Baptism of Christ Sunday
Introduction to the Text
Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. The Sunday when we officially move from the Christmas story into the life and teachings of Jesus. The time of year when we leave the manger, Magi, and myrrh behind, at least for the moment, and begin to look at the adult version of Jesus. And every year, this happens through the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. And today is no exception. But there’s always seems to be a lingering question about his baptism, one that I’ve heard more than any other: “If Jesus was without sin, then why did he need to be baptized?” That’s actually a very perceptive question. A question that leads us to look beyond just forgiveness and into a deeper understanding of baptism. Hear now, once again, the story of the Baptism of Christ.
Scripture Reading Matthew 3:13-17
Now, I’m going to begin today by giving you some contextual background to the narrative that we just heard. Hear these additional words from the second writer in the Book of Isaiah.
But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
My friends, there are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them. Nations where law and order are so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe. Cities where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life. We hear lies and deception, hate-filled rhetoric and threats to our very being all the time. It’s hard to even watch the news anymore. Sometimes it all seems hopeless.
A number of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet a man we’ll call Dave. Dave suffered from some form of autism perhaps or a mental illness, and as a result, was a person of diminished capacity. He was an adult man, living on his own, with the mind of about a 12-year-old. Dave was often homeless and often confused. Now, I don’t tell you this to cut him down or to diminish him in any way, but to give you an idea of Dave’s struggle. Anyway, I met Dave at free dinner that was served once a month by a large downtown UCC church for those in need and for anyone who wanted to share a meal. Dave was always the first one there and he was always ready to share with you everything one could possibly want to know about lightbulbs. Yes, I said lightbulbs. He was fascinated with lightbulbs. He studied up on them, collected them, working or not. I have no idea where he kept them all, but lightbulbs were his thing. Now, the other fact about Dave is that he was not only the first one there, he was the first one to help set up tables, the first one to help clear plates, the first one to greet newcomers. And it struck me one day that this “collector of lightbulbs” was really being the Light of Christ in the church. In his own and unique way, Dave was being God’s Light to the world.
As I read the passage from Isaiah, the one that I just shared, I thought once again of Dave and the hope that someone like him inspires. Isaiah says that God will appoint someone to bring light into the dark places of this world. He speaks of “a servant of the God” who would come to right the wrongs; who would bring God’s justice. This is of course Isaiah’s vision of what a Messiah might look like, but isn’t this also what we are called to look like? Are we not called to be like Dave and bring God’s light into the world as best as we are able?
Now, I know I’ve said this many times before, but I think our post-modern idea of justice is very different than that of Bible. When we think about justice, most of the secular world envisions something that happens in a courtroom with a judge and a jury. The world sees Justice is as arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.
But justice in the Bible has a very different meaning. God’s justice is about feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free, recovery of sight to the blind; in a biblical understanding of justice, those who have been struck down are lifted up, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them. Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.
And It’s important to notice the way in which the “servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice. The prophet says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”. In other words, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”[I]
You see, God’s justice doesn’t take place through vengeance but forgiveness. God’s justice doesn’t take place through violence but compassion. God’s justice doesn’t take place through hostility but mercy. It’s a justice that leads to peace. And in order to achieve this kind of divine justice we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.
And in our Gospel text it says in essence that “God’s work of putting things right throughout all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”[ii] In a very real sense, Christ’s baptism was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice. He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed. He was going to shine the light of God into all the dark places of the world.
And guess what. That’s exactly what he did. And that’s what we’re called to do as well. My friends, by sharing in Christ’s baptism through our own, we have taken on the same calling, accepted the same challenge, the same risk, the same covenant: a covenant to shine the Light of God; God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy into all the dark places of this world. [iii]
One final thought this morning. When we celebrate a baptism here in our church, in the liturgy, I ask all of you to “remember your baptism.” Now, I’m not talking about the actual pouring of water over your head, (many of you were infants at that time) But what I am asking you to do is to remember the meaning of your baptism. A meaning that includes the things we’ve talked about here today. A meaning that starts by establishing a covenant, a covenant that continues to grow and to develop into a relationship with a community of faith. And within that community we share in things like forgiveness, like grace, like compassion, but it still doesn’t end there. Our baptismal calling as a community is to participate in the present reign of God by shining the radiant Light of God’s Justice outward, to, as the last chapter in Matthew says, “…to all the ends of the earth.”
My friends, as we continue our journey from Christmas through the Season of Epiphany, may the Light of God’s Grace shine into the very depths of your being and the Light of God’s Justice shine forth through your words, your actions, your life. And may each of us, in our own unique way, be a “Dave.” May it be so.
Amen and the people of God said, Amen.
[i] Eugene Peterson The Message from Isaiah 42
[ii] Ibid Peterson