Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
Every culture and people have their foundational stories, stories which are able to tell us who we are, where we belong, and what our purpose in life might be. For Christians, one of those foundational stories in that of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. It is foundational because it is a story not only about who God is, but it is also about who we are as people who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’. If we listen carefully, it is a story that can also provide invaluable guidance about where we belong in the world, and what we are to do with our lives. It certainly did that for the early Christian communities. So . . . listen carefully!
The first thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus came from all the way from Galilee to be baptised by John in the Jordan. That’s quite a long way and, if you happen to be a young man seeking your fortune in the big wide world, in entirely the wrong direction! For John was baptising people not in the middle of the city, where people gathered to work and do their business, but in the desert wilderness—way, way off the beaten track. For John was preaching a baptism of repentance, calling people to reflect upon their lives and ask the question “Is what I’m doing with my life really enriching, satisfying, what I am put on this earth to do? Or am I just doing it because everyone else is, or because I am afraid of something, or for some other reason I don’t quite understand?” In John’s eyes, the Jewish people, particularly the most wealthy and successful, had forgotten about the call of their God to live lives characterised by justice, compassion and prayer. And so he beckoned them out into the wilderness, to a place where the normal trappings of life were no longer there to support and ensnare. He beckoned them to a place rich with meaning in Jewish faith, a place which marks the passage of a people who had been slaves in Egypt to their freedom in the land of promise. “Be baptised in the Jordan,” he told them. “Like the people who crossed this river in ancient times, you cross this river also. Repent! Put off your life of slavery to economic and social demands. Wash away your sins and rise from the waters to pursue the life of freedom that God will give you!”
So, when Jesus comes to John it is not by accident. It’s not that he was wandering in the desert one day, like some tourist in modern-day Palestine, and happened across a bizarre ceremony that would be kinda fun to have a go at. No, Jesus comes to John with a deeply held belief and purpose: that God had called him to leave behind all that was expected of him by his community, that is, to be the head of his household and chief provider for his mother, his brothers, and his sisters. Jesus believed that God had called him to claim an entirely different identity and mission, a vocation that could only, perhaps, be finally discovered and embraced through this watery ritual of death and rebirth.
For that is what baptism meant for the Jews of the first century. The word “baptism” literally means “to be immersed in water”, and the ceremony first came to prominence in the century before Christ as a way for Gentiles, non-Jews that is, to embrace the Jewish faith and community. After a long period of preparation in which the candidates learned both the wisdom of the Jews in law and prophets and the ethical demands of the Jewish life, they would be taken to a body of water and washed thoroughly—yes, even immersed in that body of water. Thus the name: “baptism”. The symbol is not perhaps so obvious to us these days, especially to those of us who have witnessed hundreds of infant christenings over the years. Stripped naked and immersed in water, the candidates were killing off their former way of life by a symbolic drowning. They were also washing away their sins so that God might lead them in a new, and very different, way of life. What John does, then, is take an established Jewish ritual for the initiation of Gentiles into Judaism and applies it to lapsed or lost Jews, Jews who had forgotten what it meant to trust and obey the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
One should understand that, in the ancient world, water was not so benign as we regard it today—flowing purely and freely from our taps as it does. In the ancient world, water very often symbolised chaos and evil. In water, people lost their lives. On the waves of the sea, many ancient people drowned. With the flooding of the rivers, they lost their harvests. In the ancient world, people knew that water was both necessary to life but also the bringer of death. “Fear death by water” said the Buddha in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland. What that meant for Eliot, as it means for us, is that the waters of baptism should not be regarded as tame, given only to feed and sustain life as we know it. The waters of baptism are dangerous: they are designed to take our lives away. Without doing so, they cannot give us a new life. There is a terrific byzantine icon of Jesus baptism in which you can see, under his feet, the terrifying figure of Leviathan, an ancient symbol of water’s power to kill and destroy. In order to be baptised, Jesus had to be willing to submit himself to the power of Leviathan. For that is the only way to overcome Leviathan’s power. Perhaps we moderns only get in touch with something of that ancient sensibility when a tsunami comes along.
So, all of these meanings hover in air and stir in the water as Jesus comes to be baptised by John. That is why John at first refuses to baptise Jesus, according to Matthew. For Matthew’s community, you see, which knew these meanings very well indeed, Jesus is not a person who needed to be baptised. He is not a sinner who had lost his way and therefore needed to be cleansed and renewed in the water. “That may be true,” says Matthew in reply, “but baptism symbolises other things as well: not just the putting away of a life of sin but, more positively, the embrace of an identity and vocation from God. This is why Jesus asks John to baptise him—in order to symbolise and fulfil all that God rightly asks of him.”
And so Jesus is baptised. Note the tense and the mood of that verb. Jesus does not baptise himself. Baptism is not something that he, or anyone else, can do for themselves. It is something that another gives or bestows upon us. The primary agent in baptism is God. It is God who baptises, it is God who gives us the grace and the power to put aside the life of sin and embrace the life of faith. It is God who acts in baptism, even though he does so through the agency of his servant. For Jesus that servant was John. For us, it is the church. What this means, of course, is that salvation is not something we can accomplish for ourselves. In the Christian view of the world it is simply not possible, by virtue of one’s own ingenuity and power, to be liberated. In Christian understanding, even the will to be liberated is a gift from God. Therefore, it is only by virtue of God’s love and grace that we can ever be saved.
Yet, for all that, a well-informed human will and intention must be present, as it was for Jesus. Without such will, there is no sacrament. That is why the church can never baptise a person for whom there is neither faith in God, nor the will to follow God’s way. What does that mean for infant baptism? Simply this: that we must stop baptising children where the primary caregivers have little-to-no informed intention of living a genuinely Christian life, immersed in the church and loyal to the promises made. The word sacrament means, in fact, “promise”. In the sacrament of baptism, we hear the love and promises of God. But we also enact our own promises, promises to turn away from evil and embrace the life of Christ not only in word, but in deed also. If we or our primary caregivers can neither understand nor make those promises, then the church has no business in baptising us. To do so would be to mock the promises of God!
But what does God promise us in baptism? Here we can learn from the baptism of Jesus once more. As he emerges from the waters of death, Matthew tells us that Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon his ‘like a dove.’ This event is rich with resonance from Jewish history and theology. It first recalls the messianic passage we read from Isaiah, where the servant of the Lord is given the Spirit in order to perform a particular task and mission in the world: to accomplish justice for the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to be a light for the nations, and to release the captives from prison. In his baptism, Jesus therefore learns his task in the world: to be God’s light and hope, and the promise of justice, for all who suffer. This image of the Spirit descending like a dove reinforces that identity. In the story of Noah, the dove comes as the waters of the flood recede, a sign that God’s new world is beginning to emerge. So it is for Jesus, and for all who are baptised. The Spirit is a sign or guarantee that there is life after disaster and death, that no matter how much we lose in baptism we shall be given, by that same action, blessings and riches beyond measure. The dove: a sign of God’s love after the deluge is over.
And then there is the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here Jesus finds out who he is. It is likely that Jesus suspected something for much of his life, but now all his imaginings and intimations come together. For here God owns Jesus as his son and messiah, the one by whom salvation will come not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. Remember that the most crucial component of this identity, in Christian understanding, is that of suffering. Christ will not be the Son of God, and will not bring salvation to the world, unless he suffers and dies. This understanding is confirmed, in Matthew’s narrative, by Jesus use of the ‘sign of Jonah’ in chapter 12. There some teachers come to Jesus and ask him for a sign that he is indeed the messiah sent by God. Jesus replies that no sign will be given them except the sign of the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a sea monster, deep in the ocean. “So shall it be for the Son of Man,” says Jesus, “who shall spend three days buried in the heart of the earth”. Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus baptism anoints him to be the messiah, certainly, but a peculiar kind of messiah: a messiah who must suffer and die in order to accomplish his work. The imagery of baptism is unmistakable. Here baptism becomes a figure for his death and his resurrection: buried in the water, risen to life on the third day.
Now, I said at the beginning that this story of Jesus baptism is not only about God and Jesus, but also about all who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’. We’ve seen something of that as we’ve gone along. But let me now conclude by making some things explicit which have perhaps been hidden in the detail up until now. The baptism of Jesus became, in early Christian theology, the paradigm or model for what it meant to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’. ‘Belief’ you see, is neither intellectual assent on its own, nor a group of habitual bodily practices on their own. Belief is ‘faith’, a decisive unity of intellectual and bodily action which has its object and inspiration within the thought and action of another, an ‘other’ in whom one’s very self is taken apart and re-constructed. Christians are made into Christians by becoming immersed in the symbolic world of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is figured in baptism, and precisely by that immersion, are transformed into people whose seek to imitate Christ is every way. What we therefore learn from Jesus’ baptism is what it ‘belief in Jesus Christ’ actually looks like in a particular life:
- a leaving of the well-worn expectations and loyalties of our society in favour of a life of faith dedicated to God;
- a dying to sin, and the lostness of our culture, in order to rise to a new life, a life of grace and peace given us by God; in this we participate in Christ’s saving death and resurrection—‘the sign of Jonah’;
- the conferral and gift of a new identity. In our baptism, God owns us as his sons and his daughters. Jesus was the first, in other words, of many siblings. The whole company of these siblings is called ‘the church’.
- a commissioning for mission, for now we are anointed with the Spirit so that we can share with Jesus his vocation as messiah. In the baptismal liturgy we declare God’s promise that we are now, as a baptised people, the body of Christ, in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells. All of us, whether we are ‘ordained’ or not, are therefore called to be lights for the nations and to work for the freedom of everyone from whatever it is that keeps them in chains.
The story of the baptism is therefore foundational for the identity and vocation not only of Jesus, but of ourselves as well. As many as are baptised into Christ have died with Christ. By participating in the baptism of his death and resurrection we, each of us, are given a new, messianic, mission and vocation. As Christ gave himself for the sake of the world, so now we—as his body, the church—are called to join with him in loving the world, for the glory of God. That is what it means, therefore, to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.