Sermon for the Baptism of Jesus
Readings: Isaiah 42:1–9; Acts 10:34–43 & Matthew 3:13–17
Today’s gospel passage is quite short, at only five verses, but there is so much to unpack in it. To begin with, it’s the first time we encounter the adult Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew tells us that Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptised by John the Baptist. This event itself, marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, which the Apostle Peter recalls in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter is talking to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and members of his household. At God’s direction Cornelius has asked Peter to visit him and tell him about what God has commanded Peter to do. So Peter tells them, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.”(Acts 10:36–37 NRSV) So we know that the baptism of Jesus is the start of his own public ministry.
Matthew tells us that John is not comfortable in baptising Jesus, and that he believes Jesus should be the one baptising him. The question most often asked in relation to the baptism of Jesus by John is why does Jesus need to be baptised? After all, we are told that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance for one’s sins, but we know that Jesus is without sin. However Jesus says to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15 NRSV)
Here we come across a word that is not often used in our modern language: righteousness. The modern definition of righteousness is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable” (Oxford Languages). But in the biblical tradition, righteousness refers to the behaviour that is required in the covenant relationship with God, and to the Torah. The Torah shows the people of Israel how to live out the requirements of the covenant in everyday life. Therefore, a righteous person is someone who keeps the Torah, not just in a legal sense, but because it represents the practical expression of God’s will.
As a young boy, I remember my Mum asking me on a number of occasions to go to our local milk bar to buy something she needed, usually something that was for the benefit of my sister and I. And I would always complain, “why do I have to go?”, “why can’t Margaret go?”, and so on. Mum would then get very frustrated and say, “don’t worry about it, I’ll go myself.” I would then feel guilty and tell Mum that I would go. But obviously I was doing it very begrudgingly, and not graciously at all. I wasn’t being particularly righteous.
Matthew tells us that for Jesus, “fulfilling all righteousness” is doing “what God wants”, and what God wants of Jesus at this specific moment in time, is to be baptised by John in the Jordan. Then as Jesus emerges from the water, Matthew says that the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and that God spoke saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Apostle Peter, again in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, describes how God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and that with the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus carries out the mission that God called him to perform. And in our first reading today, from the Book of Isaiah, we hear the echo of God’s words about Jesus, when Isaiah writes, “Thus says the Lord: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him.” (Isaiah 42:1)
I’ve mentioned previously that this passage from Isaiah is sometimes called the Servant Song, a reference to the Servant-Messiah. The nation of Israel and the Messiah are both often called servant. Israel, as God’s servant, was to help bring the world to a knowledge of God. The Messiah, Jesus, would fulfil this task and show God himself to the world.
Isaiah explains that the ministry which the servant is called to by God is to be a light to the Gentiles (or nations), to open the eyes of the blind, and to release a world imprisoned by sin (vv. 6–7). This again mirrors the description of the ministry of Jesus that Peter communicates to Cornelius and his household. The ministry of Jesus to the blind, lame, and oppressed demonstrated that he had power to heal those who were spiritually blind and spiritually imprisoned (Mark 2:1–12).
Part of the mission of Jesus was to display God’s righteousness and to be a light for the world. Through Jesus, all people have the opportunity to share in his mission. As Jesus himself was a servant of God, we are called by God to be servants of Jesus, demonstrating God’s righteousness and bringing his light. But in order to do this, we first need to follow the advice that Matthew gives us in chapter 6 (v. 33) when he writes, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33 NRSV)