January 12th, 2019
The Baptism of Our Lord
I heard once that newborn babies don’t know how to focus their eyes. Most of the world passes them in a blur—color, movement, depth, a newborn has to learn all of these things. They can’t see color at first — color fills in over time. Newborns, as I understand it, have to learn how to differentiate shapes, like people from walls. Imagine having to do that. Imagine coming in from total darkness to bright light, out from the womb into the world. I imagine the light might hurt your brand new eyes, just as it does when you come out of a dark theater into the day. Except you don’t know it. You’ve never felt it before. And then there are people talking, perhaps yelling, the beeps and whistles, the screams of childbirth. More bright lights, the assault of smells. Some sounds you may recognize, like the sound of your parents’ voices. Imagine the confusion and the blur, everything engraved on your brand new baby brain. But then, in a very quick moment that might feel at first like eternity, one pair of hands places you in another pair of arms, they turn to you and maybe you look up: and there, somewhere between 8 and 15 inches away, is a face. And you can see it. You can see your mother’s face. It might very well be the first thing you see, the first thing that comes into focus, the first thing that makes sense. Newborns love faces more than anything else, and they love eyes, round shapes with high contrast. Everything else they have to learn to see, but a face 8 to 15 inches away—that connects in their heart, and it stays in their heart as their brain develops.
We think of baptism as both a death and a new birth. Death to sin, a new birth to life; death to death, a new birth into a new world. And it’s no less true today, when we celebrate Jesus’s own baptism by John in the Jordan river. We celebrate this baptism in conjunction with Christmas and the Magi’s visitation, and sometimes also with Christ’s first miracle in John, the changing of water into wine. Sometimes, in the familiar rhythm of the liturgical year, all these stories might blur together. Or, perhaps, if you’re new to the liturgical year, perhaps it’s hard to know what to look at—magi, miraculous births, stars, and now this baptism. I suggest that we see these things as a newborn child might: strange shapes, strange stories, a whirlwind of new information. What could it mean that a child was born in a stable, that the stars changed their courses to lead wise men to him? But suddenly our mother’s face appears to us, a picture of love, in the baptism of Jesus, when he rises out of the water, the heavens open, a dove alights, and a voice says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Everything comes into focus, so briefly in this story: the whole of the Gospel almost in a picture. If you’re coming to the faith after a long time away, or if you’re new to it, or if you’re hoping for an injection of something to get your soul moving, think of this story as the feeling a newborn has at the sight of her mother: a still point in chaos, the click of connection, the place where it all comes to focus. This is the Savior of the world, the story says. This is the one you’ve been looking for. This is where you train your eyes.
You might notice Jesus’s humility. John says to him, “I need to be baptized by you and you come to me?” Of course that can’t happen yet, since Jesus’ baptism is the baptism of the resurrection. But to be raised, Jesus must fall. And so, as Matthew has been at pains to show, Jesus shows himself to be the Son of God through his humility and his humanity: he comes to John to be baptized, and so, to change baptism from a ritual washing to a new way of life. Jesus descends into the water as he does to the grave: he rises from the water as he rises from the tomb. And as that resurrection is the full revelation of who Jesus is for us, this is our first chance to see Jesus as he will be seen. Just as a child grows to know her mother over time, so we grow to know Jesus. But this is the first moment where we see his own choice to be humble, to descend, and to undergo as we have to undergo.
I love how nothing is changed in this story, but everything is revealed. Jesus does not come out as the heroes of Greek myth, with well-oiled hair and the appearance of a god. He is like the rest of the desperate repenters who have come to be baptized by John in the little muddy stream called the Jordan river. It takes the full action of the whole Trinity to show forth Jesus as God’s Son: the Father must speak, and the Spirit moves. We are changed by the story because we see Jesus revealed as Christ, as a human among us like any other human being, but also as Savior. This hearkens back, also, to Adam and Eve, who did not feel ashamed of being naked until after they had disobeyed God and eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: nothing changed, except something inside of them. Once they ate the fruit their world appeared to them in a whole new way. But hear, Christ asks us to train our eyes again, to quit seeing evil, and to see instead, redemption.
Luther once pointed out that because we live in a world with many sights, both lofty and lowly, not the things, but our eyes must be changed…it is not the things, but we that must be changed in heart and mind.” Then we will know what we’re looking at. We must be reborn, in a sense, given new eyes to see and new ears to hear. That’s what happens to us in our own baptism. We go down into the water as Jesus does, and when we rise, we too receive a sign of God’s love, and a promise that we are, each of us, God’s beloved. When we hear this story, we are meant for the eyes of our hearts to focus on the revelation of God; but we, like tiny children, may also be caught by a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror, seeing ourselves for the very first time.
What does is matter that we are God’s children? When you think of all the commercials, from the Peloton to your favorite reusable mug brand, what are they saying about you? What are they saying you could be? And how could any of that change when you think, fundamentally, that you are God’s child before and after you are anything else. You have gone down in the flood; you will come up again to stand with Christ. What other vision can the world offer that is so glorious, so loving, so intimate, so true?
The audience of Matthew’s Gospel would have all known the story of resurrection. They probably would have heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. They would have known their own stories of faith, how they came to join this little community. If what the scholars believe is true, they were a group of Jewish Christians with an admixture of Gentiles, and they were in pain. Accepted by no community and rejected by all, they clung to the one that called them together, this unlikely bunch of believers. And so, God calls all of us from our varied walks of life to begin a new life together.
Jesus’ baptism, in every Gospel, marks the beginning of his ministry. We have seen him revealed as the Son of God; we see ourselves in the baptism; now we see the world as Jesus does, a place to work for God as God’s reign comes ever nearer. We see the world as a theater of God’s glory, as John Calvin put it, and we take our place in that work. And, just as Christ’s work of healing, preaching, teaching, death, and resurrection reveal the presence and power of God among us, so our work in following his example reveals God’s presence among us, here and now, today. This is the hope we have. This is the courage we share. God is with us, God before us, God behind us, God in every time and place. This is our ongoing epiphany with Christ. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack