The work of Christmas is begun

Week of Sunday January 12- Baptism of Jesus
Gospel: Matthew 3: 13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.

16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’

We have seen the new Moses; his father is Joseph who dreams. Herod kills the children of Bethlehem just as Pharaoh killed the sons of Israel. Jesus is in Egypt and returns to Israel. God appeared to Moses and said he could begin this return, "the people who sought your life are dead." (Exodus 4:19) The same is said to Joseph when it is time to return. (Matthew 2:20)

The story of this new Moses continues at the Jordan.  Moses came to the Jordan; Jesus actually enters it.  Moses stood at the Red Sea and parted the waters, as the waters parted for Joshua, but for this  greater Moses and greater Joshua the very heavens are parted! (Spong)

For we who stand in the tradition of Israel the message is clear: This is the new Moses, the Moses of our time. The theme of this New Moses  will continue. Jesus will go up the mountain and deliver ten of his own commandments, although they will not be called such. They will be called blessings!

The baptism of Jesus is a problem for Matthew's community. Baptism denoted a certain hierarchy. The master is not baptised by the student. I've always understood that when Jesus says, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,’ it was Matthew's clever way of dealing with the issue: John baptised Jesus because he was told to. Even he felt it was not appropriate. [Thanks to Eileen for spotting the blooper in the original!]

But John Petty points out that these are the first words of Jesus in the entire gospel! First words are important.

Righteousness is a key theme throughout Matthew's gospel.  In Jesus' first quoted utterance, Matthew puts the word right on Jesus' lips--"fulfill all righteousness."  "Fulfill"--pleroma--is a word Matthew often associates with the prophets.  "All righteousness"--the totality of it--is Jesus' solidarity with sinners, and in service to them.  As Jesus will explain later (20:28):

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

And as John also notes:

John's request that Jesus baptize him would have been to affirm hierarchical relationships, the senior partner initiating the junior one.  Hierarchical relationships are all upended in the new reign of God.  "The last shall be first," after all, "and the first shall be last" (20:16).  Jesus' solidarity with sinners is, in God's upside-down way, the superior position.   [I have added the emphasis.]

One of the key things about this righteousness in Matthew is that righteousness is not professed. Righteousness is done. In the last summation by Matthew of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like (Matthew 25) the righteous— that is what they are called—  who inherit the kingdom are those who have done the gospel.

So the baptism of Jesus is a sign of what is to come in the Gospel. It continues the introduction of who Jesus will be for us.

But the baptism is also a sign of what is. Jesus sees the heavens open, and everyone hears the voice say, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ That is a plain statement of Jesus' authority. This is who he is; far greater than Moses, he is Son of God. It will be repeated in Matthew 17 at the Transfiguration.

There is something else.

 In Jesus' culture, family members share the family honor; the son of a great man is automatically great, and the father of a son who behaves shamefully is shamed right along with the son. Insult either one of them and you insult both. In Jesus' culture, the saying "like father, like son" is not just an observation about family resemblance; it describes the equation of honor between the two….

Dylan Breuer then points out the implications of this "equation of honor."

When we say that Jesus is God's son, we're also making claims about God.

That's the point that was scandalous almost to the point of blasphemy for many. "Like father, like son," as they say. When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we are saying not only that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus … We are saying that what Jesus did -- his feasting indiscriminately with Pharisees and sinners alike, his free association with "loose" (unattached) women and taking them into his inner circle as disciples, his refusal to defend his own honor or his families(sic) by retaliating, even to the point of his death on a cross -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behavior.

To those who find Jesus' behavior shameful, saying that Jesus is God's son is shaming God. To those of us who gladly receive the grace of his fellowship, his healing, and his call to us, saying that Jesus is God's son is the best news there is.

It means, as Petty says, that

God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.  

Full immersion is not some distant holiness or act of divine power. It is being with people in all the mess of life, even mess we find offensive, disgraceful, or irredeemable. If this is not so what hope do I have in my mess?! If God could not approach it, how could God save me?

In the story of the Transfiguration, heaven bursts out into earth. We see Jesus in his glory upon the mountain. Moses and Elijah speak to him, a clear indication of his greater authority, although hardly needed. After all, This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! (Matt 17:5) But the glory begins when heaven bursts out in earth and God comes and is immersed with us. He is truly Emmanuel-God with us.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

In this First Impressions I have benefited from work by
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on Year A: Baptism of Jesus
Dylan Breuer: First Sunday after Epiphany: Year A
John Petty: Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 3:13-17

I have covered the text before here: Matthew 3:13-17 - Will we be baptised?
The title of this post is taken from the poem of Howard Thurman and the carol of Jim Strathdee.



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