January 9, 2010 – 1 Epiphany A
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Last Sunday night, there was a movie on TV that caught my attention. It’s not one of those movies that you should see, and I’m definitely not recommending it to you, but it was Sunday night. You might remember Sunday night—it was the seventeenth day in a row on which some form of college or professional football was shown on TV. And, partly because my fantasy football season was over and partly because I just couldn’t stand any more football, I wanted to waste my time watching something else.
Up in that dangerous section of the digital cable channel lineup—somewhere in the 400s—I found an answer: the latter half of Employee of the Month, a 2004 flick, which starred Matt Dillon and Christina Applegate. At its core, the movie is about a bank robbery, but it’s also one of those complicated stories in which someone betrays someone else, yet that someone has actually already betrayed the original betrayer only to have actually been betrayed by yet someone else. If that sounds confusing, good—it’s supposed to. The whole movie was a twisted series of surprises. But when I saw the end, which was supposed to be one of those “wow” moments when the audience is shocked at how things turned out, I wasn’t really all that surprised.
Actually, initially, I was surprised. It caught me a little off-guard. But, just a few seconds later, I thought to myself, “Well, of course it had to be like that. The bad guy ended up empty handed, and the good guy (in this case a woman) rode off into the sunset.” But, only in the last fifteen minutes, as the plot finally unfolded, did the conclusion, which was deeply hidden beneath layer after layer of interconnected betrayal, suddenly spring to light. It doesn’t matter that the audience might have predicted how things would end up. We were so caught up in the unraveling itself that we couldn’t see the end until it was actually upon us. And that made for an entertaining, though thoroughly unenlightening, film.
From today’s gospel lesson: “And when Jesus had been baptized, 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 one of those moments when, even though we probably could have predicted the outcome, what happens catches everyone by surprise.
Imagine the scene: As Jesus walks down to the water and looks across at the Baptist, everyone watching, including John, is perplexed. Why is Jesus coming to be baptized? He isn’t a sinner. He doesn’t need repentance. John’s entire message had been about receiving baptism in order to cleanse oneself in preparation for the coming of the Messiah—for Jesus. Why, then, would Jesus himself come down to the waters to be baptized by John? As the drama intensifies, many wonder how the story will play out. What will happen when the Son of God, who came to take away the sin of the world, is plunged beneath the river’s surface? What will transpire when someone attempts to wash away the sins of the one who is sinless?
Truthfully, I don’t know if anyone who was there, other than John, actually considered any of that. To most of the people gathered along the banks, Jesus’ baptism probably appeared as normal as anyone else’s—at least initially. I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day had already realized who he was or how his story would turn out. But years, centuries, even millennia later, Christians and religious scholars still wonder why Jesus was baptized and why the story of his baptism, which doesn’t quite fit with the belief that Jesus was without sin, gets included in the gospel. No one really has a good answer for that—for why he was baptized. But we do know what happened when he came up out of the water, and that’s probably the point. Even if the storyline doesn’t make sense, the ending is exactly as it should be.
I think that John the Baptist’s perspective is preserved for our benefit—so that we might understand why the otherwise-confusing story ends the way that it does. He plays our part in the baptism narrative. When Jesus approaches, he objects, “You don’t need to be baptized. I need to be baptized by you. Why are you here? Why have you come to me?” We don’t understand why Jesus has come for baptism any more than John does. He shares our confusion, so, when Jesus pats him on the shoulder and says, “Let it be so now,” Jesus is saying to him as much as he is saying to us, “Just wait and see. Watch what happens.”
Of course, there is only one way that this story could end. Jesus’s role as God’s beloved Son must be revealed as he emerges from the water. That’s because the paradoxical collision that occurs when he who was without sin was immersed in the waters of repentance could only be resolved in one way—with Jesus’ messianic character shining through. Although brief, this passage from Matthew contains a dizzying array of theological conflicts, but the end is shockingly simple and straightforward: When all is said and done, Jesus is left standing on the bank of the Jordan, his true identity now revealed.
I wonder if anyone who saw that dove come down or who heard that voice from heaven thought, “You know, that’s pretty surprising, but I guess it all makes sense. I might not have been able to see how this would play out, but, now that it has, I can see why it did. I didn’t quite understand who Jesus was, but now I get it.” For me, the baptism of Jesus is a story about that which was hidden springing to light. It’s a moment when something true, which had previously been buried beneath a complicated story and a confusing identity, finally becomes clear. I might not understand why Jesus was baptized, but I do know that his baptism reveals to me and to the world something important which was once concealed.
We, too, are baptized. Whether sprinkled or dunked, we are plunged beneath waters of baptism. Through baptism, we follow Jesus unto his death, putting to death that part of us which covers up our true identity. We don’t always get to see that true nature that lies beneath our tattered and well-worn exterior. Sometimes the covering over our souls is so thick and black that any evidence of light seems hardly able to escape. But in there, buried deep within, is that part of us that was made in the image of God. We hold within a bright and beautiful light that yearns to shine forth. And, in Christ, that which is hidden breaks forth into the open.
As we baptize a little baby into the fellowship of God’s church, we declare that that which was once hidden has now come to light. We believe that the redeemed and beloved nature of humankind shines forth once the veil of sin and darkness has been removed. For you, it may have been a long time since you were baptized, but that doesn’t mean that God is finished with you. The baptism of Jesus declares that no amount of sin can obscure the true Light of the World. No matter how many layers of disappointment or failure have built up, making it impossible to see how your life’s story will end, the conclusion remains exactly as it should be. Even if you’re covered up by years of brokenness and betrayal, Christ can still bring to light that which is hidden deep within you. Amen.