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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord 01/12/2020

Chapter 3 of Matthew begins with the words, “In those days” which is a little deceiving in that from the last verse of chapter 2 to the first verse of chapter 3 about 30 years have passed and Jesus is all grown up. In those days though, Matthew is still working with Old Testament Moses imagery, in particular wilderness imagery in telling his story of Jesus: Moses led the people for 40 years in the wilderness after leaving Pharaoh’s Egypt; Jesus also left Egypt with his family after King Herod died and, 30 or so years later, he appeared in the wilderness to be baptized by John the Baptist.

In the Bible, wilderness can be understood as a place of danger and testing but also as a place of formation and for Moses and Jesus both of those aspects come into play. For Jesus, his baptism in the wilderness is part of it, but testing and formation are even more a part of the 40 day wilderness temptation that immediately follows his baptism. We won’t get to that though until the first Sunday in Lent. Another wilderness connection is that Moses led his people through the wilderness from slavery into freedom; Jesus would emerge from the wilderness and lead his people in a different way into a different kind of freedom. All of that then is part of the background of the story of Jesus’ baptism as well as being part of the overall Old Testament grounding of Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ baptism is described or mentioned in all four gospels so clearly it was seen as an important event and it’s always the gospel text on the First Sunday after Epiphany indicating that those who organized the lectionary also thought it was important. Keep in mind too that as we enter into this season of Epiphany, the word epiphany means something along the lines of manifestation or revelation so we should expect that the events described in the lessons for this season, including the event of Jesus’ baptism, will reveal something about Jesus and his identity.

Today’s text does that in a couple of different ways but what’s interesting is that the focus is primarily on the human aspect of Jesus’ identity. You know that our theological understanding is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, an understanding best left in the realm of mystery as opposed to trying to figure it out, but Matthew leads with fully human. You could say that he leads with humanity and humility.

There’s the humility of Jesus submitting to being baptized along with all the others who were going out to John the Baptist causing even John himself to in effect say, “This doesn’t seem right.” He was proclaiming a baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins so it seemed more appropriate that Jesus should be baptizing him, hence his hesitation.

Many years later, in these days rather than in those days, we might have a concern similar to John’s and wonder not so much about Jesus being baptized by him but about why Jesus had to be baptized at all. If it was just about Jesus, if it was just about repentance and forgiveness of sins, I would say that Jesus didn’t have to be baptized. With Jesus though, it’s never just about him, it’s always about others; it’s about us. So…for himself he didn’t have to be baptized, but for us he did.

When John questioned the appropriateness of baptizing Jesus, Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” In Matthew’s gospel, those are the first words that Jesus speaks and as such they are worth paying attention to. With those words, Jesus in effect answers our “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” question. He was baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness and we could add to that, for us; in order to fulfill all righteousness for us.

I’m reminded again of the emphasis and importance Martin Luther placed on the words for us and to us, the words for you and to you. When he preached about the birth of Jesus and the words “To you is born this day, a Savior,” Luther heard “to you” personally and it made all the difference for him in understanding God’s grace as a gift given to him despite his failure to always be who God would have him be. When he preached about communion and the words “The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ shed for you” again he heard “for you” personally. They are words about all of us together, in communion with one another, but they are also personal words and that made all the difference for Luther. Hearing them personally as he did, they make all the difference for each of us as well.

Jesus was baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness…for us. The word righteousness can mean a few different things but in this case it’s best understood as being obedient to the revealed will of God. Captive to sin as we are, like Luther, we know we can’t achieve such righteousness on our own. For Matthew though, Jesus’ baptism becomes the first example of Jesus doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. In Lutheran terms it’s what Luther called the happy exchange as in faith we receive Jesus’ righteousness and in exchange, he takes our captivity to sin with him to the cross.

Who Jesus is does begin to be revealed in his baptism, there is an epiphany going on here. As Jesus’ identity is revealed though, what we do find is that his identity is never just about him; others, including us are always a part of it. In a way, that gets at another question, one that really comes before “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” that question being, “Why did Jesus go out to John in the wilderness in the first place?”

We can have a tendency to think that being fully divine Jesus knew everything that was going to happen and why, that he knew the plan in other words and just obediently went along with it. Here though we’re dealing with the fully human Jesus who didn’t know everything. In his humanity, I think we can assume that he had some sense of God’s will and God’s call, a sense that somehow God would act through him. Hearing about John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness Jesus must have sensed that God was acting through him too, and…that somehow this was a critical moment in Israel’s history.

Guided by the Spirit then, the wilderness was where Jesus had to be in order to begin to play his role in this defining moment. In submitting to baptism, in humility he surrendered to the will of God. With that, there’s another epiphany as another aspect of Jesus’ identity is revealed, that being the paradox of power revealed in humility. Such humility on behalf of and in service to others would continue to be part of who Jesus was. He was never about flexing his divine muscles and flaunting his power just because he could.

What Matthew describes here is Jesus beginning to understand who he is and what he is called to do and because of that it can be interpreted as an example story since in one way or another we all experience that search for identity. The baptism of Jesus is more often understood as an example story that calls us to be baptized as Jesus was, it’s sometimes understood as an example story calling us to demonstrate the kind of humility that Jesus modeled. I don’t disagree with any of that, but I think that even more it’s an example of how to approach the who am I and what I am I supposed to do questions.

Jesus felt God at work in his life but in his humanity he had to discern just what that meant as he allowed the urgings of the Spirit to guide him. Again though, it’s not unlike what any of us experience as we go through life. A lot of the time we just keep on keeping on, doing what we have to do to get through the day without reflecting too much on it. But then there are those times that feel different, times when we feel like we’re at some kind of crossroad and, as people who believe that God is working in our life, we too try and discern the urgings of the Spirit and try to make sense of what we are being called to and what our next step should be.

It would be nice if in our discernment we got the kind of affirmation that Jesus got with a voice from heaven and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and landing on him, but at least in my experience, that hasn’t happened. I do believe though, that if we pay attention, especially as we pray about choices that face us, affirmation does come and the path becomes more clear.

Whatever our path, in the end, what we really want to hear are the words Jesus’ heard: “With you I am well pleased.” Even with our best efforts, we know that we can never be fully worthy of those words. As we join Jesus in the waters of baptism though, he makes us worthy. The Orthodox understanding of Jesus’ baptism is that as he is baptized, he makes the water holy so that as we are baptized, the water makes us holy. In the Small Catechism Martin Luther would add to that, “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water.”

By the grace of God, in faith, we are then worthy of the words, “With you I am well pleased.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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