Complementary Text – Psalm 2:7-8
Preaching Text: Matthew 3:1-17
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If Matthew had taken the manuscript of his gospel to a modern publishing company with the hopes of having it released in stores, I think he may have walked out of the publisher’s office disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, what we’ve got here in the Gospel of Matthew is a compelling narrative, a story that demands a reading and invites those who encounter it to return again and again, but I imagine that someone looking at it with fresh eyes might remark on – among other things – the considerable time gap between the end of chapter two and the beginning of chapter three. Last week, we finished up the second chapter by reading how Joseph brought his family back from Egypt and settled in a village called Nazareth, a bedroom community of sorts serving the larger Gentile city of Sepphoris. Today, we begin about a hundred miles to the southeast and some twenty-seven or twenty-eight years later with the introduction of John, a curious figure who wore crazy clothes, ate strange food, lived in the Judean desert, and drew crowds from miles around to hear his message and receive his baptism in the river Jordan. Publishing houses and editors aside, how are we supposed to wrap our heads around this huge leap forward and this drastic change of scenery and tone?
As Christian readers of Matthew’s Gospel, we have the privilege of knowing some of the back story, previously written material that gives us handles for the sudden forward leap in time and the seemingly random appearance of John. That back story includes the Hebrew Scriptures we explored this fall, which told of a figure who would prepare the way for the Lord’s Messiah to appear. It also includes the other three gospel accounts, each of which summarily passes over the events of Jesus’ childhood and puts a spotlight on the ministry of Jesus as an adult. For all the questions that might linger about who Jesus might have been as a child, what kind of upbringing he had, how he handled the pressures of growing up and learning his identity, the Scriptures simply provide no information beyond a brief story of Jesus around age 12 in the Gospel of Luke. In that story, Jesus and his family dutifully went to the temple to celebrate the Passover. When the festival was over, the family packed up and left – except for Jesus, who stayed behind to converse with and question the scholars and elders who spent their days pondering God’s word and the various streams of tradition that surrounded it. After discovering Jesus was missing, Mary and Joseph spent two more days frantically searching for him, only to find him sitting in the temple as if his being there – and not with his family – was not unusual in the least. Confused by his parents’ anger and fear, Jesus responded to their questions by asking them a question in turn: “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus obviously had some sense of who he was at age 12. He was beginning to understand what was expected of him, what role he would play in God’s plan for the world. At the same time, he was human, and he had to have known from experience that certainty is a fleeting thing. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all had that nagging sense that we’re not who we think we are. We’ve all wondered at one time or another if the still, small voice that we sometimes hear is the voice of God or some other voice that seeks to lead us astray. We’ve all questioned whether or not the choices we make are the right ones. Well, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jesus had been there, too. So as we encounter this story about the baptism of our Lord, what seems striking to me is that the most powerful part of this reading might not be what we expect. We might choose to focus on John’s arresting language about a baptism of Spirit and fire, about axes and trees and inexhaustible fire. We might be captivated by the image of the heavens being opened and the Spirit of God descending like a dove. We might want to ponder John’s question about the necessity of Jesus’ baptism. But when it comes down to it, I think what is most important about this story is what it means for Jesus, this man who had been hearing for years about his extraordinary birth, who may have had some distant memory of his time as a refugee in Egypt, and whose mother had surely recounted many times the words that had been spoken about him. Despite all that he had been told, it’s not difficult to imagine that he doubted from time to time. So beyond the argument with his cousin, John, beyond the language of judgment and repentance, beyond the incredible images of heaven being opened, perhaps the most powerful aspect of this story is that last line, the word spoken from heaven that provided a sense of clarity to Jesus – This is my Son, the uniquely beloved one, in whom I take great delight. What a gift! What an incredible gift to our Lord as he prepared to set out in obedience to God’s will! Who can fathom the importance of those words as confirmation of Jesus’ identity?
In a certain sense, none of us can. There is something about the baptism of Jesus that cannot and will not be replicated. And yet, the sacrament of Holy Baptism that we continue to celebrate is also an incredible gift to all who seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. In Holy Baptism we are joined to Jesus, God’s beloved Son, and through him we, too, are regarded as children of God. As we encounter the twists and turns that are a part of life in this broken world, that baptism is a guidepost along the way, a continual sign of the grace that has sustained us on the road thus far and that will lead us on into the future. Whatever else we might think about who we are, whatever other messages the world might try to send that compete with this word of love and acceptance, God offers us this promise – You, too, are my daughter. You, too, are my Son. I take great delight in you, because you are mine, and no matter where you go, you will always be mine.
Brothers and sisters, as we ponder the incredible word that was given to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, may we also ponder what God has done for us in Holy Baptism by claiming us as sons and daughters, granting us grace and mercy in our weakness, and assuring us of Christ’s constant presence with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, come what may. Thanks be to God for this gracious gift! Amen.