Jesus is Baptized

Suzanne Bowles, PhD

1 Epiphany  St. Michael’s  Jan. 10, 2021  By Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.                                       

Today is the day we mark the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  This event is clearly very important   It appears in all four gospels and is referred to in a number of other places in scripture.  Some gospel accounts have more details than others, but they all tell essentially the same story.  If you were to compare all four gospels and construct one composite version you would have a very detailed account of this event.  There is so much one could say about this.  It is really overwhelming.  But I thought I would focus today on two questions.

            One is, what is this baptism thing really all about?  This is John’s particular ministry, and it’s called in numerous places in scripture, a “baptism of repentance.”  John is calling on people to repent of their sins and then he baptizes them – full immersion in the river – and pronounces that God has made them clean.  We take this for granted because we are used to baptism as a ceremony, but the Jews must have found it odd.  After all, they already had a liturgy, a ceremony, for repentance – the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in the Temple to offer blood sacrifices of animals for the people’s sins.  This was the most solemn and holy day of the Jewish year.

            John would certainly be very familiar with this since his father Zecharias was a priest, a role reserved only for the male descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother, so John himself would have been qualified for this role.  Luke, in his account of John’s birth, tells us that Zecharias knows that John will not be a priest, prestigious as that job is.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Zecharias when he was on duty in the Temple and told him that he and his wife will have a son who  will be a prophet “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  In fact, after John is born Zecharias himself prophesies in a speech or song.  It is in Luke 1 and we know it as the canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus or Song of Zechariah.  We frequently use it as a canticle during Morning Prayer.  It is Canticle 4 (p. 50) in Rite I and Canticle 16 (p. 92) in Rite II.  The song has two parts.  In the first Zecharias is speaking of the baby Jesus, still in the womb. in the third person.  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a mighty salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”  That’s clearly about Jesus.  But in the second part, he abruptly shifts gears and speaks to the baby John directly.  “And you, Child, shall be called the prophet of the highest.”  So Zecharias knows very well what his son is supposed to do.  And John grows up and does it.  At about the age of 30 – remember, John is six months older than Jesus – John begins his public ministry by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and calling on people to repent of their sins.  John is very clear, though, that he himself is not the Messiah.  “The one who is more powerful than I  is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

            And he draws huge crowds of people.  Are the religious authorities upset when they get wind of this?  Of course they are.  Not only is he preaching that the long-awaited Messiah is not coming in the future -- he’s here now!  John is also implying through this new ritual, the baptism, that the old method of atonement really isn’t useful anymore.  Something more than the blood of animals – which everyone understood was symbolic – is needed to get people right with God.  In both Matthew’s and John’s gospel accounts they tell us that the Pharisees and Sadducees (who had a power-sharing arrangement on the Sanhedrin, the Council) come themselves to investigate and question John.  They don’t like what they hear.

            And then, lo and behold, Jesus shows up to be baptized – which leads us to the second question – why does Jesus get baptized?  He’s the one person in the whole history of the human race who doesn’t need it.  He has nothing to repent   He is totally sinless.  Indeed, John asks him this very question. In Matthew’s account John actually tries to prevent Jesus, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?”  Jesus replies, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Put simply, Jesus does this to show his complete identification with his people.  He has no sin, yet here he symbolically takes on their sin. Note that he says “for now.”   It is only when he goes to the Cross that he literally does take on the sins of his people.

            The other reason for Jesus’s willingness to be baptized is that God the Father chooses to use this event to announce in public that Jesus is his Son and that the Holy Spirit attests to this by appearing in the form of a dove.  All four gospel accounts have this.  It is both a visual and audible manifestation of the Trinity. And Matthew, Mark, and Luke all specify an audible voice.  This is significant because the announcement is done in public.  Remember, John’s baptisms attracted huge crowds.

            When the Heavens open up, or are “torn apart,” as today’s lesson has it, the word in Greek used for that is the same word used at the Crucifixion when the veil of the temple is torn in two – thus ending the Jewish sacrificial system.

            There is so much in this Baptism of Jesus that its depths cannot be fully plumbed by us humans.  This is an astonishing event on so many levels.    It must have been astonishing to witness.  And it still astonishes us now.  But as John’s father Zecharias said,” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people.”  That’s the essence of the gospel message right there.  May we always be blessed by this.  Amen.