s dig in to this story.
The Righteousness of the Baptism of Jesus
The best clues we have to understanding what it means for them to “fulfill all righteousness” can be found in the way that Jesus is identified after his baptism. There are two statements and one action that really help us at this point.
First, in a different Gospel book, we find John the Baptist referring to Jesus as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29). At that point, John had already baptized him, and had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him. What does John mean by calling Jesus the lamb of God? Does it mean that he understands Jesus to be a gentle, kind, and loving man, like an innocent little sheep? That is how people today often think about it, but that is a dreadfully watered-down and sentimentalist vision. No, John calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The “lamb of God” is the spotless ram-lamb chosen for the ritual sacrifice. John is identifying Jesus as the one who will die, who will be sacrificed for our sins! This is not cutesy image of a gentle man, this a serious statement about Jesus being the Savior of the world.
Secondly, both here in Matthew 3 as well as in other Gospel books, God the Father speaks from heaven about Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s a simple statement, but rich with meaning. Jesus is clearly identified as God’s son. On its own, the idea of being a child of God was not new; a number of Old Testament references describes God’s people as being God’s children. But it goes further: “my beloved.” Jesus, this son of God, is an object of God’s agape love, the highest form of self-sacrificial love available in the Greek language. Normally we’d expect God’s covenant love with his people, but here he’s identifying his highest love in the singular person of Jesus. And thirdly are added the words “with whom I am well pleased.” At risk of getting nit-picky, the Greek New Testament might be better translated “in whom I am well pleased.” God is not just pleased with Jesus, like he’s been such a good boy; God is even pleased in Jesus. The very being of Jesus is loved by God. We are sinners to the core, and so until we be fully sanctified there will always be something in us worthy of God’s wrath. Not so with Jesus. The full statement from God the Father in heaven thus shows us that Jesus is God the Son incarnate whose very being and purpose is pleasing to God. In short, Jesus is the elect one of God to bring about the salvation of the world.
What John calls the “lamb of God,” God the Father calls his own Son.
In addition to these two verbal witnesses of Jesus is a visual one: the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. Like the dove that Noah sent from the Ark to find dry land, this is a symbol of peace and grace. The Holy Spirit is God, too, after all, and comes to dwell with Jesus in his humanity after his baptism. It’s an interesting contrast to the day of Pentecost when the Spirit descends like fire – the disciples, even called to such great an office as apostleship, still needed the cleansing fire of the Spirit. But again, Jesus needed no cleansing, neither from the waters of baptism, nor from the fires of the Spirit. On the other hand, in similarity with the disciples on Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit upon Jesus here is a formal anointing for ministry. We hear this explained in Acts 10:37-38, “you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.”
And the gift of the Holy Spirit was yet even more than an anointing for ministry; it was a sign of new life. Look carefully at the stories throughout the Bible involving water and the Spirit: creation, the flood, crossing the red sea, the valley of dry bones, and others… whenever the two are present, life appears. Here in Matthew 3, Jesus is baptized with water, and then the Holy Spirit descends upon him after he climbs up onto the riverbank. He received a baptism of repentance that he didn’t need because he had never been dead in his sins; he received the Holy Spirit in his human body even though he already had full access to the Spirit in his divinity. Clearly the new life isn’t for Jesus, it’s for Jesus to share. The life-giver has been identified! Jesus is the one who will raise us from the death of sin in this life, and raise us from the death of the body in the life to come!
This is the fulfillment of righteousness that Jesus was speaking of. In his baptism, he and John “fulfill all righteousness” by enacting the kick-off event starting the Ministry of the Gospel! From then on, the Kingdom of God was near, eternal life was within man’s grasp, and Jesus was the Christ.
Preparing the way for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows
So when you read about the baptism of Christ, keep in mind that you’re basically reading his commissioning service. Both the human and the divine witness speak of his identity to be God, the Savior of the world, and the Holy Spirit anoints and empowers him to fulfill that divine ministry and mission even though he’s a man like us.
Another layer of beauty to the event of his baptism, though, is how Jesus paves the way for Christian baptism. I don’t have time to get into the differences between John’s baptism and Christian baptism right now; that’s quite a study in itself. Suffice it to say, now, that John’s baptism of repentance is only part of the deal; Christian baptism goes further than that to include the giving of the Holy Spirit, entrance into the New Covenant community, as well as the remission of sins.
When John baptized people, they did not receive the Holy Spirit; Jesus was a unique case there. But it’s significant that that’s what happened to Jesus, and that Christian baptism thereafter would include the giving of the Holy Spirit. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “Jesus enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when he comes out, brings up and purifies the entire world with him.” If you’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s like when the character Ford Prefect wiped clean a bottle of alcohol with his towel, but it was actually the alcohol that ended up cleaning the towel! So with Jesus, one could say that instead of the water sanctifying Jesus, Jesus sanctified the water! Saint Remigius wrote that Jesus was baptized not “to the remission of sins, but to leave the water sanctified for those after to be baptized.” Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The Savior willed to be baptized not that He might Himself be cleansed, but to cleanse the water for us.” As you can see, for centuries, the baptism of Jesus has been understood to be a moment where Jesus receives an earthly rite and transforms it into a heavenly rite. There is nothing special about water on its own, that it should cleanse us from our sin or bring us to new life in Christ. But in the hands of its Maker and our Redeemer, and indwelt with the power of the Holy Spirit, water can be used to our greatest spiritual benefit!
By way of a brief side note, it’s worth pointing out that neither here nor anywhere else in Scripture is there an explanation of the mode of baptism. The Greek word baptizein means “to bathe;” and back then (just like now) bath tubs were frequently too shallow to fully immerse a person. Early Church architecture, both in house churches as well as basilicas, also confirm that baptism was never required to be by full immersion only. So when certain groups of Christians today make baptism by full immersion in the water an absolute rule, they are overstepping the bounds of what God in Scripture has commanded. Being fully immersed in the water is an excellent symbol of being buried with Christ in his death, and then rising with him in new life, but it is not a requirement. The word “baptize” itself means to bathe, and that can done over a small basin just as legitimately as in a large dunk tank.
As we conclude, I’d like to direct our attention to our own baptisms, be they recent events or too distant to remember. Our baptism, like Jesus’, was an act that brings us into solidarity with all Israel – the Body of Christ. It is helpful to remind ourselves, from time to time, who and what we are as members of the Body of Christ. Therefore we have this tradition of the “renewal of baptismal vows.” Technically, every time we say the Creed or confess our sins or receive Holy Communion, we are renewing our vows and participating in the New Covenant. But every now and then it’s helpful to spell things out more simply and bluntly. We return to the basic renunciations and affirmations of the faith – what we reject as Christians, and what we believe as Christians.
Therefore let us stand with our faces toward God, symbolized by the Altar and all that is on it (the Cross, the Bible, the vessels for Holy Communion), and with our backs to the world of sin, the flesh, and the devil, as we prepare to renew our baptismal vows.
The liturgy for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows provided by the Liturgical Taskforce of the Anglican Church in North America may be found online here.