holy cross sermon for the first sunday after the epiphany: the baptism of our lord, year c, january 13 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Have you ever wondered WHY Jesus was baptized? After all, we say in the creed “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” If baptism is FOR the forgiveness of sins, then why was Jesus baptized? The Bible says that he was without sin (Heb. 4.15). And John appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1.4). So what is Jesus doing being baptized? WE are the ones who need to be cleansed by HIM, and yet here he is presenting himself among the crowds of people conscious of their own guilt, seeking to be cleansed from sin.

People down through the centuries have come up with a number of answers to this question. Most of them are wrong. When this question first occurred to me, I asked an older Christian about it, and he said that he suspected that Jesus really didn’t know what he was doing, but that his identification with us – confused earthlings that we are – meant that he shared our confusion: confusion about our calling, about what the right thing to do might be in a given situation, and so forth.

But this way of answering the question of why Jesus was baptized does not do justice to the depth and profundity of what is being revealed in this passage. This passage isn’t supposed to make us feel warm and fuzzy because a really important guy was once just as confused as we are. What it shows, rather, is the renewal of creation: it shows the way OUT of the confusion and chaos and fear that lie at the center of human life.

To the ancients, water, particularly large bodies of water, were a dark and mysterious force, a symbol of danger and death – though always charged with the possibility of deliverance and life. The Holy Spirit had brooded over the waters of the primordial chaos, and out of it God had spoken order. The world had been destroyed in the waters of the flood, and Noah and his family had been delivered through their obedience to God’s command to build the ark. The children of Israel had passed through the waters of the Red Sea and been delivered from the armies of Pharaoh, who was seeking to perpetuate their bondage and slavery. Through the agency of Moses, God had divided the waters of the Jordan which stood in the way of Israel’s entry into the land of promise, and the children of Israel passed into their inheritance on dry land.

Up until the baptism of Jesus, God had delivered his people FROM the waters of the deep. It is as though God rebuked the disorder of the primordial waters when he spoke the dry land into existence. It was a divine action of separation and division.  So too was God’s dealing with the waters of the Red Sea. Israel was delivered precisely because they DID NOT go into the waters, but passed over miraculously on dry land (Exodus 15.19). And at the end of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, when they are poised on the very edge of the land of promise, the waters of the river Jordan stand in their path not as an efficacious sign of God’s boundless mercy, but as a hindrance, as the final obstacle to their taking possession of their inheritance – and again God must intervene; pushing the water back so that the children of Israel do NOT pass through the water, but enter the land ON DRY GROUND (Joshua 3.17). Going down into the depths of the waters meant death.

But with Jesus’ baptism, God does something new.  John has the same reaction that many Christians have to Jesus’ presentation of himself for Baptism. John said, “I need to be baptized by YOU, and do you come to ME?” (Matthew 3.14).  Jesus’ response seems a little mysterious: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” then he consented (Matthew 3.15).  The key to understanding Jesus’ answer is in the word “righteousness.” In Jesus’ world, RIGHTEOUSNESS is man’s response to the Jewish Law, the Torah. To be righteous is to accept God’s will, and so to “fulfill all righteousness” is to accept God’s will TOTALLY.

When we think of Jesus accepting the will of the Father, our thoughts inevitably turn to the night before he suffered, when he is at prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. His prayer that night was “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, NOT AS I WILL, BUT AS THOU WILT” (Matthew 26.39). Jesus fulfills all righteous by doing the will of the Father, and the Father’s will is done, and all righteousness is fulfilled, with the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan therefore prefigures his crucifixion – where he does the will of the Father, and so fulfills all righteousness.  That’s why Jesus refers to his death as his “baptism” when he asks the sons of Zebedee: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Jesus stands on the banks of the Jordan, accepting the will of the Father, for our salvation. At his baptism, our Lord shoulders the weight of chaos – of the darkness and rebellion and fear at the center of human life – the Lord of life plunges into the depths of it, and he rises up from it victorious. “And behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’” (Matthew 3.16-17).

Jesus is the true Jonah, the servant of God who is NOT delivered from the depths, but who plunges in, who stands on the deck of the storm-tossed ship and says “Take me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you,” (Jonah 1.12). The Lord was not baptized in order that he might be cleansed from sin, but that he might renew creation, that by descending into the dark waters of chaos and fear and rebellion against God, he might sanctify the water itself, and make it efficacious for our cleansing. Whereas the ancients saw in the seas the dark and powerful forces of chaos, we who are in Christ now see in the water the sign of our redemption. We see that the power of fear and darkness and rebellion has been broken for us – that because Jesus entered into the depths, the depths have now been sanctified (cf. Remigius and Augustine). We may now rise cleansed from the same water that Jesus entered, burdened with our sin. And we may now rise to life victorious from the same death which Jesus suffered for our sake.

Jesus was baptized not because he was unsure of himself, but because he was quite sure. He came to do the will of the Father – and the Father’s will was that we should be delivered from all that burdens our souls: from all the confusion and darkness and sin and chaos of life in this world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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