Baptism of Jesus
Baptism of our Lord.23 Matt. 3:13-17
The Baptism of our Lord was one of the three major feasts for the early church (the first 4 centuries AD), along with Christmas and the Paschal Festival (one three-day feast for them, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday). But in the high middle ages, in the Western Church, it slipped quickly down the ladder to a virtual afterthought.
Why? Well that’s a good question. I can better answer the part about why it was once one of the 3 biggies than why it slipped so far down in the modern West, but the answer why it was once a biggie gives a strong hint as to what’s wrong with us that it slipped so far down.
We tend to take for granted something the ancient Christians marveled at with awe and wonder (and not a small amount of puzzlement). It’s this: Jesus is the Son of God, in whom the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. He is true man, born of the virgin Mary, and true God begotten of the Father from eternity, God from God, light from light, very God of very God. We all get that, or at least we say (in the Nicene creed) we get it.
So, as true God, Jesus is born sinless and perfect, right? And yet, the whole point of Good Friday is that God himself has taken on the sins of the world in the body of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus. So that, on Good Friday, Jesus dies as sin personified—bearing the sins of the whole world, of every sinner ever born, currently living, or who will ever be born before this world ends.
Well! When did he identify with sin, as it were? When did he take it on? Because there was no sin in the infant lying in the manger—he who made the starry skies, humble in a manger lies. There was no sin in him when, at age 12, he confounded the wisest priests, scribes, and scholars in the temple at Jerusalem with his questions and answers. There was no sin in him when he went obediently home with Mary and Joseph and was a dutiful and perfect son to them, though he was also their Lord, Creator, and Master. An interesting home-life I’m sure!
So how did the sinless lamb of God become sin personified? And when?
That is the mystery; and to the ancient Christians, very influenced by Neoplatonic Greek philosophy in the 1st century AD, a very great mystery indeed whose solution baffled them. So they did what Paul says the faithful Xns of Berea did: they searched the scriptures to find an answer.
Now, they were a little more attuned to what sort of book the holy scriptures is. It’s not a set of Greek philosophical dialogues, as Plato wrote. It’s not an academic lecture setting out metaphysics, politics, philosophy, ethics as Aristotle delivered in his writings. It’s not a fictional stage play criticizing reigning ideology and commending a kind of cynical erudition as Aristophanes and Sophocles wrote. It’s not a science text like Galen wrote. It’s not a history of the world as Thucydides wrote. It does not fit neatly into any of those genres.
They realized [though they didn’t have our word for it, but realized it implicitly in how they used it and preached upon it and worshipped from it] holy scriptures are a “loosely organized non-fiction novel, mixing (in avant-garde ways) all kinds of different genres, telling the world its true story, a story destined for autocracy, narrating to us the only real world, before which all other worlds will fold” as my old teacher Hans Frei observed.
They learned from Genesis Christ would be the son of Eve through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. From Samuel and Kings that he would be a king in David’s line. From Isaiah 42 that the servant of the Lord would be humble and stealthy, not quenching the dimly burning wicks, not calling attention to himself, not crying in the streets, but humble, lowly. From Jeremiah 31 that he’d forgive all our sins and remember them no more, making us righteous by his grace. From Isaiah 49 that he’d redeem not only Israel but the world. From Isaiah 53 that he would be crushed for the transgression of the people, cut off from the land of the living, pierced for our transgressions, and yet by his wounds we would be perfectly healed.
But none of those parts of the non-fiction novel give a clear explanation as to how the sinless one would become sin personified as St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:21 Christ Jesus would be. But Paul makes clear that the one who knew no sin at his birth, would be made to be sin for us—that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
So there was a change at some point. And the Gospels all reveal as Matthew 3:13-17 does for us today when that change came: at Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan! The Gospels make clear that John was the Elijah returned, the forerunner who would baptize for a re-think, a change of mind—now seeing our sin as the deadly deal it is and leading us to faith in Jesus the Christ who has taken away the sin of the world.
John’s baptism is quite different, the opposite actually (recalling George Constanza from the opposite land Seinfeld episode) of Christian baptism. John’s baptism put sin on you, made it stand out like one of those black light stamps, whereas Christian baptism takes sin off you, washing it away by Jesus’ blood.
And we see in our text how bizarre and strange this seemed to John himself who had not gotten the memo yet. When Jesus came to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him, John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” That is; John recognized the sinless Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Savior. He knew him to be perfectly holy, without sin. So, a baptism in which we changed our mind and saw ourselves to be sinners without hope was not for the one who had no sin at all! John needs baptizing by Jesus not the other way around!
But the Lord says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented, and when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and resting on him, the Father sounded from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, which whom I am well pleased” validating the whole thing.
Like the best novels, the holy scriptures do not explain very much, especially not the key plot points! You just have to let art flow over you! Don’t overthink it or lower it with the heresy of explanation as Robert Alter calls bad bible translations.
So, obviously, John’s baptism involved identifying as sinner and dumping that sh…er, stuff into the Jordan River, the sins of the world. And Jesus (by identifying as sinner!) sucked up all that sin metaphysically into his own body and carried it three long years to the cross where he killed it, buried it forever.
Because modern people underrate the seriousness of our sin, and never really think deeply on the mystery, how God “made him to be sin who knew no sin,” we just let this most marvelous of festivals slip into obscurity.
But… if God is pleased to have Jesus suck up all that shin into his body and take that trash out and burn it in hell forever, then we should be pleased to let him. We should give a mighty “Alleluia” and “Amen” to it.
And when Jesus tells us to be baptized into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to get in on IT, we’ll say simply: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”.