Epiphany 1 – Baptism of the Lord
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 42:1–9, Psalm 89:1–29, Acts 10:34–38, Matthew 3:13–17
The events of this past week caused a bit of a scare. It looked like our nation was on the verge of war. This specific conflict at hand is just one of the many conflicts and struggles that ripple through our world, prompting many to think this world is godforsaken. As we celebrate the Incarnation during this season of Epiphany, we remember that God has not abandoned his world but entered into the heart of suffering.
“All the terrible events of world history seem to constitute a grave accusation against God,” writes Joseph Ratzinger. He continues, “But when God appears before us, unarmed, with his love as his only might, all the frightening images of God lose their plausibility. The human existence of the Son is the glory of the Father. In the crib and on the Cross, the glory of God is raised aloft in this world. And wherever men follow this God, a new humanity begins, and peace on earth begins, even if only in a fragmentary fashion.”
With Ratzinger’s reflection in mind, I want to pause over the Incarnation and specifically in the Baptism of Our Lord.
In our readings today, the royal Psalm 89 provides a response or reflection to the lessons and the gospel. The selections in the lectionary (either verses 1-29 or 20-29) emphasize the Lord establishing the house of David forever. It is a joyful reading, but actually Psalm 89 is a complaint. This morning I want to begin with the “complaint” of Psalm 89 and the complaint of humanity against God. Then we’ll come to the Gospel, the Good News, the Baptism and the story of God’s union with humanity in the Incarnation.
The first part of Psalm 89 is a celebration of God’s faithfulness to his creation and to his people Israel. Listen to this pairing in verses 1 through 4:
will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever;
with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.
2 For I said, “Steadfast love will be built up forever;
in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.”
3 You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have sworn to David my servant:
4 ‘I will establish your offspring forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’ (ESV)
The psalm proceeds to recount how God founded the heavens and the earth, and how He defeated the enemies of Israel and raised up his servant David. If we kept reading, we see a shift at the end of the Psalm. Verses 38-39 complain that this faithful God has abandoned the house of David and abandoned his people.
38 But now
you have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust. (ESV)
Verse 49 asks, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
It is not clear when the Psalm was written, but most likely at the end of the kingdom of Judah. It could have been written after the godly king Josiah was killed in battle. Or when Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah and dragged him and the people of Judah off into exile. It is a complaint of someone who has trusted in the Lord but now feels godforsaken. It could have easily been sung in the days of King Herod who was not of the house of David and who was cruel to the weak and dangerous to those he mistrusted. Where is the God who promised faithfulness to his people?
This complaint sounds like the first part of Ratzinger’s quote, “All the terrible events of world history seem to constitute a grave accusation against God.” The more we read history, the more we might struggle with this complaint. Countless weak and poor have been crushed and treated in unthinkable ways by wicked men and women. The devout Christian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky provides the most thorough complaint against God’s abandonment of innocent children to unthinkable suffering in the Brother’s Karamazov. This is not a complaint to treat lightly: for many who have abandoned the faith abandoned it at this very point.
I’m rereading Job right now and this complaint echoes through the pages as Job cries out for an audience with God. He is immersed in unjust and unexplainable suffering and he sees this pattern of suffering in the world around him. He is also offering an existential complain. God where are you? Come and defend yourself. He wants an audience with God.
Many of us know this complaint. In the midst of our pain and our life, God is absent. We see people we love suffer or we ourselves suffer and have no sense of comfort from God. Where are you God? I cry out to you day and night with no relief, with no assurance, with no sense of hope.
This cry highlights the truth of human separation from God.
Various traditions will use different words to highlight this condition, but it is the sense that we are separated from God by a gulf we simply cannot cross. Genesis tells a story of Adam and Even turning away from God and a separation rippling through their family and all creation. The couple that walked and talked with God are hiding from God in the garden. Their first son kills their second son and founds a civilization that bears a pattern of vengeance and violence. As the nations emerge, they are bent on destruction.
This pattern of descent and destruction is repeated all through Scripture. God draws near to a people who will bear his blessing to the world, but they cannot even bear his presence. This could be a hint for those who complain of God’s absence that if he did draw near in their pain, the suffering would actually increase not decrease. God’s presence is literally a holy terror that causes Isaiah to cry out, “I am coming undone.”
What can we do in our helpless estate?
When we read the Gospels, we see and hear our life restored in God in the whole life of Christ. During Epiphany, it might be worthy for each of us to pause over the Gospel stories and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see our redemption in the life of Christ and not simply the death of Christ.
With this in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel story today. John is preaching repentance. John is baptizing people in the Jordan. In other words, John is calling them to repentance and leading through the waters of cleansing. Even as he baptizes, he speaks of another: One who is greater than John; one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; one who will bring judgment.
Then suddenly, the One that John speaks about is here, standing before John and the people. John is ready to kneel and submit to his fire, to his cleansing, but Jesus comes to be baptized by John. How can John lift his impure hands above the head of this Holy One sent from God. How could John presume to give anything to Jesus? Jesus replies, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15)
Jesus has come to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus has come to fulfill the calling of Israel. He is descending into the curse of the nations that he might bring the blessing of God to all peoples as was promised in Genesis 12. In fulfilling this covenant promise, Jesus is also revealing faithfulness of God to His promise, to His word. In this sense, Jesus is answering the complaint of Psalm 89, the complaint of Israel forsaken by God in exile, the complaint of Job abandoned in darkness. In the very actions of his life, Jesus fulfills the long-awaited promises of God while also bringing hope of redemption to all people.
Jesus descends into the cleansing waters of Jordan. Much like the ancient Hebrews passed through the cleansing waters of Jorden as they entered the Promised Land. Much like Naaman the Syrian General entered the waters of Jordan for cleansing from his leprosy, Jesus descends into the waters just as he emptied himself into the likeness of men and became a servant.
As he descends, Jesus cleanses the waters of Jordan, he blesses the uplifted hand of John the Baptist. When Jesus descends into the waters, he is already beginning to descend into the separation of God and man. He is already restoring the breach; he is already beginning to restore our communion with God in this world. As Jesus descends into the water, all creation bows before Him for He is the Holy One of God.
As Jesus descends into the water, he is hidden from our sight. This visual descent into water is the same pattern God’s descent into human flesh. He is hidden in the humanity of Jesus. Only those with eyes to see can see. And even as God has hidden himself in the form of a servant, he will also hide himself in the shame and offense of the crucifixion.
Even as God is hidden in Christ, we ourselves our hidden with Christ in God. As we follow Christ into baptism, we follow in the way of his hiddenness, his humiliation. Because he has taken hold of us by His love, we can let go of our never-ending struggle for self-preservation. We are free to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, we are free to follow in the way of humiliation for we are secure in his unshakeable love.
We are free to enter into the rest of God. We are free to live in the kingdom of God. We are free from the power of sin and death. So now, even as Christ is redeeming and delivering us in his action of humiliation in the baptism, he is addressing us. Follow me. Follow me into the way of humility. Let go of your need to be seen as righteous, as powerful, as successful. Be free to love those who I call you to love and to humble yourself before those who may even seem to be below you. That you might honor them and lift them up into my love.
As we continue to meditate upon this baptism, we see Jesus ascending from the water and the glory of God shining over him. The heavens open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove. The Father speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is christened with the Spirit and the blessing of the Father, then he is sent out to proclaim the message of the kingdom in word and deed. In this moment, we are privileged to behold the hidden communion of love within the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From this communion of love, Jesus is also addressing us and calling us into his message and life of communion and of the kingdom.
Thus, in John 14, we hear Jesus say, “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 15:15-21)
In a world of suffering and darkness, in a place where many people feel godforsaken, Christ has taken hold of us, has redeemed us in his life and death, and addresses us with call to follow him into the places of darkness and suffering with His presence of love and life.