Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Baptism of Jesus

(This post is my sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.
It was shared with two rural parish communities today.
It is based on the readings for this day in the common lectionary.)

In our reading from the Book of Acts Peter has come to Cornelius’ house for a Baptism, the baptism of Cornelius and his family and friends.

Peter’s sermon and these baptisms signaled the opening of the Church to the Gentiles. Pete took a lot of flack about this event and the acceptance of non-Jews into the church, Other Apostles familiar with Jesus' teaching and example also understood that Jesus had opened the door of the Kingdom to all nation and peoples.

Eventually the practical issues of this change were worked out in a church council called the Council of Jerusalem. You can read about it in Chapter 15 of the book of Acts.

In his sermon Peter describes Jesus’ mission as beginning with the baptism of Jesus and declaration of the Spirit:

“This is my beloved Son ...”

Like many events of divine encounter the witnesses have difficulty describing what happened in ordinary language.Here Luke the author of Acts remembers Peter saying it was like an anointing.

In our gospel reading Matthew remembers it like a dove descending on Jesus. In any case, as Peter pointed out to the catechumens at Cornelius’ house, Jesus’ public ministry was formally launched when he came to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

Now John preached a baptism of repentance from sin. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God and thus has no sin to turn away from. John also knows this and objects to Jesus’ request,

“I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?”

Jesus asks him to do it any way so as to “fulfill all righteousness”. Righteous means “right relationship”. Here we might understand Jesus to mean it is God’s will that he begin his public ministry with this sign.

You might have notice that our music today makes many references to water. Water provides God a powerful means or symbol to communicate his teaching to us. Baptism involves the pouring of or immersing in water as a symbol of a spiritual reality. The spiritual reality is the message of Jesus’ ministry.

God has used water before in salvation history. Consider the Passover when the Jews escaped from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea. Here God commissioned Moses to lead God’s people through the water of the Red Sea. Moses’ personal story also begins with water.

The ruler of Egypt had ordered that all the male babies of the Jewish slaves be killed. Moses’ mother, wishing to save her son from death placed the baby in an infant size reed canoe and launched it into the river near a well-to-neighborhood.

Since she worked as a servant in such a family she was able to manipulate a family visit to the beach so that the baby was found by the women of the family. Moses was taken in and eventually adopted by the Egyptian family. In fact the family was the royal family of Egypt.This passage of Moses through the water initiated the Saga of God’s plan to free his people from slavery through the leadership of Moses.

What is the spiritual reality behind the symbol of water in the Passover Saga?

First consider the water of the Red Sea. God desired his people to be free. He wanted them to freely choose him as their God. He wanted to give them their own country.

Through the water God led Moses to adoption into a royal family that he might have the status to demand from the slaveholder the release of God’s people from slavery.

Through the water of the Red Sea, God, through Moses, actually set them free and prepared them in the desert to be a people ready for their own country, the gift God had prepared for them.

Today we celebrate Jesus going into the water of the Jordan. Moses needed to be adopted into a royal family but Jesus is already of royal blood! Yet the reality symbolized here is also an adoption. Jesus has adopts a human nature and a human family. We say, Son of God and Son of Mary. Son of God and Son of David, and Son of God, Son of man.

As Moses was adopted into a royal family that he might have the power to challenge the slaveholder to release God’s people, Jesus has adopted our human nature to show us the way out of slavery to our sins and prepare us for his gift of eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Now Moses’ passage through the water as a child pre-shadowed the passage of the Jews through the water of the Red Sea, from slavery into freedom, and their passage from the desert into the Promised Land, through the water of the Jordan, forty years later.

What, then, does Jesus’ baptism for-shadow?
In a sense we can say that what is begun here is ended on Calvary. What is announced here is confirmed by the resurrection three days later.

First - what is begun?
We know that sinless Jesus did not need baptism as we do to free us from sin. Rather Jesus is taking on all the sins of mankind. You might say its part and parcel of being human but such a move is only possible for God.

Then - how does it end?
On Calvary Jesus will die for our sins, die that we might be set free to love God in return and free to prepare for the gift of eternal life. The water flowing from his side indicates the completion of the task begun in the waters of the Jordan.

John tells us that, “One soldier thrust his lance into (Jesus’) side and immediately blood and water flowed out.”

The resurrection confirms to the disciples that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Meeting with them the resurrected Jesus instructed the church:

Mark reports he said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

Matthew remembers him saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Luke reports that Jesus said, “Preach, in my name, the repentance of sins to all nations.”

This gives us fuller insight into our own baptism. The apostles and the church speak of Baptism as a “dying to sin” or “dying with Jesus”. In a sense our baptism is in the opposite direction to that of Jesus. While Jesus took my sins and your sins upon himself, in baptism you and I are set free from sin.

The baptism of Jesus marked his adoption of our human nature and our sin. Our baptism marks our adoption into the family of God. As we come out of the water we are newly freed from the slavery of sin. We are ready for our journey to God’s gift of Eternal life in the Kingdom.

© Copyright 2008 Joseph E. Hilber. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the author.Brief quotes from this post may be used and you may link to this post.

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