Preparing this sermon, I approached our Gospel reading today with one simple question: Why was Jesus baptized? In seeking to answer that question, I discovered that Matthew has so thoroughly layered meaning upon meaning in this passage as to boggle the mind. Considering how much there is to get through, I will dive right in with the same question I posed to this passage when I first set myself to understanding it. Why was Jesus baptized?
Some of the seemingly obvious answers pose problems of their own. Was he baptized to be cleansed after repentance? This was certainly the basic meaning of John’s baptism for everyone else, but John himself denied this possibility in Jesus’ case, and even protested to Jesus about it. Was it as a prefigurement of our baptism? This may be partially in view, but this answer is challenged by two problems: First John’s baptism and the Church’s baptism are not the same, as John’s disciples had to be rebaptized later. Second, the New Testament consistently connects our baptism to Christ’s Passion, and not his baptism. Perhaps it is in Christ’s Passion then that we can find the answer? Again, this may be partially in view here, but unfortunately we know a fair bit about Jewish baptisms in the first century, and they simply did not have a “death and rebirth” motif to them, but were rather more concerned with ritual cleansing. So what is it then? Jesus himself gives us a clue—he does it to “fulfill all righteousness”—but what does this mean?
Matthew gives us some clues both in this particular narrative and in the larger structure of his Gospel. Matthew, more than any of the other Gospels, is concerned to portray Jesus as a king. What kingly motifs do we see in this passage?
First of all, we see the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, the Spirit often came to empower Israel’s leaders when they were vested with their office. We think of the Spirit given to the elders under Moses, who share in his Spiritual anointing to lead Israel. We think especially of King David, upon whom “the Spirit of Yahweh rushed” from the day of his anointing by Samuel onward. We think of the anointing described in our Old Testament reading today, which empowers God’s future leader to “bring justice to the nations.” Spiritual empowerment for leadership was a key signature of Israel’s view of kingship.
Second, we see echoes of Israel’s ancient coronation liturgy in our very passage. Where in the Old Testament do we read of God calling someone his “son?” God promises David an eternal heir who would be called God’s “son” for whom God would be “Father.” It was in echo of that promise that Israel’s coronation liturgy, very likely preserved in part for us in our Psalm reading today, included a declaration of a new king as God’s son. To be declared as God’s “son” was tantamount to being declared Israel’s King after David’s lineage.
In these two key pieces of evidence, we can understand Jesus’ baptism as a coronation of sorts. It is at this moment that Jesus truly becomes Israel’s “Anointed One,” or “Messiah.” He receives a special Spiritual empowerment and a declaration of his office as God’s “Son” after David’s line. Moreover, he receives this from the hands of a duly called Prophet in Israel, just as David had done. In that sense, we are reminded of Jesus’ statement that he does not make testimony about himself, but waits on the Father’s testimony about him. “To fulfill all righteousness” then is a reflection of this reality. He allows for God to declare him King rather than laying claim to the title himself. Having been anointed in power, his ministry as Messiah can begin. In short, this passage tells us that this Jesus is King of Israel.
Now that we have established that this ceremony is primarily that of making Jesus “Messiah,” the question remains: why was Jesus baptized specifically? Once again, Matthew provides us with one chief clue in his larger narrative structure. Where does Jesus go immediately after his baptism? He goes to the desert to be tempted. Who else do we know of in Israel’s history who passes through a watery rite of some kind and goes into the desert to find temptation there? We are reminded of Israel herself! During her exodus from Egypt, she is led through the waters of the Red Sea in to the desert of Sinai where she will face many temptations. There, we know that she quite characteristically fails the challenge set to her. By following Israel through the waters, as it were, Jesus is identifying himself with Israel, and calling to mind Israel’s hope for restoration by some kind of a “new” exodus. And unlike Israel’s first sojourn in the desert, Jesus will not fail the test. He will, in this way, restore Israel’s history by living it out himself in faithfulness.
But I believe Matthew is pointing us to something more than just the Exodus here. In the Exodus narrative itself, Israel’s redemption from Egypt is equated quite clearly to Creation in Genesis 1. Look at the parallels with me. In both Genesis and the Exodus, we see God dividing the waters. In the former, room is made for life; in the latter, Israel is brought into a new life of sorts by being saved from the Egyptians. So Jesus here is being led through divided waters. Likewise in both Genesis and Exodus, God’s Spirit is connected to the waters. In the former, the Spirit hovers over the primordial waters like a bird; in the latter, the Spirit blows back the waters of the Red Sea, and God is subsequently said to “hover” like a bird over Israel in the desert. This avian imagery is at the heart of why Matthew describes the Spirit as a dove at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus’ baptism, then, is meant to symbolize, via the Exodus of Israel, his ushering in a redeemed recreated human race out of the primordial waters.
Now you may be wondering, “So there is a creation theme in Jesus’ baptism. Wonderful. But what does that have to do with Jesus’ anointing as King?” I suggest that it has everything to do with it. Look again at Genesis with me. How does God round off his creation before he rests? He proclaims humanity the ruler over the created realms! He starts creation by dividing the waters and finishes it off by setting in place a king for creation. Now we know that humanity ultimately fails in this mandate, just as Israel fails at hers in the desert. But Jesus does not fail. And in so doing, he is not only restoring Israel’s history for her by living it out in himself faithfully; he is also restoring humanity’s history for it by living it out in himself faithfully. So Matthew is telling us in this story not just that Jesus is King of Israel. No. This Jesus is King of the whole human race! Nay, he is King of the whole universe!
Now that you have survived this marathon of biblical history and theology, you may be asking yourself, what difference does this make? I offer a counter question. What difference doesn’t this make? This changes everything! Jesus is King of all! This confession—Jesus is King—is at the heart of the New Testament’s own understanding of what “Gospel” even means. Jesus is King of all!
Jesus is King of all Creation! Imagine this quite literally for a moment. Picture the largest planet in our solar system. Jesus holds Jupiter in its orbit around our sun. But don’t stop there; he holds the whole of our galaxy in its place, and keeps it together. Moving closer to home, we can confess that Jesus is quite literally running of our planet. So when we face storms and famines and want of any kind, we need not fear four our earthly provision. Jesus is King of the Earth.
Jesus is King of Humanity! He is the ultimate governor of the human polis; his kingship is the ultimate authority. Every knee will bow and tongue confess, don’t you know. In our history we’ve witnessed totalitarian governments, pernicious wars, and the horror of ethnic cleansing. Moving closer to home yet again, we see in our nation people so alienated from our government that they are moved to shoot members of Congress. Amidst all this, we need not fear for our wise governance in this world. Jesus is King of human government.
Jesus is King of your life and mine! This follows quite naturally, doesn’t it? If he is king of the Milky Way Galaxy and he is King of the nations of the earth, then of course he is our King as well. But unlike human rulers, who move about in armored cars with police escorts and who live in isolated and secured mansions away from us all, Jesus is the kind of King who steps into our lives intimately and identifies with us. That is the most humbling aspect of his baptism. He shares our life with us. He shares our creatureliness. He shares our temptations. He shares our very death. And he breaths life into them all! He is a King who rules his subjects with equity and compassion because he became a subject like us for our sakes. Jesus is the wise and tender King of our lives.
When we face the competing loyalties of this world—want of earthly provision, earthly princes who set themselves over us, and earthly desires that cloud our judgment—who do we look to for leadership? I suggest that we look right to Matthew 3. We look to the very one of whom God himself declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Sermon preached at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, MA during a mid-week Eucharist, Wednesday, January 12, 2011, with Father Brian Barry celebrating.