In our liturgical calendar, today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Saying that probably doesn’t help orient many of you to what is going on in our worship. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. It brings the Season of Christmas to an end. It’s a feast that celebrates God making Godself manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the church has focused on three specific events in Jesus’ life on Epiphany: the coming of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.
The first Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the second of these three events: Jesus’ Baptism. Each year, we hear one of the gospels’ versions of the story of his baptism by John. It is also one of the Sundays when it is especially appropriate to baptize and to bring into the body of Christ new members.
Reading the story of Jesus’ baptism on a day when we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism prompts us to think about what our baptisms might mean in light of Jesus’ own baptism. But Jesus’ baptism is not our only source for early Christian baptism. There is also Paul, for whom, as he writes in the Letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—so baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If you were to set the three different versions of Jesus’ baptism that we are given by the synoptic gospels, it would be very easy to see the different ways the gospel writers shape the story to reflect their perspectives on the meaning of the event and its significance for the person and ministry of Jesus. They differ in many small but significant details.
Looking only at Matthew’s version, as we are today, we can still detect some important themes that we will note repeatedly as we work through the gospel this year.
One thing to note is the important role of John the Baptist for Jesus’ ministry. For Matthew, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry is a continuation of John’s. Both preach the coming of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist will make appearances later in the gospel. There are occasions when others think Jesus is himself John the Baptist.
Remember that this is the first time we’ve seen Jesus as an adult in the gospel of Matthew, the first time we’ve seen him since the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod. So Matthew’s depiction of this story is very important. What first impressions does he want to give us of Jesus?
He tells us that Jesus came to John in the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t just wandering by. He had come a long distance. He had come to John for this, to be baptized by John. But John refuses to do it. He says Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insists, and says something very interesting: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus seems to be bringing John into this event, sharing with him in its enactment, and together, Jesus seems to be saying, they are fulfilling all righteousness. We might even say that it takes both of them, willingly participating, to fulfill all righteousness.
Righteousness is a complex term with many meanings in scripture. For us, it’s one of those old “religious” words that we never use except when we’re in church or talking about church; if anything, when it is used in popular culture it’s a synonym for amazing or cool. So we don’t know quite what it means. Earlier, Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous” man when he plans on quietly ending his relationship with Mary—he’s acting in accordance with Jewish law. We might regard it as both inner disposition and a matter of outward practice. But perhaps the most important element in it is obedience to God. Jesus is signaling here that both he and John are obeying God, seeking to live according to God’s will.
In Matthew’s telling of the story, it is that shared obedience, the willing participation of both John and Jesus in the event that leads to the confirmation of Jesus’ identity. As he comes out of the waters of the baptism, the voice from speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
I’m not sure many of you know why we baptize people, especially infants. I doubt very many of you believe that unbaptized babies will burn in hell if they die—even the Roman Catholic Church has rejected the traditional doctrine of limbo. And we have so internalized American values of self-determination and freedom when it comes to religion that the idea parents might make a religious for their children has come to be regarded by many as parental tyranny.
Yet here we are. Out of some sense of obligation, or tradition, we will gather around the font again. Often, there’s a powerful bond of family that tugs us to bring our babies to the font, whether or not we quite believe in it all, we’re doing it for our parents or grandparents.
It’s tough to be a parent today. Young families are juggling jobs and daycare; struggling to make ends meet in a changing world and changing economy. We wonder and worry what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us—whether the planet we live on will even be inhabitable in 50 or 75 years. We can’t do it on our own. I’ve been fascinated to see how many people have come to Grace Church in the last couple of years, moving here to be closer to their children and grandchildren. That’s not just about being closer to family, it’s about helping out, providing childcare, helping raise the next generation. I’ve also seen the struggles of those parents, single moms especially, who don’t have other family members to turn to in difficult times.
For parents to bring a child to the font, is a recognition and admission that they can’t do it on their own. These beautiful children, miracles of life and of God’s creative power, are at the very beginning of their life’s journey. None of us knows what lies in store for them, what challenges and possibilities they will face. Baptism brings them into the body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful, where we all commit to helping them grow into their full stature as children of God.
For those of us who are observing this rite today, baptism is also a powerful reminder of who we are. There’s a sense in which we are like these babies, brought to God’s grace by power beyond ourselves, our salvation dependent not on what we might do or choose, but only through God’s love.
We can’t do it on our own. We can’t make it on our own. Baptism reminds us that we aren’t lone individuals making our way in the world. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, and baptism grafts us into the body of Christ. Baptism is the means by which God reaches out to us, draws us into God’s loving embrace.
In a way, all of us here are like John and Jesus today, coming to the waters of baptism in obedience to God’s call, trusting in God’s grace. And like Jesus, of whom the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” in baptism we are all marked as Christ’s own forever, embraced as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God.