Baptism of the Lord – January 9, 2011 – St. John’s
The Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus do not spend any time in describing the baptism itself; all their emphasis falls upon what happens when Jesus comes up out of the water in which he had been immersed. It is the descent of the Spirit and the voice from heaven that are meant to attract our attention.
That Jesus was baptized by John is beyond historical doubt. The fact was probably even something of an embarrassment for early Christians, as is evident in the little dialogue between John and Jesus, with John protesting that Jesus should rather baptize John, and Jesus appealing to the need to “fulfill all righteousness,” which probably means to fulfill God’s plan or fulfill the Scriptures.
For it is Scriptural allusions that are at the heart of the story. The heavens are torn open, as the prophet had desired: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” The Spirit descending like a dove over the waters could recall the Spirit hovering over the chaotic waters of creation, or even the dove that announced the end of the great Flood. The voice from heaven combines two texts central in Israel’s messianic expectations: “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you,” says Psalm 2, an enthronement-psalm, where the king thus designated was taken as a figure of Messiah. “Behold my servant, my chosen one, in whom I am well pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit” says the song of the Servant of Yahweh that we heard as our first reading. The baptismal scene is presented, then, precisely as it was interpreted in our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, as the moment when “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.”
The passage, in other words, is a rich theological construct, expressing the early Church’s faith in Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. We probably should not try to read into it our modern desire to know the inner psyche of Jesus Christ nor see it as a moment in which he came to a fuller realization of his mission. This is not impossible, of course, but we really have no way of knowing what any such experience might have been, and there’s not much point in investigating what can’t be known.
What certainly is clear, however, is that this account anticipates two of the great convictions that will guide the ministry that Jesus was about to undertake. In all that he did and said, he demonstrated a profound sense of a unique relationship with God, the God whom he addressed by the familiar term “Abba.” It was God’s mission that he was about, God’s reign that he was announcing and embodying, God’s mercy that he was bringing; and it was by God’s power, that is, by the Holy Spirit, that he accomplished what he did: the Spirit of God was at work in his words and deeds.
And do not these two convictions come together in the fulfilment of the verse from Isaiah that describes how the Servant of the Lord would follow the Spirit’s lead? “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” Could there be a more beautiful description of how Jesus went about his ministry? Did he not bind up the damaged limbs, did he not re-light the smoldering wicks, of the sinners he welcomed into his company? Was his ministry not a consistent realization of the Psalmist’s statement that “God does not will that the sinner die, but that he live”? “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” Words we should ask God to write upon our hearts, for those moments when our bruises bend us down or we worry that our light is going out.
At the very beginning of the Gospels’ accounts of the work of Christ, we are given this lens through which to see who he is and what God is about in his deeds and words. The one whose words and deeds we will witness and hear during this coming year is God’s own beloved Son; he is the Spirit-filled Servant of the Lord; he is himself the reign of God’s mercy that he announces and brings. Let us, then, listen to him