This week, I was reminded of a book written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called: ‘God is not a Christian. Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis.’ It is a remarkable reflection on Desmond Tutu’s outspoken ministry as a lifelong peace activist and Nobel Peace Laureate. You might ask why I thought of this book to use as a starting point today? It was the combination of texts in the readings in Isaiah, Acts and Matthew’s Gospel, as we celebrate The Baptism of our Lord.
Isaiah spoke about God presenting God’s servant, God’s chosen one, in whom God’s soul delights. God said:
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations… I have called you in righteousness.…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42: 1, 6-7)
The Messiah, king and servant leader will bring about righteousness and justice for the poor and outcast and establish justice in the earth. This much anticipated Messiah was earnestly prayed for in Jesus’ day, as many hoped for a Jewish king to bring God’s power to bear, overthrowing the Roman oppressor and its military exercise of power and empire, using force and violence. The imagined resulting justice would be weighted for a change, in Judah’s favour. The wicked Romans would be given their just deserts and Roman might and arrogance would be vanquished.
Such a narrative of justice still rings out today. We recognise it and seek it even now as we follow news of the Russian invasion against Ukraine, where we project our concept of human justice onto God and pray for such reversals, with violence, judgement and punishment.
So, what does this understanding of justice and peace mean for us as we think about Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John. Jesus’ baptism is included in all four Gospels with Matthew’s Gospel writer including a conversation with John about the appropriateness of John being the one to baptize Jesus. Commentators think this baptism story caused some embarrassment for early Christians. John was baptising Jews with water for repentance and forgiveness of wrongdoing and the early church wondered what might this have to do with God’s Son, who was without wrongdoing?
In Jewish practice, water was used for purification, for cleansing and making clean before God in many aspects of Jewish religious and daily life. Water used in baptism signifies recreation as a new person, cleansed and forgiven before God. In our church in baptism, identity is confirmed, individuals are named and made known to their family and community and welcomed into God’s family. However, as Jesus and John argue about Jesus’ desire to be baptised specifically by John, Jesus reminds him something else is happening:
Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness. Then [he [sic] John consented. (Matt.3:15)
The idea of what was ‘righteous’ or ‘just’ in this context, uses Desmond Tutu’s radical ideas of righteousness and justice ensured he got to the ‘root of an issue’ and I think this perspective gives insight into Jesus’ presence in the Jordan with John. Jesus was going back to the beginning before the world was made, to ensure he was present in the world, truthfully in the presence of human wrongdoing, and God was making the new creation visible and real in Jesus. Jesus was being clearly identified as God’s Son. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church, he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. For it pleased God in him all fullness should dwell and through him all things be reconciled to himself. (Col. 1:15-20)
Both Jesus and John humbly consented once again to live into God’s plans, actively and radically choosing God’s Way as their only way, just as people have done throughout the story of humanity. Baptism into God opened the Way to a new future. This choice had been made by Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah consenting to God’s invitation to participate in changing human history, enabling God’s plans to flourish; just as men and women have continued radically to interpret this commitment to righteousness as their way of Christian living.
As we think about John the Baptist’s message of repentance which people were listening and responding to as they came to be baptised, I reflect on what personal repentance looks like for us, and how as God’s children, we must do this daily. Isaiah told us what such repentance means. Jesus read from Isaiah as he stepped into his ministry as he spoke radically to his vocation and calling by God as Messiah. The outrage people felt at his radical interpretation of his vocation and identity killed him in the end.
Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan on the physical margins of Jewish society. This action highlights Jesus’ identity in his childhood community, but also, started to reveal the new narrative being told to the world by God about those on the margins and how they will flourish in God’s kingdom. People start to pay attention to this new Way, God’s Word now spoken by God’s Son, the Word made flesh.
At Jesus’ birth, he was given several titles: Messiah, Mighty Counsellor, Prince of Peace, Son of David, Saviour, Emmanuel. At his baptism, he was named and identified again by God, becoming visible as Son and Beloved, Messiah and Lord, redefined and freshly created for all people to see and know. When Peter retells the story in Acts 10, we are reminded God was and is still spreading the message of radical, righteous justice and peace today.
In Jesus’ baptism, we are invited to reach into the texts, to see the Way God is opening for us, to see the Gospel message of peace and love for all people, and to reject and repent of all we do in supporting violence, oppression, blindness, imprisonment, discrimination and death. We are baptised into God’s love and peace, as children of God, and we promise to walk in Jesus’ Way.
The Lord be with you.
Harrington, D.J., SJ., [Ed.], 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.1. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E., [Eds] 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Vol.1, Ch.1-13 Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Tutu, D., 2013. God Is Not A Christian. Speaking Truth in times of crisis. Rider Books, London, UK.
Volf., M. 2021. The End of Memory. Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
Wright, T. 2004. Matthew for Everyone. Part 1 Chapters 1-15. SPCK, London, UK.