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, [or, my beloved son] with whom I am well pleased.’
Imagine a person of Jesus' time watching a Qantas commercial based around Peter Allen's song, "I still call Australia home." We'll imagine that they've heard about aeroplanes; or if that's too much, imagine a present day Israeli watching the same TV advertisement.
What would they see?
Landscapes, beaches, children, jet aircraft. It's an airline advertisement.
But us? I can barely watch those ads without weeping. There is so much of our longings for home bound up within them. They take the emotions of the song— which were deep enough for an Aussie— and magnify them by sweeping across images of our great loves: our home, our landscapes, our children. And by joining all those with our national passion-cum-longing-and-obsession: the journey. It's a song of the Promised Land, and of coming home.
My American friends? It's a pretty airline advertisement. They would never use this illustration in a sermon; for them, it's just an ad.
Now imagine a person of Jesus' time listening to the story of Jesus' baptism. That story is the Quantas advertisement, the Peter Allen anthem, for their time. It's full of imagery that pulls at their heartstrings; it speaks to the deepest emotions about being a person of Israel.
For us? Well… unless we do some work, it's just a four verse story of Jesus being baptised. Phttt, shrug.
But in Israel…
we're at the Jordan, going down into the river. This is a story about crossing into the Promised Land. It's a story about coming home— being brought home— from Egypt and from Exile. Moses stood at the water's edge, and the waters parted. Joshua stood at the Jordan, and the waters parted— it happened when Elijah struck the waters of the Jordan... But Jesus? Jesus came down into the Jordan, and the heavens themselves were parted! (Jack Spong)
And about that opening—that parting— of the heavens:
In [my] thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was on him there. (Ezekiel 1:1-3)
In exile, far from home, separated from the Land and all its Promise, the word of the Lord came in an overpowering vision, yet a vision where the transcendent God stood Ezekiel on his feet (2:1) and spoke to him not as a grovelling slave, but as one who was favoured, even in some sense, an equal!
God transcends exile! God still speaks! God does not forget us! God comes to us!
And so, in their exile in their own home, living under occupation, Jesus is being described as one who is the way home, the return from exile. His baptism is a story of entering the Promised Land.
And the camera sweeps on… to another image deep in Israel's memory.
Do you remember the story of Genesis, right at the beginning, where "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters?" (1:2) In the traditions of Israel, the spirit at creation was often imagined as being like a dove.
You can hear an example of this in a story about the teacher Ben Zoma, who was meditating on the nature of heaven and earth and said
I was gazing between the upper and the lower waters, and there is only a bare three fingers` [breadth] between them, for it is said: And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters like a dove which hovers over her young without touching [them]. (Here)
That's obscure! Well, the upper waters are what we call heaven. The lower waters we now call earth; the creation. Gabe Eisenstein says, "He claims to be seeing the intersection of the sacred and the profane, heaven and earth." (Talmud as Philosophy: The Problem of Evil and the Search for Wisdom in Rabbinic Theology in Interlude Two.)
This one who enters the Promised Land again is also the intersection of the sacred and the profane. In him we see earth and heaven.
And there is something else about this image: "The last things are as the first," as the spirit hovers over the waters, says the scholar W.D Davies, because now, "Jesus inaugurates a new creation…" (Matthew. A Shorter Commentary, pp47) You remember it was the dove who went out from the ark, hovering over the waters as creation began again. And finally, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written around the time of Jesus, says that "the Spirit will hover over the poor." (Ibid) People hoped and longed for a time when God was for the ordinary people.
The camera sweeps on to yet another vision, another deep memory of Israel: The spirit alights on Jesus. This is an image of prophets and kings God anointed. Jesus is chosen to lead Israel.
God says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." And the images of king and prophet are overlaid with another song of the Exile. We heard it this morning.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,*
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42)
It's one of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah. This leader is not like the others; this one is a servant; this one is truly for us.
Does this all seem a bit unreal, a bit artificial? How can we possibly connect emotionally to the story like a person of Jesus time? Perhaps we could understand that for Matthew's people, something like our emotions over I Still Call Australia Home is what happens for them as they hear the story of his baptism.
But it's not just sentimental. John the Baptist warned us not to think we could be baptised without changing. In Chapter 17, we will hear the voice of God again, saying the same words as at the baptism of Jesus, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased
and there is an addition:
listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5)
And at the end of the gospel it says
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Jesus the servant goes down into the water and calls us to follow. In another place he says,
the one who does not take their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. The one who finds their life [in baptism, and in Jesus] will lose it, indeed. But the one who loses their life for [Jesus'] sake will [truly] find it. (10:37)
You can't understand I Still Call Australia Home unless you live here and give yourself to this country. And we won't understand his baptism unless we live in it and give ourselves to "his country." And then we will truly find ourselves. Amen.