Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Sermons

Preached by The Reverend G. Alex Martin on (Sunday, January 8, 2017)

    “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’” Matthew 3:15.

    

    We have a very short Gospel reading today, that even in its brevity includes themes that could take a long time to unpack. But I promise to be brief (since we have a long liturgy this morning) and to avoid the temptation to go on and on. In any case, all the themes are connected one way or another to Jesus’s intention to “fulfill all righteousness.”

    

To begin with, Jesus seeks out John’s baptism, in the river Jordan. Jesus subordinates himself to John, which John perceives as a role reversal, a mistake to be avoided. John sees himself as preparing the way for Jesus, not the other way around, and is more than reluctant to let Jesus lower himself, as it were, to the same level as all the other people whom John is baptizing, the common run of humanity, who are in John’s eyes not on the same level as Jesus at all. John has the mind and the perceptiveness of a prophet, a prophet who sees clearly the spiritual needs of the people around him, and John does not see the same needs in Jesus. So John would exempt Jesus from what he expects of others. As prophetic and insightful as John is, he needs Jesus to reveal to him a fuller understanding of his, John’s, ministry, and Jesus does this, begins to do this, by insisting that John baptize him with the baptism of repentance, the same baptism that John is offering to everyone else. We remember that earlier in this chapter, John has been proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” By insisting that John baptize him, Jesus is revealing to John a deeper understanding of repentance, and of the Kingdom. And in his role as forerunner, John accepts that there is more for him to learn, more depths for him to experience, and he consents to baptize Jesus, “to fulfill all righteousness,” as Jesus says.

    

“To fulfill all righteousness” Jesus puts himself on the same level as everyone else seeking baptism from John. Jesus puts himself as the man he knows himself to be, on the same level as everyone else. There is a deep humility here, and we remember that “humility” at its root means “earthiness,” a feet-on-the-ground realism about life and human nature that Jesus accepts, as we all must. And he gets into the water along with everyone else, the same water that sustains us all, and that no one can do without. This is the beginning of the righteousness that Jesus wants John to understand, an awareness of our common humanity and our absolute dependence on one another and on nature for our lives. There is an absolute equality here which Jesus is insisting on, which is the basis of true righteousness. Jesus is not elevating himself, and is not letting John elevate him, above the level of anyone else, especially of all those accepting the baptism of repentance. This humility, this equality, this identification with ordinary human nature, is the beginning, the foundation, of true righteousness.

    “And...just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him.” The heavens were opened to him after his baptism, after his acceptance of the conditions of ordinary human life. Not before. After. The way to heaven, that is, the way to spiritual insight, to enlightenment, as some would call it, is through the ordinary, the normal, the everyday, the world that we know, summarized and symbolized in today’s Gospel as water, the basis of all life. Jesus came to understanding of his vocation in stages, as we all do, and the first stage in Matthew’s Gospel is this, acceptance of the baptism of repentance. This is followed by an apparently private experience, in which “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” There is another ordinary image here, that of the dove. The people around Jesus would not have seen the heavens opened, but they would have seen a bird alighting on him. And the dove has been a symbol of the Holy Spirit ever since. (And I’m reminded of my first parish, and the font in my main church. The font, which was quite large, had a heavy lid, which hung from cables, which were suspended from pulleys. The cables were attached to a counterweight, and the counterweight was in the form of a dove with its wings spread, so when I lifted the lid on the font, the dove would descend to meet it. It was an impressive sight, really, to see the dove descending on the water of baptism, as I lifted the lid on the font.)

  

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus heard the voice, but those around him probably heard thunder. Again the emphasis on nature as revelation: water, a dove, thunder, by which Jesus comes to understand more of his vocation. And his Father speaks to him directly, telling him who he is. Righteousness is being fulfilled in Jesus, by his acceptance of the conditions of ordinary life, and by his acceptance of his relationship to his heavenly Father. John initiated him, so to speak, by the baptism of repentance, and made it possible for Jesus to open himself to the next step in his ministry.

 

Jesus in turn blesses the waters by his presence in them. Orthodox Christians around the world bless the waters, whether rivers or lakes or the sea, every year, by lowering or dropping a crucifix into the water, on the feast of Epiphany, which they call Theophany, “God showing.” All water was blessed, is blessed, forever, by Jesus having accepted baptism, and we remind ourselves of this every time we bless water in the font, or bless water for use in the Asperges before Sunday mass. And in the eucharist, as the priest is preparing the chalice, he says over the wine as he is pouring a little water into it, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, as he humbled himself to share in our humanity.” So we partake in the humility of Christ in every mass, just as we partake of his divinity, and so fulfill the righteousness which he makes available to us.

    “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’”