Gospel: Matthew 3:13-4:3a
13 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.’
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came...
There are two quick things we might note about Jesus' baptism. Firstly, John is not greater than Jesus. The baptism by John, is not a sign that John is in charge. Instead, it is a sign that Jesus is doing as God requires.
The second thing is that in his baptism Jesus repents! Matthew carefully shapes the story so that we see John called people to repent (3:1) and so that we then see that people were baptised and then confessed their sins as a result. (3:6) It's a subtle change from Mark who said John came "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4)
We might conclude that, for Matthew, repentance is the constant turning of our lives towards God, and the living of life in God's direction, as we become aware where God is calling us, and aware of what God is showing us. We tend to think of repentance as something we do after sinning— and it's a good thing if we do that, but... perhaps sinning is more what we do when we will not repent. Sin is what follows from our refusal to repent.
Matthew will give us a stunning example later in the gospel, in Chapter 15, where a Canaanite woman shows Jesus' that God's plan for humanity is even greater than he had imagined. Jesus paid attention and immediately changed the way he lived! If only we would do the same!
There is a third thing to see in the story of Jesus' baptism, and perhaps it is the key thing in this very short reading today. In his baptism, Jesus goes down into the River Jordan which is the place where Israel crossed into the Promised Land.
Now, remember that in his Gospel, Matthew is presenting us with an picture of Jesus which is designed to make his Jewish country-people think of Jesus as a modern day Moses... in fact, as the new and greater Moses for God's chosen people.... so... do you remember... that
...Moses went down to Red Sea? And do you remember that at the Red Sea... when Moses arrived, the waters were opened for Israel to cross through to the other side, out of slavery, on the way to the Promised Land.
And if we look at Jesus' name, which means God saves, we find the original Hebrew name which it comes from... is Joshua. When the great leader of Israel after Moses, who was Joshua, came to the waters of the River Jordan, the waters were opened for Israel to cross through the waters to the other side into the Promised Land.
But when this new Moses and new Joshua, who was called Jesus, came to the Jordan and went down to the waters, it was the heavens* which were opened to him so that Israel could cross through... to the other side... to the Promised Land!
Let me remind you of a hymn we sing:
When I tread the verge of Jordan
bid my anxious fears subside;
death of death, and hell's destruction,
land me safe on Canaan's side...
This rich hymn picks up the promise of Jesus' baptism for us. When he goes down into the waters of the Jordan, it is a foreshadowing of his going down into death. And when he comes up out of the Jordan, it symbolises his resurrection to life. And when the heavens are opened to him, this symbolises everything we sum up with the doctrine of his Ascension into Heaven. He opens the way through to the other side... into the Promised Land... and into the Kingdom of Heaven itself.
The Gospel of Matthew will end on a mountain, just as Moses' story ended on a mountain. Jesus will have all authority in heaven and on earth. He will promise to be with us at all times. He will have shown us the death of death. He will have shown us the destruction of hell; if fact he... he is... the death of death and hell's destruction, and he will bring us safely through death. As the hymn says, he will land us safe on Canaan's side, which means... he will bring us to the true Promised Land of fully human life with God.
This is the promise of God. We will be brought safely through death.
There is just one more thing. In the story, when he came up from the water he was then led up, by the Spirit, into the wilderness. Matthew is being careful with his words. The Spirit leads him up. But the way up, the way up into the opened heavens, the way up into the fullness of human life with God, and the way into a life where death loses its sting ( 1 Cor 15:55 ) is via the wilderness.
The wilderness begins with the temptations, obviously; we know that story. But do you see that, in the Gospel, the wilderness continues? The wilderness is the life of repentance. It is the wild life lived seeking to follow God. It is a life which faces fear, which bears the cost of doing right, and which does not run from the hard and terrible things we see gathering on our horizons.
If we insist on a safe life, if we flee away from the risky life of discipleship— and that, by the way is what the devil tempts Jesus with! — if we flee away from the risky life of discipleship, we will not know the death of death and hell's destruction. We will live a life where death circles us and eventually hunts us down, anyway. God will not desert us, even then. We will not be left alone. But I fear that something will be missing from our lives: a certain joy, a certain freedom, as we are always looking over our shoulders... wondering if death is close by.
I think there is a sense in which Jesus was freed from the anxiety of watching over his shoulder, because he always knew where death was... because he was walking straight towards it. And that meant he was free from it. We are invited to follow him. Not only into heaven at the end of life, but into a growing freedom in life, beginning today. I pray that for all of us, this baptism into freedom may soak into our awareness. May God bring us into Life. May peace be upon you. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
* a midrash I first heard from Bp. Jack Spong