1 Epiphany Jan. 9, 2022 by Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.
I didn’t plan this, but today’s gospel about the baptism of Jesus makes a nice sequel to the homily I preached two weeks ago about Zerubbabel, the Jewish governor in the 500s BC whom people thought, for a time, might be the messiah. It turned out, of course, that he wasn’t, but that does not negate his accomplishments.
Today’s gospel – fast forward 500 years or so – and people are asking John the Baptist “are you the messiah?” Why John? John has only recently begun his ministry. He’s about 30 years old, maybe 31. Remember, he’s Jesus’s cousin and he’s six months older than Jesus. He, John, is going around preaching a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Huge crowds are turning out to see him and many thought he might be the one prophesied in Isaiah 40:3-5. But what does John answer when they ask him if he is the messiah? He unequivocally says, “No, I’m not.” But then he says an astonishing thing. The messiah is coming, not in an unforeseeable future, but now. In fact, he’s already here. He’s coming down the road and you will see him very soon.
Let’s take a brief sidebar here before getting back to the story. This episode, the baptism of Jesus, appears in all four gospels. There are some differences in the four accounts but if we were to compare them and construct one composite version, you would get a very detailed account of this important episode in Jesus’s life. Some of what I’m saying today comes from some of the other gospels. The one thing we learn from all four is that the messiah is here now – no more waiting – he’s here! John’s cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, shows up at one of Johns baptism ceremonies, and, guess what?? – He’s the messiah!! How do we know? How does John know?
That’s a very complicated question, but let me offer a few thoughts, based on all the gospel accounts, plus the backstory that Luke gives us about the circumstances of John’s birth. Imagine you’re a God-fearing Jew and you’re curious about John. Maybe you want to get baptized. Maybe you’re not sure, but you just want to hear what he has to say. It’s got to be unnerving, maybe even scary, because essentially what John is saying is that the traditional Jewish ceremonies and your Jewish ancestry won’t save you. Not surprisingly, the Jewish authorities show up to investigate. That’s anxiety-inducing as well.
But both John and the Holy Spirit actually announce that Jesus is, yes, the messiah! The truncated version that we have in today’s lesson from Luke makes it appear that Jesus is baptized right after John’s response to his questioners. The gospel of John tells us that it’s the next day. What’s interesting is that John the Baptist himself sees Jesus coming toward him and he, John, says “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”(John 1:29) And then a dove descends on Jesus, which scripture tells us is the Holy Spirit. All four gospel accounts tell us this. Matthew, Mark, and Luke specify an audible voice which says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased.” What would you think if you were there that day and saw and heard this? Total astonishment. This is God’s personal announcement of who Jesus is. But it’s not the first time someone figured it out, is it?
Of course, Mary and Joseph know. And John’s mother Elizabeth knows. When pregnant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, Elizabeth knows right away and the baby John “leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke1:44) So even before he was born John the Baptist knew. And, of course, Anna and Simeon, the two elderly Jews who have been praying in the Temple day and night, not just for years, but for decades, -- they know, too, when they see the baby brought into the Temple. So it’s not a complete secret who Jesus is, but except for these few people no one knows. The baptism of Jesus is God’s public announcement of his son and the beginning of his public ministry.
What are we to make of all this? It is a complex story and we’ve only hit upon a few basic points. But if we don’t totally understand it – and, really, who does? – we can at least share in that astonishment. We weren’t there that day, but Jesus has done plenty of astonishing things in our lives, and we respond with joy and gratitude. The messiah has come. He’s not hypothetical. He’s real and he speaks to us today. Be ready to hear. Amen.