Grace Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2023, Baptism of the Lord A
After the Baptism
One of the quirks of the lectionary calendar, especially at this time of the year, is that the timeline of Jesus’s life on earth gets messed around with pretty severely. We begin Advent with teaching from the adult Jesus, near the end of his earthly ministry, warning of things to come and encouraging his followers to be awake and prepared – our one real acknowledgment of the “second Advent” for which we all wait. One week later Jesus isn’t born yet, and isn’t born until Christmas Eve (or the fourth Sunday of Advent if you’re in the year of Matthew’s gospel, as we are now).
But the confusion only gets worse after that. Depending on which year of the cycle you’re in Jesus can be anywhere from infancy to as much as twelve years old (for that account in Luke of his parents losing him only to find him in the Temple discussing scripture with the Temple leaders). We then arrive at Epiphany, the visit of the Magi, at which point Jesus was probably no more than two years old. Then, with the whole holiday cycle done, we arrive at this first Sunday after Epiphany, where we find Jesus just at the beginning of his earthly ministry, coming to John to be baptized.
Each gospel treats the baptism account slightly differently. The gospel named John, for all that passes between the two men in it, never actually has anybody get baptized. The gospels of Mark and Luke give accounts that are cursory at most. As brief as today’s reading is, it is the most elaborate account of Jesus’s being baptized in the gospels.
It also includes the unique detail of John the Baptizer’s reluctance to perform the act where Jesus is involved. It makes sense, from his point of view. After all, we are told many times in these accounts that the baptism John gave was for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. Whatever John knew about Jesus, he knew enough to know that Jesus didn’t have anything to repent. Jesus insists, though, with the curious phrase that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
There are a few different ways to read Jesus’s choice. If he was truly come to bear the sins of humanity, then one could argue that it was indeed proper to “fulfill all righteousness” by taking baptism for the forgiveness of all those sins of humanity. On a more basic level, if Jesus really was fully human, being baptized by John was a way to participate in that being fully human in a visible way, as a kind of act of solidarity.
However one reads this choice, John does consent, and Jesus is baptized. Two things then happen, and Matthew’s way of phrasing them almost sounds as if those two responses weren’t directed to the same audience. Matthew pretty clearly states that “he” – presumably Jesus from the context of the verse – “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” That structure suggests the vision was for Jesus and no one else. However, when the voice speaks from heaven, it says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark and Luke both record that statement as “You are my Son…”, suggesting that all around could hear the proclamation. If so, it was not just Jesus who was being affirmed in his ministry; all the crowd was being alerted to just who Jesus was.
If the aftermath of Jesus’s baptism was actually public and noticeable in Matthew’s record, what Peter has to say about it in Acts expands that idea quite strongly.
A little context: this reading comes from the heart of possibly the book’s pivotal scene; the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family. A pair of visions has prompted Cornelius to seek Peter’s aid and compel Peter to go to Cornelius, despite his own misgivings about being unduly associated with non-Jewish people. What is here in today’s reading is the beginning of Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius, or at least what Peter probably imagined to be just the beginning. It doesn’t seem as if Peter got very far before the Holy Spirit took over and showed everyone present, including reluctant Peter and his accompanying party, that the Spirit wasn’t going to wait around for humans to get it and was going to go to work in anyone who was willing, whether they were of the right party or the right nation or the right religion or not.
What is striking about this little snippet of speech is how the event of Jesus’s baptism – “the baptism that John announced” – is situated in Peter’s narrative, rather like a key event. Indeed this baptism is marked here as the point from which the “message” – the peace of Christ – spread out across all Judea. Jesus’s ministry starts here, and how that ministry and message and good news and reconciliation spreads out after the baptism of Jesus is, in some ways, the message of all of the gospels and of Acts as well.
Whatever was Jesus’s motivation or reason for being baptized by John, Peter (who wasn’t around by that point in Jesus’s life) sees it as a pivotal starting point. From this point, this moment of anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power” as Peter describes it, flows forth the ministry of Jesus, the very gospel itself. Given how the Holy Spirit moves among the household of Cornelius as they hear this message, it almost sounds like Peter is on to something.
The baptism of Jesus wasn’t the end of anything. It was the start of everything.
You can guess where this is going. We may not have the Spirit descending like a dove or any heavenly voices breaking in, but for us, as for Jesus, baptism isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning of everything. Baptism is a point from which our witness as children of God and siblings of Christ begins to flow, whether the baptized one is a child later to be confirmed or an adult, just starting out or nearing the end of the road (and that confirmation is not the end of anything either; it is equally the beginning of everything). The decision to submit to baptism as Jesus did is itself a first witness, but only the first. It is a sign that there’s more to come.
It is not some kind of hocus-pocus magic to sprinkle someone with water or to dunk them in a spring. That’s not how it works. What does work is that God moves, the Spirit descends, and the witness begins.
Big things happen after the baptism. That’s worth remembering, as we will do in a few moments. The trick is not to get in the way of those big things.
For what happens after the baptism, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God is Here!; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #320, The Church of Christ, in Every Age