Tuesday, 8 January 2008

John the Baptist Matthew 3 13-17

In contrast to the others coming for baptism, Jesus came from Galilee. The well-attested baptism of Jesus would surely have raised eyebrows in the early church, where his sinlessness was already well established doctrine. John’s baptism was for repentance. Of John’s baptism Jesus surely had no need. Neither Mark, Luke nor John (the gospel writer) take on board that issue but Matthew makes explicit John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus precisely on those grounds. Jesus’s enigmatic reply that in being baptized he is to be permitted to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ prepares us for the whole ministry of Jesus as revealed in this gospel. The word righteousness surely carries not only its Greek meaning of doing good but the Hebrew/Aramaic meaning of bringing about justice, of making right prevail. Baptism then prefigures his death. Jesus is God with us: God fully immersed in our humanity. By his being baptized into the sinfulness of human beings we will be able to be baptized into his holiness. By his being baptized into our death we will be able to be baptized into his life. It is not for his own sins that he repents but he repents for ours, on our behalf. And yet in a sense he also repents on behalf of God for a world tainted by sin. He acknowledges that he has been sent to be part of a humanity that has corrupted the universe: that God cannot for ever stand outside it, over and against the world he made, but has to repent and enter it: to enter it in every aspect and be totally identified with it.

Significantly it is immediately after he is fully immersed in the water as a sign of his identification with humanity in all its sinfulness that he is openly affirmed as the Son of God. After the fiery introduction to Jesus that John has given us, the way in which that sonship was revealed may have been a little surprising. We might have expected fire, or a mighty rushing wind, or a spectacular blaze of God’s glory like that revealed to Isaiah. If a bird was required surely it would be an eagle, the sign of royalty: a bird with power in its claws and a bit of bite in its beak: the sign that this was to be a ministry of power. But it was a dove that appeared: the dove known for its grace, love, and gentleness: a bird of peace - hardly a cutting edge in the ornithological world - not even a rare bird. It was the cheapest form of sacrifice - the bird offered by ordinary people who could not afford a lamb. Perhaps it served as a reminder of the days of Noah when a dove was released from the ark and returned with an olive branch in its beak as a sign that the waters were abating, the period of punishment, of cleansing was over, God’s anger had relented, and the earth was to be given a new start, that a new covenant was to be made that would be grounded in God’s mercy. On the second occasion that Noah released the dove it never came back - the sign that the earth was ready for habitation. So, now, as Jesus came up out of the waters of cleansing, out of the waters of death and judgement, symbolically the dove that Noah had let out that had never returned coming back to rest on the one who was truly was going to be the beginning of the new creation. It came back to rest on the one who was to restore peace between heaven and earth, on the one through whose body and through whose blood was to be revealed the sign of the new covenant to replace the covenant even made to Noah. And as a sign of sacrifice the dove rested on the one who was to be the sacrifice for the world’s sins. Moreover, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, there is surely also an illusion here to the very opening of Genesis where the Spirit of God hovered (like a dove) over the face of the waters. Jesus represents not just a new covenant to replace the one made by God with Noah, nor just another fresh start, not even an exodus to a wilderness en route for a new kingdom, but a totally new creation.

It was thus in the action when Jesus most identified with humanity, being baptised in repentance for its sins, that God most openly recognised him as his son. This was a lesson that he was to have to take forward with him in his ministry. So when the devil said ‘If you are the Son of God........’ Jesus would know that being the Son of God meant no short cuts, no wizardry, no spectacular gestures. It is said that Roman emperors, when enjoying triumph processions in Rome, had a slave behind them in the chariot whispering continually in their ears, ‘Remember you are human’. Perhaps that is why Jesus continually referred to himself as the Son of Man. As Paul was to put it: ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.’

No comments: