A cluster of events surrounds the church’s celebration of Epiphany. Matthew’s Gospel moves swiftly after the birth of the child, to the visitation of the Magi, to the sojourn in Egypt, and the return of the family to Nazareth. The following years are cloaked in silence.
Then the scene shifts, and we hear John the Baptist as he thunders his invitation to repent and be baptized. Looking like Elijah of old, he claims that judgment is on the horizon, and that they should prepare. He also predicts “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . .” (Matthew 3:11). He compares the baptism he is offering with water to the baptism with Holy Spirit and fire, the unique gift of the coming one.
An unexpected twist in the narrative occurs: “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him” (3:13). John is astounded, and he “would have prevented him,” knowing that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, rather than the other way around. Yet, Jesus recognizes John’s prophetic authority and values his pivotal ministry. Some scholars suggest that he should be considered John’s disciple for a period.
Jesus prevails in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). We see humility and purpose in this; and Jesus allows himself to be “numbered among sinners” in this event. Jesus perceives that it is God’s will that he be baptized, and John joins him in this revelatory event.
And 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. And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Richly textured and full of theological import, this vista reveals that God claims this one uniquely as God’s own, and he will be God’s means of recreating God’s people. The imagery of the hovering Spirit echoes the creation story, and accents the reality that the Spirit will determine Jesus’ ministry.
One can only imagine the significance of this event in Jesus’ life. A public confirmation of his calling, attested by the palpable presence of God, likely had a reassuring role when his identity is challenged.
Martin Luther always encouraged: “Remember your baptism.” He knew that being plunged into the life of Christ was the key identifier for the Christian, and he knew that plumbing its depths could keep one on course.
That Jesus chose to receive this sacrament, also, reminds us how intimately he shares the shape of our lives. He has become one of us in every way.
Molly T. Marshall
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