January 12, 2020
Christ a Sinner:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
The baptism of our Lord is the single most commented on passages in the NT, period. It has fascinated, puzzled, delighted, and confused God’s saints of all times and places as Jeff Gibbs notes in his humble commentary. Over the years there have been two definite traditions of interpretation divided along the lines of Eastern and Western Christendom. Both traditions seek to wrestle with the essential question of our text before us which is, in fact, John’s question to Jesus at the Jordan, “Why do you want to be baptized Jesus?”
Tradition #1, the West: The western tradition is very neatly summed up by our Collect of the Day, which you’ll notice is a prayer always keyed to the Gospel text of the day and helps to clue you in hopefully on what the text/sermon will be about. Our Collect of the Day for the Baptism of our Lord says, “in the Jordan River You [Father in heaven] proclaimed [Jesus] your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit.” The two key verbs of the collect are “proclaimed” and “anointed” which make the baptism of Jesus a royal coronation. When Kings are made in the OT, like King David (1 Sm 16:13), for instance, they are anointed with oil on their heads and proclaimed to be the chosen servant of God and shepherd of the people. With this OT background in mind and the fact that Matthew has been pretty consistently hinting that this Jesus is from the city of David (Mt. 2:6), from the line of David (Mt. 1:5, 20), and therefore also has the royal blood of David (Mt. 2:2), a coronation makes a great deal of sense. In this way Jesus is depicted as the Royal Son of David, the Son of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and charged with bringing forth justice to the nations (Is. 42:1; 1 Sm. 16:13)). Christ is defined as a glorious Lord, King, and Master.
While there is certainly biblical support for this tradition, which is our tradition being children of Western Christendom, I’m not sure the whole picture is taken into account. Of the passages that are drawn together to support this like Isaiah’s Servant Songs, the anointing of David in 1 Samuel, and the introduction to Matthew, I think they miss a very key part of each of these things and that is the humility and lowliness that colors all of these stories.
When David is chosen to be King, for example, Samuel beholds the sons of Jesse and is convinced that the eldest son Eliab will be God’s anointed and thinks to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before [me]!” but God has to correct Samuel saying, don’t be fooled by appearances, that he is so tall and strong, because I’ve actually rejected him. Samuel calls all seven of the sons to stand before him and one by one God tells Samuel that he’s rejected all of them. Puzzled Samuel has to ask Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” to which Jesse remembers, oh yeah, I have one more, the youngest, the ruddiest, and the least deserving. He’s out with the flocks. So David is called in, reeking of sheep and dung, and God says, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.”
In a similar way the Servant Songs of Isaiah don’t color the Servant as gloriously as the West would like to paint Jesus in his baptism. In the most famous of the Servant Songs, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Jesus is named the “Suffering Servant” by all. Isaiah reiterates again and again, by appearances this does not look like a king. He’s the kind of person people gawk at. His appearance is marred, he has no beauty that we would desire him. He’s a man of constant sorrow and one acquainted with grief. So much so that you’d feel awkward looking him in the eye. He’s despised and rejected by men, esteemed as a wicked man smitten by God.
So I suppose my critique of the Western tradition, both Roman and Protestant, is that your God is too glorious. And this is where I think the Eastern Fathers supply what is lacking.
Which brings us to tradition #2: the East. The Eastern Fathers seem to have a better grasp on the OT in general than their Western counterparts, and they also read Matthew in light of the Pentateuch specifically, the first five books of Moses, which is the canon within the canon so to speak. As Lutherans we say Christ is at the center of the Bible and if you want to literally test this theory with the Books of Moses what you find is Leviticus 16 is dead center which should peek our interest and get us to pay attention a little more closely to what’s going on, especially when we find out that Leviticus 16 is the order of service for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day the sins of all the people are atoned for by a special sacrifice that the high priest, Aaron, makes on behalf of the people. He washes himself (Lv 16:4), wears sacred vestments, makes a sacrifice for himself and for the sacred space (Lv 16:6), and then takes two male goats (Lv 16:7). One is sacrificed to God as a burnt offering, but the other is kept alive because it (quite literally) drew the short straw. Aaron lays his hands on this goat and confesses into it all the sins of the people, all their transgressions, and all their iniquities (Lv 16:21). After taking on the sins of all the people the goat is sent out into the wilderness, to the devil, Azazel, to die (Lv 16: 10).
With all this in mind, we begin to understand why in Eastern iconography the water of the Jordan is always colored, not bright blue, but black because John has been baptizing the people into repentance. The people have been confessing their sins into the water and there it stays until a sacrifice appears, a male goat, upon whom is laid the sins of all the people, to take it away from them and to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. And if you peek ahead a verse beyond the end of our pericope for today, where is Jesus, the sacrifice of Atonement, sent by the Spirit? To Azazel, to the Devil, to be tempted in the wilderness.
In this way the Eastern tradition has picked up that there is something more going on here than what our glory hungry eyes desire to see. Christ fulfilled all righteousness, not by being righteous in himself, not by being glorious and holy in himself, but by taking on the sins of the people (Gal 3:13). Being not only their servant, but their suffering servant, bearing the iniquity of all, being sin incarnate, the most sinful man to ever live (2 Cor 5:21). This is also why Christ throughout his ministry is eating with sinners, talking with tax collectors, hanging out with prostitutes, healing lepers, and raising up dead bodies. Christ did not have any sin in himself so he borrows ours, confesses them as his own (Mt 27:45), submits to the accusation of the law (Gal 4:4), suffers the entire wrath of God (Is 53:5), dies, and is buried among the wicked.
So the saying is true, Christ was crucified for your transgressions and he was raised for your justification (Rm 4:25) and by baptism the death and resurrection of Christ are yours (Rm 6:1-11). In the same way that Christ died to sin, so also you have died and because you have died the law can no longer accuse you and sin is no more. And just as Christ is risen and victorious, Lord over all, so you too are lords. Victorious over sin, death, devil, and the law and full sons of God with every blessing of righteousness, blessedness, life, and light. In the baptism of our Lord everything we have is put on him, and in our baptisms everything that he has is freely given to us. Go in this peace today. Your sins have been taken away. You are baptized and you are forgiven. In the name of Jesus, Amen.