January 8th, 2023 homily on Matthew 3:13-17 for Baptism of the Lord Sunday by Pastor Galen
I’m sure you know the feeling. You dip your toes in the water – maybe it’s a pool, or a lake, or an ocean – and the water is freezing cold. There’s no way you’re going to put your whole body in. It’s way too cold! But then someone – in the case of our family it’s always one of my daughters – calls out “Come on in, the water’s fine!”
The water’s fine? No way! It’s frigid! You might walk in up to your ankles or calves, but there’s now way you’re getting all in. But they call out even more insistently, “No really, the water is fine! It’s cold at first, but it’s fine once you get used to it.”
You shake your head in disbelief, saying “there’s no way I’m going in there!” But you see your friend or family member splashing happily in the water, and you notice that they really do seem fine. They’re not shivering or shaking, they don’t have blue or purple lips. And so you think to yourself, “well, maybe it will be OK.” And so you timidly venture further in. Or perhaps you’re the type of person who likes to jump all in. But you eventually do go into the water, and you agree that the water really is fine. And now you’re the person calling out to the others walking timidly up to the water’s edge, “Come on in – the water’s fine!”
In the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist was the person out in the water calling out, “come on in, the water’s fine!” But he was doing more than simply encouraging them to get wet. He was calling out to them to repent of their sins, to turn away from their sinful and destructive habits and attitudes, and to turn to God in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Some did in fact receive the invitation. And no doubt they too began to encourage others to get in the water and be baptized. Some no doubt got baptized more for appearances rather than as an indication of true repentance – and John called them out on that, challenging them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). But the experience of being baptized was transformative, and many repented of their sins and wrongdoing and were baptized.
But then Jesus comes to the water’s edge to be baptized, and John is confused. Jesus is the one they had been waiting for. Jesus was and is the promised Messiah – the Savior of the world – who John said would be much more powerful than he – so much so that John said he wasn’t even good enough to carry the sandals of the Messiah. And now, here Jesus is, coming to be baptized along with everyone else.
John says to Jesus, “Why are you coming to be baptized by me? I should be coming to be baptized by you!”
But Jesus jumps and splashes into the water (at least in the Godspell rendition), and says, “No, we need to do this in order to fulfill all righteousness.” Or, as The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it, “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism” (Matthew 3:15 MSG).
And so John baptizes Jesus, and “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17, NRSV).
What an amazing picture, and what an amazing affirmation of Jesus’s unique identity as God’s “only begotten Son,” as we read in the King’s James Version of John 3:16. Jesus, who was perfect and sinless, who came to take away the sins of the world, as we see throughout Scripture (c.f. 1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
But this scene in the Gospels also raises a number of important questions, one of which is: If Jesus was sinless, as the Bible tells us, then why did he need to be baptized? Why did he undergo John’s baptism of repentance, if Jesus had no sins to repent from?
Think about it. Everyone else who was coming to the water to be baptized that day had sinned. Even John – who was doing the baptizing – was not perfect. For the people coming to be baptized, the water cleansing their body was symbolic of the spiritual cleansing that they needed – forgiveness from God for their wrongdoing – both the wrongs they had done, and for the good things they had failed to do. Being baptized in the water did not mean that they would never sin again – but it was a means by which God was extending grace to them, and it was a powerful symbol and reminder to them of the grace and forgiveness God extends to each of us, despite all of the ways that we have fallen short of what God calls us to do.
So why then was Jesus baptized?
Well, perhaps Jesus’s baptism was not about repenting – or “turning” – away from anything, but rather turning towards something – in this case, his mission and purpose and calling. In going down into the water to be baptized, Jesus was identifying with the people of Israel, who had passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the promised land after having been delivered from slavery in Egypt. In being baptized in the waters of the Jordan river, he was identifying even with outsiders such as the Assyrian commander Naaman, who had been instructed to dip into the waters of the muddy Jordan River in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. And in going down into the water, perhaps he was even identifying with the likes of the prophet Jonah, who sank beneath the waters until he was rescued by a whale when he was running away from his calling to go and preach salvation and repentance to the people of Nineveh.
In 2 Corinthians verses 17 and following, the Apostle Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:17-20).
And then the Apostle Paul says, “For our sake God made the one who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan river that day was in many ways a foreshadowing of what would come. Even though Jesus was perfect and sinless, he would be in many ways treated as a sinner throughout his life – criticized by the religious leaders, and eventually hung on a cross to be crucified as if he were a criminal. Jesus was a spotless, sacrificial lamb – who took the punishment that we deserved. And in taking our place, he makes it possible for us to be in right relationship with God.
And so, in going down into the waters to be baptized, Jesus was identifying with us, as people who have fallen short. This was all part of God’s redemptive plan to save the world through Jesus Christ. In going down in the waters to be baptized, Jesus was signifying that he would fulfill and complete the mission that God had originally given to the people of Israel – a task they often lost sight of and failed to do – that is, to be a light to the nations, to point the world to God’s love and saving grace.
In humbling himself, and being baptized by John, in the company of so much others, Jesus was demonstrating the fact that, although he was and is the Savior of the world, and the mission and purpose to which he was called was indeed unique, he would do it in community with others, and he would invite each and every one of us to join him in the mission. By going down into the waters to be baptized, Jesus was essentially saying, “Come on in – the water’s fine!” Not because the water of Christ’s mission wasn’t cold and uncomfortable – in fact, Jesus would experience persecution and suffering and death – and he said that we as his followers should not be surprised if we experience the same. But Jesus invites us to join in his mission because if and when we follow in Christ’s footsteps and participate in Christ’s mission, then we too will experience the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to fulfill the purpose to which we have been called, and we too will experience the affirmation from God that we are God’s children, that God is indeed pleased with us, and that God is with us, no matter the trials we may face.
Now, baptism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I probably don’t have to tell you that baptism is a hotly contested theological practice, and even though pretty much every Christian tradition has a practice of baptism, it is done a lot of different ways in a lot of different churches.
But one aspect of baptism that every Christian tradition that I know of agrees on is that you cannot baptize yourself. You have to be baptized by someone else – in many cases a pastor or clergy, but even in churches where that’s not the case, you still have to be baptized by another Christian or member of the Church. And this is because baptism is not just about your indivitual relationship with God, but it’s also a reminder that when we are baptized we become a member of the Church – not just the local congregation, but a member of Christ’s Church – the global body of Christ – the family of God. As members of Christ’s Church we are children of God, and siblings with one another.
That’s why the worship series that we’re starting today refers to the Kingdom of God as a “Kin-dom” – because as members of Christ’s Church, we are “kin” – family – with one another. Christ is our head – our leader, our King – and we are family with one another.
And so it is not possible to baptize yourself – that’s just simply called bathing. Rather, you must be baptized by someone else. And it’s not about the goodness or righteousness of the person who baptizes you – but rather the person who pours or sprinkles or dunks you in the water is simply a representative of the Church, welcoming you into the family of God.
And here too, we see Christ’s humility in being baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was in fact much more powerful and holy and righteous than John. But even though – or perhaps because – Jesus is the Savior the world, God in the flesh, incarnated among us, he submitted himself to the process of baptism, identifying with us in our need for God and for community.
And so this morning, if you are not a member of Christ’s Church – if you’ve never been baptized, or repented of your sins or received the gift of God’s grace that is offered freely to all – we say, “Come on in, the water’s fine!” I know you may think we’re crazy. The Christian life may not look all that appealing to those on the outside, but there is grace, and mercy, and freedom, and love here for all who would put their faith and trust in Christ. Perhaps you want to just dip your toes in the water – and that’s fine! We welcome you to participate at whatever level you feel comfortable. And if and when you’re ready to jump all in, we’ll be happy to help usher you in.
For those who are already members of God’s family, but perhaps you’ve strayed away, or your enthusiasm for Christ has grown cold: this morning there is an opportunity for each of us to renew our commitment to following Christ. In a few minutes we’ll be participating in an abbreviated version of our annual covenant renewal service, and also receiving Communion.
So come on in – the water’s fine! It may be uncomfortable at times, but here there is freedom and grace, and mercy, abundant and free. Let us go into the water, embracing the mission to which we have been called, remembering our need and dependence on God, and let’s invite others to join us here in the water!