By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13–17 (ESV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We have once again moved from the celebrations of Christmas and moved into the next chapter of the year, epiphany. Since I grew up in a church that did very little with the church calendar, the season was often a mystery to me. It was just some weird thing that Catholics and Episcopalians did. But as I have been in ministry for a while and have come to respect the cycles that the church calendar gives, this mysterious season has become very meaningful to me. In Christmas we are excited about the coming of Christ. There is so much anticipation and joy that I almost want it to last all year. Part of that is because I really like winter sports so if it is still Christmas then hockey season is only half over. But after the celebrations are over, after the presents have been opened and the toys have been built and enjoyed for a while, and after the leftovers have been eaten or tossed, what now?
This is what epiphany is it is the what now season of Christ. The angels are done singing and the initial excitement of the shepherds had died down. The wise men from the east have come and gone, and we are left with a child. Have we really reflected on that? Have you ever really thought of the time between Jesus’s presentation at the temple and the baptism of which we read today? There is thirty years of time between these events. Thirty years of life.
Jesus’s birth was written in the stars. Angels announced it from heaven. And people ran around the countryside saying the king has been born. Great scholars from Persia, or modern-day Iran, had traveled from their home to pay homage to this baby and proclaimed that the child was to be their king. How they knew that we can only guess, but Persia was very aware of Israel’s religious beliefs because Daniel, one of Israel’s prophets was respected among them. And a Jewish man served as the cup bearer of the Persian king. When these scholars came to Jerusalem, they approached Herod the Great, and Herod called all the great teachers of the Jewish faith to find out where this king was to be born. He then went out to kill the baby, which caused the Holy Family to flee their homeland and live as refugees in Egypt.
Persia knew Jesus was born, the shepherds knew, the Jewish scholars knew of Jesus’s birth, and the ruling entity knew of Jesus’s birth, the roman emperor had probably heard about the birth of Jesus because they probably wondered why magi were making an appearance in their land and why their appointed ruler was killing a bunch of babies. And after the birth everyone entered this weird portion of life where everyone wonders, what now?
A lot can happen in thirty years. Herod died within those thirty years. And the land he ruled was divided among his children and his sister. In those thirty years Herod’s sister gave her portion of the land to Rome, and the son that was given Judea was deemed unfit to rule so Rome took direct control over that province as well. In those thirty years, the Jewish people lost control of their Holy City. In those thirty years, people struggled to maintain position and to gain position, they tried to survive, and they tried to become more prosperous. For thirty years they lived knowing that at one point they had heard that their consolation was born, but that was thirty years ago. A lifetime had passed.
I have mentioned before that we often think of Jesus as being a young man because in our perspective thirty is early in our life. But during Jesus’s lifetime to be thirty would be a respectable age. At the age of thirteen children were regarded as adults. Most girls would be married at that time, and the boys would begin their careers. At the time of today’s passage, Jesus had worked as a craftsman for seventeen years. At that point in time he would not have only been a craftsman but a master craftsman, he would have been at the peak of his career.
Jesus had lived an entire lifetime, not as a king, but as a builder. We say carpenter but he was much more. Joseph was more likely a stone mason than someone that worked with wood. He was a builder. And that lifestyle is what Jesus would have lived. And we know this because we get one glimpse into those thirty years from birth to Jesus’s entrance into ministry, when he goes to the temple at the age of twelve. That age was very important to Jewish boys. They go to the temple to offer sacrifices for themselves. They are no longer under the authority of their parents, but they stand as men before their God. They speak for themselves and are responsible for their actions. When Jesus went to the temple he sat with the teachers and they marveled at his knowledge. This is important because every boy would have had an opportunity to listen and interact with these teachers. These teachers were looking for disciples, they were talking to the boys to see who they would ask to extend their education and work as a rabbi. They marveled at Jesus’s grasp of scripture, but they did not ask him to stay. Jesus returned north to Nazareth with his parents. That story is important because it tells us that Jesus was not trained as a rabbi, they were impressed with his brain but not enough to say we must educate this boy because he will be a leader among the people.
Jesus returned to a life of obscurity. The stories of the angels singing to shepherds had been forgotten and the appearance of the magi had only been remembered by those individuals who had lost their infants during Herod’s paranoid rampage. For thirty years, a lifetime, the stories of the anointed king being alive among them had been forgotten.
But there was one guy who remembered. A man whose emergence to this world was nearly as miraculous as that of Jesus’s, John. John’s father was a priest in the temple thirty years prior to this day. His father was the one that symbolically carried the prayers of the people and presented them before the Lord in the sacrificial burning of incense on the altar in the holy place. His father, while doing this most precious service was visited by an angel and was told that he was going to be a father of a very important child. And his father being a mature man at the time and married to a mature woman, questioned God and as a result was silent until the child was given the name John.
John remembered what everyone else forgot. There was a short revival in the religious community during the early years of his life, but he had watched that revival rise and fall. And for thirty years he had observed his nation turn to the world instead of God. John would have been a child of privilege. He was a son of a priest and because of this when the time came for him to pass from a child to become a man, he did not go into obscurity, but he would have been ushered into the presence of the teachers. Since he was a child of a priest that had seen an angel in the temple, and that vision was confirmed by the sign of silence, John would have been sought by the greatest of teachers in Judea. The people knew John, they remembered John, but Jesus they had forgotten.
Jesus spent seventeen years building; John had spent those years learning to be a priest. Priests were trained for twelve years before they could begin to serve in the temple at the age of twenty-five. For those years John would have been taught, but there would have been something that remained in John’s mind all those years. A story that his mom used to tell him, of her young cousin that came to visit when he was still in the womb and how when she came to visit how excited he had become. He would have remembered the stories from his father, how for nine months he had to endure his wife’s talking without being able to speak a single word even if he wanted to. John spent those years of training listening to the teaching of the rabbis, learning how to do the proper actions and to say the right words. He spent years learning and remembering while the rest of the world forgot.
When the time came for him to enter the temple service, John could not proceed. He had watched and learned. He saw that everything he was trained to do was empty ritual at best and exploitation at worst. And when the time came for him to follow his father into service, John left the temple and went out into the wilderness. He began to speak out against the very temple he had been groomed to serve. He went out into the wilderness screaming to those that would listen to repent because the Kingdom was at hand. He screamed because he was the only one that remembered what had happened thirty years ago. He was the only one that remembered that there was one living just a few miles to the north of where he was standing that could take away the sins of the world. He was the only one that remembered in a nation that had already forgotten.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to be Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. We so often look at this passage from an institutional framework and we forget or do not even see what is going on. The king has lived thirty years in obscurity and the priest thirty years in privilege. Emmanuel had been rejected already, and the only priest that remembered his presence had rejected the institution that forgot their reason to exist. The temple was the physical representation of who Jesus was. Yet when he came seventeen years prior, they had let his parents take him back to Nazareth to become a builder, and instead they chose the son of the priest to train. John looked at that system and he rejected it. And he screamed from Jordan’s banks you have forgotten, you have rejected God, you must repent and be cleansed. You too must pass through the Jordan because you are not worthy to be called Israel because you had seen the coming of the Kingdom and you failed to recognize it. Do we see what is really going on in this passage or is it simply something of an institution for us?
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. For thirty years, John had watched as Israel rejected truth. For twelve years, John had been trained in the institutional aspects of the religious orders. For five years, he had to struggle with his response to the system, and John chose to leave Jerusalem and he cried in the wilderness and he baptized all that would come out to listen. He cried out in the wilderness baptizing Jew and Gentile, he preached and proclaimed the gospel that the kingdom is at hand. He was out in that wasteland trying to turn people’s attention to the God that they were rejecting. He would tell those that came out there that He baptizes with water, but the one they really need to look for, the one they should really follow is coming after him. The one they really need to watch is so much greater than he that he is not even worthy of washing his feet. And that one is going to baptize, not with water, but with the spirit and with fire.
For thirty years, Jesus lived in obscurity. He labored in the construction sites. He walked to Jerusalem offering the appointed sacrifices to the priests that rejected him, and he walked back to Nazareth to labor some more. For all those years, Jesus lived and worked knowing full well who he was, he watched as people moved to the other side of the road because he was from the north, Nazareth and nothing good comes out of Nazareth. For thirty years, a lifetime, Jesus lived growing and working among mankind. And after thirty years, he walked from Galilee to the Jordan to John the son of the priest.
John saw him approach. John was the only man that remembered who Jesus truly was. The only man that knew. John watched Jesus approach the banks of the river and stand before him. John had been crying out to the people telling them to repent, and then he looked in front of him and saw Jesus. If we were to look at the full accounting of the gospel writers, we might be able to get a broader picture of what this moment might have been like. Jesus came down to the banks and John stops talking and says, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might go on to say, “Hey you guys, this is him this is the one I was telling you about the one whose sandals I’m not even worthy to untie.” This bold priest stands in the water as Jesus approaches, and as he comes near John falls to his knees right there in the water. He falls to his knees in front of a crowd of people, before a man everyone perceives to be the son of a common construction worker. And John holds up his hands and says, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”
The people knew John. They knew his father because his dad was a priest in the temple. And they knew the story of what had happened nine months before John was born. They knew John’s dad had seen an angel, they knew that John’s birth was announced and that he was a child born by the divine intervention of God. John was a privileged child that sacrificed his lifestyle to prompt a revival in Israel, and they responded. But no one knew this obscure dust covered builder, that John was treating like a king.
What is happening in this scriptural scene? Is Jesus and John instituting the ritual of baptism or is there something more? The baptism of John was the baptism of repentance. He was calling Israel to turn back to the God that they had rejected. John was saying we cannot claim heritage for our salvation, we cannot claim nationalism as our hope. He was saying on those banks that we do not have a right to even be in this land, because we are rejecting God. And he urged them to enter the water and be cleansed, to re-emerge as true Israel, like those that followed Joshua. Boldly saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the lord.”
John looked at Jesus and he saw him for who he was. And he saw himself for who he was. He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John saw in himself, all the rejection and sin in his own life. He saw all his unworthiness and he recognized that he was undone. He like the prophets of old was a man of unclean lips from people of unclean lips. He was not worthy to be called a child of God. He saw while he looked at Jesus his own need. “I need to be baptized by you!”
This ritual is something of a mystery. So often we see it only as the ritual and do not look beyond. It means immersed, but the word comes from the act of dyeing cloth. It is immersed to take on a new form or purpose. But the word also has a wider use attached to being shipwrecked or to sink. In this sense is to be overwhelmed, and from this usage it can be used even outside of the water to refer to being overwhelmed by drink, desires, or even magical arts. Remember the gospels were written in Greek so sometimes we need to look at wider meanings. Baptism can be immersion in dye, it can be overwhelming, and it can be a spiritual ritual marking a change of some sort. What is going on in this exchange? Clearly John is overwhelmed, but what of Jesus?
Jesus says to John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” At those words John stands and takes hold of Jesus and immerses him. As Jesus emerges from the water the heavens open, the spirit descends like a dove and rests on Jesus and a voice says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” What is fulfilled? The commentators look at the use of the plural in this verse as the key. Jesus is uniting John’s ministry with his own. John rejected the systems of the world to bring honor to the rejected king, and Jesus in his baptism is redeeming John’s protest.
John the child of privilege rejected the system. Jesus the rejected king that lived in obscurity unite to move forward. Together they initiate something new and the message they preach overwhelm those that hear. God is with us. He is in our obscurity and in our privilege. He is in our adherence to cultural norms and in our protests. He is in our work and in our worship. God is with us, but do we see? That is what the season of epiphany is all about. Do we see God with us, or is He something relegated to the background of our lives? Are we immersed and overwhelmed by his presence or is he just some obscure concept collecting dust? John lived a life of privilege and turned from it so that he could see God, and Jesus lived a life of obscurity and turned it to a life of honor. Will we turn? Will we turn and see God with us? Will we turn to our neighbor and see God with them? Will we be overwhelmed?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I encourage you to really imagine the scene scripture has put before us. I encourage you to look at it from a perspective beyond the institutional rite that it has become and see it in the raw form. Do you stand or are you overwhelmed? Are you able to see what is there before you?