Commentary on Matthew 3:1-17
After weeks devoted to those most familiar lections pertaining to the birth and infancy of Jesus, the lection concerning John the Baptist, whom all the gospels credit as the herald of the adult ministry of Jesus, can come as something of a jolt.
Unlike the shepherds and the magi, John does not have a place in the Christmas crèche or pageant. The cousin of the Lord cuts a rough figure, depicted here as an ascetic and a scold, offering a bitter pill for his audience to swallow. We are to imagine that the coat of camel skin would have been worn with the hairy side brushing against the skin, so as to provoke discomfort. We are to imagine him lean, possibly even emaciated, owing to his diet of nothing but bugs sweetened by honey. His angry cries are disrespectful of the religious authorities of his day. His message to the crowds is ominous, portending apocalyptic judgment, complete with imagery of the winnowing fork and the burning of the chaff.
Though the gospel here depicts him as frightening, if not crazed, there is more to the story of John than this. Matthew suggests here that his message had a wide appeal and that people came from Jerusalem, all Judea, and regions beyond to confess their sin and be baptized in the Jordan. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the end of the first century, provides more information about John the Baptist than he does about Jesus, suggesting the popularity of this figure in at least some Jewish sources. According to Josephus, John is arrested and eventually killed by Herod Antipas, because he attracted crowds, and Antipas, like many authoritarian rulers, feared crowds as a potential source of rebellion. Antipas might have had just cause to fear that the activity of John the Baptist did indeed tap into a longing of Judeans to be free from the cruel occupation of their Roman overlords. As the biblical scholar John Domnican Crossan has reminded us, John doesn’t just baptize in any pool of water, he baptizes in the Jordan, a river infused with nationalistic longings. The long story of Israelite Exodus, which begins with the parting of the Red Sea, culminates in the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. Thus the crowds coming to John for baptism in the Jordan are tapping into the expectation that their repentance is but the first step in an apocalyptic scenario in which freedom from political oppression is the ultimate outcome.
With the exception of the gospel of Mark, who records the story of the Baptism of Jesus by John straightforwardly, the authors of the canonical gospels all seem to have some discomfort with the idea that John baptizes Jesus. Typically baptizers are assumed to have more authority than the baptized; moreover John baptizes “for repentance,” something Jesus should not need. In the fourth Gospel, John is not actually said to baptize Jesus, but only to bear witness to his coming (John 1:23, 29-34); and in an apparently similar apologetic move, Luke, notes that John is imprisoned by Herod in the verse immediately before the baptism of Jesus is acknowledged (cf. Luke 3:20,21), as if to give the impression that Jesus’ baptism is agentless. Matthew, following the Gospel of Mark, does narrate John’s role in baptizing Jesus, while adding the qualification that the baptism “fulfills righteousness,” and making John clarify that he himself needs baptism from Jesus (Matthew 3:14-15). Thus, preachers might wrestle with questions arising from these puzzling circumstances: what does it mean that Jesus was baptized, by John? Does this mean Jesus had a human teacher? Was he once a disciple of John? Did Jesus sympathize with the nationalistic longings of his people who also sought to cleanse in the river Jordan? After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends and the voice of God proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” What precisely about the relationship between Jesus, John, and submersion into the Jordan leads to this divine proclamation?
Or, given the amazing complexity, and violence of global-political events in 2014, one might move from this puzzling story of the first encounter between John and Jesus to the sobering outcome these two share. Whether one imagines the relationship between John and Jesus as one of master and disciple; rival teachers; or that of a prophetic, somewhat scary, forerunner paving the way for the Beloved Son of God, their earthly fates are the same: both of them meet a brutally violent death at the hands of violent forces — John beheaded, and Jesus crucified. I write these words in September 2014, days after two videos in quick succession have been released by the terrorist group ISIS, of the beheading of American journalists. Two brave young reporters covering the Syrian War, risking their lives to bear witnesses to human suffering, in the hopes of making some contribution to the alleviation of that suffering have succumbed to grisly deaths. Beheaded, like John. We live in biblical, perhaps even apocalyptic, times.
At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends, and the divine voice rings out for all to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The God of this unambiguous proclamation is there at the end of the Gospel story to vindicate the suffering crucified through resurrection from the dead. We stand in sure and certain hope of the final resurrection of all who suffer so. But in the meantime let us also pray for the young idealistic youths, who put their lives on the line in our own “apocalyptic” times. Let us pray that the voice of God rings true to them, that they might know that their work is ultimately for the good; but also that they may be sheltered in the work they do to alleviate the suffering in this world. And let us pray that we are all given insight into what work we also might do to stand in solidarity with the prophets of this age.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Righteous God, you sent your son Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan, so that all might hear the proclamation of your love. Make us voices of proclamation, so that all might know of your love through our words and our actions. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Christ, when for us you were baptized ELW 304
Crashing waters at creation ELW 455
Earth and all stars ELW 731
The Baptism of Christ, Peter Hallock