Preaching on the baptism of Jesus requires a significant amount of homiletical restraint. Our denominational desires tend to lean toward sermons that try either to compare our baptisms to that of Jesus’ baptism, assuming an equal footing, or conform Jesus’ baptism to our doctrinal beliefs. Either way has the potential to result in rather bland and boring sermons, I fear.
Why? Because we let go of the specificity of Jesus’ baptism as well as compromise the particularity of how we as church have interpreted and adapted the meaning of baptism within our definitive theological commitments and contexts. Both need to be regarded and respected on their own levels of theological revelation — for Jesus’, how he was able to imagine walking into a wilderness filled with that which would try to deter him from being who he was. For us, how we are able to imagine living in a world that tries to make us doubt whose we are.
Back to Jesus. While there is much on which a preacher might focus in a sermon on Jesus’ baptism in Matthew — personal confirmation of identity, public acknowledgement of said identity, the role of the Spirit — this time around I am drawn to the wilderness. Jesus is baptized and then is led into the wilderness. The wilderness! While we know how the ordeal ends, we shouldn’t be too quick to bank on Jesus’ divinity. If we do, we lose what it means to be in the wilderness — because when you are in it, you are in it. Period.
If there is any comparison between Jesus’ baptism and ours, any at all, it’s that baptism assumes wilderness. Not to test our loyalty. Not to tempt God’s commitment. Not to get us to turn on the Spirit. No. Because none of that is actually biblical. A quick review of Numbers should remind us that being in the wilderness is part of what it means to be the people of God.
I wonder if too often, however, we surmise that our wilderness wanderings are more personal than God had in mind. We take our desert stages in life as all about our abilities to negotiate our trials, endure our burdens, push our way through hardships as if surviving is somehow the same as salvation.
I don’t know about you, but journeying through the wilderness and making it out alive by my own sheer will and perseverance doesn’t sound very salvific to me. In fact, it sounds lonely. It sounds sad. And it doesn’t sound like something our God, who is all about relationship, demands.
So, if we take Jesus’ baptism seriously, what does it mean to be led into the wilderness if our own self is not on the line? If proving our worth or substantiating our identity is not the issue? If evidencing our wherewithal to get through life’s challenges is not in question? It means that being baptized and then immediately being thrown into the wilderness is about faith lived in community.
Jesus’ baptism suggests that ending up in the wilderness is not always about the self but about the other. About God’s other. Jesus’ time in the wilderness does not necessarily verify his own sense of self, but his sense of self for the sake of who God needs him to be for the world God seeks to save.
We are reminded that with baptism comes wilderness and that wilderness is not an individual affair. The Israelites were not in the wilderness alone. They had each other. Jesus was not in the wilderness alone. He had the Spirit and the promise of God’s declaration. We are never in the wilderness alone. Our baptism propels us into community and if ever we rely on baptism as only that which safeguards our own individual security we have misinterpreted Matthew’s story.
As the first Sunday after Epiphany, this is both promise and reminder. We are reminded of the promise that Baptism brings — the promise that even in the wilderness, even in spite of it, and sometimes even because of it, our call to bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven is meant to be manifest to all. We are not privy to personal epiphanies, or if we are, we will need to figure out how to share them or make it possible for others to experience them.
The nature of epiphanies is communal, suggests Matthew. “This is my beloved son.” Everybody got to hear that, not just Jesus, and so when he is led into the wilderness, he already knows this is not a private affair, a personal test, a lone examination. The wilderness is its own epiphany, but one for all to witness.
Dear Working Preachers, when you fall back on your baptism as a reminder of who you are, and when you preach baptism as a reminder to your people of who God has claimed them to be, remember too that baptism is also about who the other needs you, and them, to be. To be present in the wilderness. To tell the other of God’s words from heaven. To proclaim that baptism cannot just be about the self, but is about living life as being the light of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. You, plural, are God’s beloved children.