Updated: Jan 12
God’s grace and peace be with all of you!
Right now, it’s a time of beginnings, isn’t it? We’re only a week into the new year, 2023 has only just begun. And in our reading today, we’re still at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. In fact, today’s gospel reading is the first time Jesus says or does anything in the story. The first two chapters of Matthew were about Jesus’ ancestors, his genealogy, and the circumstances of his birth. Jesus doesn’t have any spoken lines or agency in those first two chapters.
Here, in chapter 3, we see Jesus for the first time as an adult, and we see his first public activity: his baptism. Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Today, we recall the story of Jesus being baptized by John.
It’s helpful to review the first section of chapter 3, the part that comes before our gospel reading today. John the Baptist is out at the Jordan River, calling people to repentance and preparing the way of the Lord. John baptizes people in the Jordan as they confess their sins and repent. And he is also preaching, announcing the imminent arrival of someone even greater. John tells the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In the gospel narrative, this is the moment when Jesus arrives on the scene. John says, “One more powerful than I is coming after me,” and there Jesus is.
Jesus wants to be baptized by John. But John knows Jesus is the one whose arrival he has been predicting. How can John, who baptizes with water, baptize Jesus, the one who is more powerful, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? John tries to protest. He tells Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
How can John baptize Jesus? It seems backwards. It’s clear that John’s role is to prepare the way for Jesus, that John’s preaching, John’s baptism, are precursors to the main event. Jesus is greater, more powerful, more significant. Why would the lesser figure baptize the greater?
John asks the question we might be wondering ourselves as we hear this story. Why does Jesus come to be baptized by John? Why does Jesus make his public debut here, at the Jordan, asking John to baptize him in the muddy water of the river?
John is baptizing people in the Jordan River. And that location is important. That location, the Jordan, offers a clue to why Jesus asks John to baptize him.
In the Christian tradition, the Jordan River isn’t the most significant place. We remember the Jordan as the site of Jesus’ baptism, but that’s about it. It certainly isn’t as famous to Christians as Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, or Nazareth, or even a place like Emmaus.
But in the Jewish tradition, the Jordan is very important. John the Baptist would have known that. Jesus would have known that, and the early Christians who read Matthew’s gospel would have known that. But since the significance of the Jordan River might not be familiar to many of us here today, allow me to give a little review.
Do you remember the story of the Exodus? God’s people, the Hebrews, were slaves in Egypt. God chose Moses to lead the people out of slavery, out of Egypt. God allowed Moses to part the Red Sea so the people could walk through on dry land. Moses led the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness.
The people wandered in the wilderness for a generation, but eventually they were allowed to enter the promised land. And the boundary—the border between wilderness and promised land—was the Jordan River. When the people cross the Jordan River in the book of Joshua, that’s the moment when their wandering comes to an end. That’s the moment when they enter the promised land. The Jordan River is the marker. It’s the finish line, in a way, but also the starting point of their new lives in the land God promised them.
But the Jordan is more than just a geographical boundary. The Jordan also functions as a reminder of God’s sustaining care and protection for the people of Israel. Again, this story is in the book of Joshua if you want to check it out, but I’ll give you the short version. God led the people out of Egypt through the Red Sea, parting the waters so they could walk on dry land. At Mount Sinai, God gave them the Law and made a covenant with them. When they come to the Jordan River, once again God stops the waters so the people can walk through on dry land. They pass through the river while the priests hold the ark of the covenant there the middle of the Jordan.
The Jordan River becomes a marker. It’s the place where the people finally entered the promised land. It’s the place where they were reminded of their covenant relationship with God. It’s a place of commitment, of dedication, of renewal.
I think all of that history is underlying the interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus in our reading today. John didn’t choose the Jordan River at random. It made sense, in the history of the Jewish people, that repentance and rededication to one’s relationship with God would happen at the Jordan.
And it made sense for Jesus to begin his adult life at the Jordan, too. Jesus is signaling his continuity with what has come before, as well as the start of a new thing. Jesus is the fulfillment, the completion, of God’s saving work throughout history. Jesus is the descendant of Abraham, the descendant of the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt and who wandered in the wilderness and who crossed the Jordan River. Jesus is the one the prophets predicted, the one John prepared the way for. Jesus comes to the Jordan River to dedicate himself to his role, to publicly accept the mantle God has prepared for him.
John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus steps into the Jordan River, ready to commit himself, ready to dedicate himself to his work. Jesus lets John put him under the water, accepts John’s baptism as his starting point. And then, “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.’”
This is Jesus’ first public act. After this, he will go into the wilderness to fast and to be tempted. After this, he will call his first disciples. After this, he will begin to travel and to preach. But it all begins here, at the Jordan River. It begins with Jesus committing himself and dedicating himself. It begins with Jesus accepting the covenant with God the Father. And God the Father co-signs what Jesus has done. The heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, the divine voice speaks: “Yes, this is my Son. Yes, he is beloved. Yes, I have chosen him.”
This is how covenants work: humanity and God come together in a relationship of promise. Jesus accepts his role as the one John predicted, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, the one who will fulfill God’s will. And God makes God’s voice heard, endorsing Jesus, promising to be with Jesus all along the way.