Baptism of Our Lord
I’m trying a new thing on the blog, something to keep me writing every week and to help me think through the weekly lectionary readings: writing on the Gospel passage for each week. We’re in Year A, which means that most passages come from the Gospel of Matthew; this week, the passage is the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.
John the Baptizer preached: “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”
But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
— Matthew 3:11-17, NLT
This is one of those passages that is so familiar to me that I forget how startling the story is. Here is John, calling his audience to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. He exhorts them to repent, to turn away from their old way of life towards a new one, and be baptized in the Jordan River, symbolically re-crossing into the Promised Land.
John is acutely aware that his job is to prepare people to receive this coming kingdom of God — not to bring that kingdom into existence; that job belongs to Jesus. And yet, here comes Jesus, asking to be baptized by John.
In Matthew’s version of the baptism, John protests, asking why Jesus is coming for baptism. John’s question sparks others: why should Jesus be baptized when he has nothing of which to repent? And why should he submit himself to John’s lesser baptism of water when he is bringing the baptism of the Holy Spirit?
There are many possible answers to these questions, answers that overlap or enrich each other. We could see Jesus as submitting to God, functioning as a true Israelite, as the one who reverses Adam’s sin — the point of baptism being obedience, not repentance.
In another angle, one commentator I read pointed out that the Greek word for “repent” connotes a turning or change; Jesus did not have to turn away from sin, but his baptism marks a change in his life as after this moment he begins his public ministry (Feasting on the Word p. 239).
But I am particularly drawn to thinking about the deep and rich symbolism of water: God’s spirit broods over the water as creation begins. God destroys the earth with water. God nourishes the Israelites in the desert by providing water from a stone. God destroys the Egyptian army in water. God leads the Israelites through the Jordan River into a new home.
Water is life. Water is also death.
So what does it mean that Jesus, the living water incarnate, allows John to submerge him in the water of the Jordan?
Jesus' baptism initiates his ministry, a ministry that ends in his death, burial, and resurrection. As St. Paul tells us in both Romans and Colossians, in baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to new life; the baptism at the beginning of his ministry mingles together the waters of death and of life, foreshadowing Jesus' defeat of death through death.
Water destroys evil; in baptism, we die to sin and evil and death. Water is life; in baptism, we are raised to eternal life in Christ. Water marks a passage from the old into the new; in baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own people.
And when Jesus is dipped into the Jordan River by his cousin John, the Living Water encounters and transforms the waters of cleansing and initiation and death. Now through baptism, we die to the life of sin and live into the life of Christ. Because when the Living Water becomes flesh, becomes a particular person in a particular time and place, all that he touches is transformed and infused with new meaning.
In his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death and resurrection. But he also gives us a powerful symbol. When the water of baptism flows over us, and then whenever we see another person baptized, we are reminded to repent, to turn towards Jesus, and enter into the Kingdom of God.