THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD (A) January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42: 1-4,6-7; Psalm 42; Acts 10: 34-38; Matthew 3: 13-17
By: Jude Siciliano, OP
Matthew has ended his infancy narrative. On the feast of the Holy Family we heard that they left Egypt and settled in Galilee, in a town called Nazareth. Now, after John the Baptist’s preaching (3:1-12), Jesus enters the scene. Matthew states it simply in the opening line of today’s gospel, "Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him." Jesus is lining himself up with John who preached his coming. He is affirming John’s baptism and submitting himself to God’s will, "...it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."
Jesus will continue the mission God proclaimed through all the prophets and up to John. Through Jesus, God has come close to God’s people. God’s kingdom is at hand. How was God’s kingdom present to those at the Jordan that day and how is it present to us now? – through the person of Jesus Christ, who has fulfilled the hope of God’s long-waiting people. He is the one John proclaimed was coming after him to baptize with "the Holy Spirit and fire" (2nd Sunday of Advent, Mt. 3: 1-12). After his baptism Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens open and he sees the Spirit descending like a dove on him – the Spirit God promised, through Isaiah, that would be given to God’s chosen servant.
We are in a season of epiphanies, manifestations of Jesus’ identity to the world. Last week the visitors from the East recognized Jesus and today Matthew tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and a voice from heaven announces him as God’s "beloved Son." If one were announced as God’s beloved child what would one expect? – answers to all life’s problems as they arose? Or, better still, no problems at all! Shouldn’t God’s "beloved" expect to get through life without pain and conflict? And when death did come, certainly a "beloved child" should have a swift, sure and easy passage out of this life into the arms of God.
After his baptism Jesus will be led by the Spirit to wrestle with Satan in the desert and there the temptations put to Jesus will be about expecting special treatment from God – "if you are the Son of God,"... why not receive privileged status and be spared life’s pains and disappointments? But Jesus will reject these temptations to power, glory and a pain-free life. He will live our life as we must live it, trusting in the love and constancy of God, even amid life’s pains and disappointments. That is the message he will preach – after his baptism and desert temptations – as he calls his first disciples (4: 1-16) and travels through Galilee teaching, proclaiming the good news and curing people. The voice proclaimed that Jesus is God’s "beloved Son" and we, gifted with faith, recognize him as that beloved Son of God who shares our life and shows us God’s gracious face.
It is curious that Jesus urges John to baptize him in order, he says, "to fulfill all righteousness." God is planning to set humans right with God, to restore the relationship broken by our sin. Through Jesus, God will bring about "righteousness," but not only between God and us. God wants to make our relationships right with others as well. So, Jesus went forth preaching and healing after his baptism, reaching out to those who: asked for forgiveness, were in need of healing and hungered for God’s Word.
Many of us don’t like the sound of "righteousness." It feels too close to "self righteousness." It smacks of superiority and separation. Maybe we can take a lesson from prison lingo. I have heard inmates describe a guard, or even another inmate, as "righteous." It means they live up to their word and can be trusted to do the right thing. That’s certainly not the full understanding of the biblical notion of "righteousness," but it gives us a clue of its positive implications. A righteous person lives a life that does not separate people or judge them, but draws them together in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust.
Jesus did "fulfill all righteousness." Therefore, we don’t have to make ourselves right with God; we don’t have to spend our lifetime "paying God back" for our sins and making amends for our past; we don’t have to grovel to get God on our side; we don’t have to say endless prayers to convince some angry god to yield to our urgent needs. The voice affirming Jesus as God’s "beloved son" was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus. Henceforth, what he proclaimed in words and actions about God’s love for us could be trusted. His message is that we don’t have to make God love us. God already does. We don’t have to push and shove to move God to our side. God is already standing with us. Jesus is proof-positive of where God is in our lives. Jesus, Matthew tells us, is Emmanuel, "God with us." Jesus’ life and death assure us that we don’t have to earn God’s righteousness, God has given it to us. Well then, what are we to do?
We could live out our right relationship with God by living "righteously" with others. God’s plan, "to fulfill all righteousness," means that we are to set things right with one another through forgiveness, love and justice. We might: work to heal broken relationships; forgive others, as we have been forgiven; reach out to strangers, as God has reached out to us; feed the hungry, as Jesus did, etc. From this point in the gospel Matthew will show how the beloved child of God reveals his relationship to God. Empowered by his Spirit, we can follow his example.
We can’t do all this on our own, but we can through Jesus who, as John promised, baptized us with the same Spirit that descended on him. Isn’t that our mission as Christians, "to fulfill all righteousness?" Enabled and directed by the Spirit we received at baptism, we strive to set things right in the world, especially for the defenseless, neglected and mistreated.
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