In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever given thought that for one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, today’s Gospel reading for the Feast of the Epiphany, the Baptism of Our Lord, is pretty short? It’s actually only five sentences. It would seem that for such an important event, the Gospel reading would be much more detailed. Nevertheless, it is precisely because of its brevity that the importance of today’s feast and celebration is made so dramatically clear and concise. That is not to say that the length of a Gospel reading is an indication whatsoever of the greater importance of this or that feast but it is in today’s short reading that one of the basic truths of the Orthodox Catholic faith is presented to us…that Jesus Christ, who was baptized by John in the Jordan, IS the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who came into the world to save the world. In this brief Gospel passage, much is revealed, even that which is unsaid.
For example, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.” Left unsaid is a powerful moment preceding Jesus’ arrival at the Jordan – He leaves home. How did it happen? Had it been a topic of discussion for some time, or did it come out of the blue? How did Mary handle it when Jesus came in from the shop, or running some errands, or after breakfast, kissed her on the forehead and said, “I’m leaving now. I’m going to be baptized by John”? Did she put up a fight? Did she ask questions? Did she get excited? Did she treasure up all these things and ponder them in her heart? Did she cry? We’re not told. We simply do not know what Jesus was doing before He decided to go to the Jordan to be baptized by John.
Then, Jesus arrives at the Jordan and Matthew says, “John tried to deter Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do You come to me?” This is the first face-to-face meeting between Forerunner and Messiah, and it’s a little bit awkward. John, who jumped for joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, now challenges His Lord. Not ignorantly, for John’s words reveal that he gets exactly Who he’s talking too. And seeing Christ, John sees his own great need. “I’ve been baptizing these hundreds and thousands, but I need to be baptized myself! This holy gift I’ve been given by God to administer, I don’t deserve to administer at all. Least of all to You! You’re coming to me? Cleanse me first!” John has not forgotten the holy nature of the sacrament with which he’s been entrusted. So much so, that he questions Christ.
It’s not hard to step into the shoes of Mary and John. We don’t get God’s ways and means. Can you imagine the questions going through the mind of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus standing before him in the River Jordan? “Why is this when the time has fully come? Why is this how the time fully came? Why Word made flesh? Why Baptism? Why does a holy God in the flesh need to be baptized, a washing that is for rebirth and renewal? And why is Baptism even being put into my hands at all?” Are these not the same kinds of questions we ask ourselves when we ponder and think about the Orthodox Catholic faith we profess? Why did God choose that particular time in history to come into the world? Why did He seek to be baptized if He is holy and without sin? Certainly there is no wrong is asking such questions. It shows a longing for the truth. What is wrong though, is when we don’t ask these questions. When it doesn’t interest us enough to ask them, when we’ve taken the text so much for granted that it’s no longer fascinating to us anymore. You say that’s not the case? Then, tell me this… Why are more than half of us not in church on any given Sunday? There must be something more interesting going on. Tell me, why are festal and seasonal services often far less attended than Sunday services? There must be something more interesting going on. Tell me, why are more than two-thirds of us not in Bible class in a given week? There must be something more interesting going on. Surely, you know the answers to these questions? And tell me, why is that when there are legitimate reasons for missing church or Bible class - family emergencies, serious illness, work obligations and responsibilities, unavoidable travel conflicts - that the pastor’s phone is not ringing off the hook looking for the nearest Orthodox church to your location, or the Lord’s Supper you missed, or the current topic in Bible class so that you can study yourself?
Before us today is one of the more incredible moments in Bible History – the whole Trinity made time to show up for this one – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hardly something to be taken for granted. But we do! At every Baptism we celebrate, the same Trinity is present. It’s not a family event. It isn’t a ritual. It’s tearing open heaven! It’s a fulfillment of righteousness! It’s an anointing by the Spirit! If the Triune God can be present at each and every baptism we perform and celebrate, can we not do the same? What prevents us and keeps us for going to the River Jordan ourselves or bringing our children to the River Jordan for baptism? How many so-called Christians today even seek out to have their children baptized? If the Lord of all creation can bow down to be baptized by His creature how is it that we can so casually ignore His example?
Acknowledging John’s doubts and concerns, Jesus says to him: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” John asked, “Why?” Jesus says, “You have a valid concern, but let it go for a moment. I will explain why we’re waiving My holy and righteous status. Baptizing Me fills up the cup of righteousness.” Very interesting! Our cups of righteousness are empty, way empty. We’ve fallen short on the righteousness scale time and again. But Jesus does not. He fills it up completely. There’s no falling short, not even by the teeniest, tiniest amount. Nothing is missing, lacking, or wanting. Nothing can be said against Christ personally. He has no sins of His own to confess. This Baptism for Him was not on account of His repentance. Sinful flesh had not given birth to sinful flesh in His case. But it was so now. By having John baptize Him, Christ made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus did not stand aloof in His saving work.
Let us not forget how intentional this is. This was the plan, the purpose, the goal. From the moment Jesus set out from His home in Galilee it was to do this…and more. Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven after His Baptism. He continued fulfilling all righteousness. He left nothing undone. And every word of Scripture details that fulfillment, in word and deed, up until that most holy deed – letting His flesh be nailed to a cross in place of our flesh. He Who was baptized on our behalf, died on our behalf. He who is the fulfillment of righteousness, gave up that righteousness and took on our sin. The answer to the question from Mary, John, and us, “Why?” is “You. Me.” As Matthew was so fond of doing in his Gospel, so we can do here, which is to point to this as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, specifically: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights; I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly buring wick He will not snuff out. In faithfulness He will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth. In His law nations will put their hope. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:1-6)
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; in Him I am well pleased.”
Christ’s Baptism was the same as the Baptism we received, and yet it was also different. We too receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism, but not as Christ did. Our Baptism was not our anointing as the Savior Prophet, Savior Priest, and Savior King. Christ’s was. Here He is publicly made, named, declared the Messiah. More than that, the Father says, “I love Him. I am pleased with Him. He makes me happy. He does what I desire. I have no bad thoughts about Him ever, at all.” This is music to our sin-soaked ears. The Son has pleased Him, is pleasing Him, and will please Him. His life pleased the Father. His death pleased the Father. His resurrection pleased the Father. This means our Baptism-soaked body is, by faith, filled with righteousness. Christ’s righteousness. As always, where there are questions, the answers are found in Christ.