I think it’s a funny coincidence that this Sunday is the week when we remember the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan because I got to have a very “baptismal” moment earlier this week when I showed up to work on Thursday and discovered “rivers of living water” coming out of a broken pipe in the kitchen downstairs. I’m thankful to report that the repair crew told me it looks like I found the problem and acted on it quickly enough that the damage isn’t too bad, but the whole affair made me want to throw my hands up in the air and cry out, in the words of our Jewish ancestors: “Oy vey!”
Speaking of Judaism…
One of my favorite things about Matthew’s gospel is the way that it is so rooted in Jewish tradition. The author, who was probably a Jewish Christian living in the first century, wants to demonstrate to the readers that Christianity stands in continuity with traditional Judaism. Matthew goes to great lengths to identify the story of Jesus with the story of Israel and he does it in two ways:
First, by quoting liberally from the Hebrew Bible (Christians sometimes refer to it as the ‘Old Testament’). In fact, that happens in today’s reading: When Jesus is baptized and is coming up out of the water, the text says the heavens were opened to [Jesus] 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 actually a quote from two different verses in the Hebrew Bible. When the author does this, it’s kind of like someone singing one line from an old, familiar song (e.g. “Here she comes, just a-walkin down the street, singin…”). The familiarity immediately triggers memory and makes the audience perk up and go, “Oh yeah, I know that one!”
The other way that the author connects the story of Jesus with the story if Israel is by dropping lots of little hints in the text that remind the audience of famous stories from Israel’s history. For example: At the beginning of the book of Exodus, there is an evil king (Pharaoh) killing baby boys. In Matthew’s gospel, another evil king (Herod) is doing exactly the same thing. Later in Exodus, Moses brings God’s message (the Ten Commandments) to the people of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai. And what’s the name of Jesus’ most famous message in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount. In Exodus, before the people of Israel can enter the Promised Land, they must wander in the wilderness for forty years. As Jesus begins his ministry, he fasts and prays in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. This is not just a series of coincidences. They are intentional. Once again: the author of Matthew’s gospel is trying to identify the story of Jesus with the Israel.
Just one more example, and it’s the one I really want to talk about today:
At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is baptized by John in the Jordan River. This is another one of Matthew’s hints. As Jesus begins his ministry, he passes through the waters. In the same way, the people of Israel “passed through the waters” on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Again, this is no coincidence. Matthew is setting Jesus up as a kind of “New Moses” who leads God’s people from slavery to freedom. The Christian journey of salvation, according to Matthew, is one where those who follow Jesus through the waters of baptism are liberated from slavery to sin and set free to live the life of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Speaking in terms of (some of) the Ten Commandments, the Christian journey of salvation is one that takes us from violence to peace, from lust to love, from lies to truth, from greed to giving, and from envy to gratitude. It’s a journey of personal transformation and baptism is the symbol of our agreement to take that journey with Jesus. In the sacrament of baptism, we make a promise to ourselves, to each other, and to God that we will follow Jesus into a new way of living, just like the people of Israel followed Moses out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, and (eventually) to the Promised Land. And it’s not a journey that we take on our own. We travel by Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.
Here’s what I mean by that:
First of all, this journey of transformation is initiated by Christ. Christians see Jesus, not just as an historical figure who taught some important ideas 2,000 years ago, but as a living presence who is involved in our lives today. We believe that the person of Christ is the revelation of the heart of God to humanity, which is to say that, in Christ, God reaches out to us, meets us, and gets the divine hands dirty with the blood, sweat, and tears of this world. When we are lost, Christ finds us and brings us home; when we are blind, Christ opens our eyes; when we are ignorant, Christ teaches us; when we are sick or wounded, Christ heals us; when we are dead inside, Christ brings us back to life again. In the midst of the brokenness of this life and the selfishness of our hearts, while we are still hostages in Egypt, Christ shows up, liberates us from the slaveries of the past, and enables us to make a new beginning. The journey of transformation is initiated by Christ.
Second, the journey of transformation is sustained with Christ. We do not travel alone. Christ guides us through the Word of God in Scripture and feeds us in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The Spirit of Christ empowers our spirits and gives us strength to keep walking the path. The love of Christ fills our hearts and picks us up when we stumble and fall on the road. Christ walks beside us and promised never to leave us alone until the journey is through.
Finally, the journey of transformation is completed in Christ when we begin to love like Jesus loves. That’s ultimately where all this is going; that’s the main principle underlying each of the Ten Commandments: Love. Jesus said as much when he said that you could sum up all the commandments of the Bible with, “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s all about love. St. Irenaeus, one of the early fathers of the church, famously said that, in the incarnation of Christ, “God became what we are so that we might become what God is.” And what exactly is God? According to 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Love is who God is, therefore love is who we are. Love is where we’re going in the end, therefore love is all that matters. Love is the heartbeat of the cosmos and the foundational law of the universe, which is where we find the strength to say to one another, Sunday after Sunday:
I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Be blessed and be a blessing!