The Narrative Lectionary points us to Matthew 3:1-17 for the text of the week. The iconic John the immerser seems to be the primary character of this chapter. Even so, nothing here is of more importance or interest than the baptism of Jesus Christ. Together, it makes for an exciting text full of promise for the upcoming sermon.
John the baptizer is making his first appearance in Matthew’s gospel. We know from other accounts some of the backstory of his parents and the miracle that preceded the birth of Jesus. John and Jesus are cousins, but little is revealed about the childhood of either. Many questions remain about how much they knew of one another. How close were they? Or not at all? Matthew certainly does not help us with that. But John, either through familial relationship or divine revelation or both, knew that Jesus was the one he had been speaking of and who deserved to be followed. In Matthew 11 we have John’s moment of questioning (I don’t really think it was doubt, but who can say?). However conflicted we are as we read this from a distance, John was crystal clear in his message.
John the Wilderness Preacher
REPENT! This is the core of John’s message. It was time to turn toward the Lord. As far as we know, John is breaking about 400 years of silence. The prophets were quiet during these years. The prophets of old were studied, read, memorized, and very much a part of Jewish life. But this prophet out in the Jordan river was something new. And he was calling them to walk a new path that began with repentance. Today, we pray that those who have wandered far from God would hear the call to come back!
KINGDOM! Another feature of John’s message is the nearness of the Kingdom. How was this heard? As a nationalistic message? The disciples certainly interpreted the presence of Jesus in a militaristic and nationalistic manner. John doesn’t tell his listeners that Jesus has been born in Bethlehem! This crowd is unaware of the story of the incarnation. If they did know of the visit of the Magi, it was decades ago and certainly it had faded from memory. They have only the prophecies of a coming Messiah to alert them, and they seem to have fallen asleep to them.
PROPHET! Matthew tells us that John is walking in the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. He not only takes on the words of a prophet but the lifestyle as well. How long had John lived in the desert? We don’t know. His apparel and diet set him apart as a distinctive presence, as well as his message. There must have been something compelling about John, for people were confessing their sins and being immersed by him.
FRUIT! It is evident that John was not there to promote and exalt the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees and Sadducees had to check out what was going on and they got an earful! John immediately hacked away at their pretentiousness and self-righteousness to declare that they were not producing the fruit of the kingdom. What vivid images he used! Brood of vipers! Ax is already at the root! Trees not producing good fruit are to be cut down and thrown into the fire! He wasn’t interested in smoothing it over with them. His specialty was not conflict resolution!
Jesus the Son of God
JESUS! John is not there to promote the status quo of religiosity of the day. He was not even there to promote himself. There is someone coming who is more powerful, more worthy, who will carry out God’s prophetic plans. John is genuine in his humility, for when Jesus comes to be baptized by him, he attempts to defer. But Jesus will not allow it. Upon his baptism we see Trinitarian Glory as the Son arises from the water, the Dove descends, the Father speaks.
The preacher has many options in presenting this text. Jesus certainly esteemed John the Baptist and his story is certainly sermon-worthy. John’s fiery preaching demanded that there be changes. Repentance from sin, from self-righteousness, and from following fruitless religious leaders/ the religious establishment. Not only so but to express these truths with imagery of fire and wrath! Those are all worthy subjects for today’s Christian.
But it is hard to resist spending the majority of time on Jesus. This is His story and the baptism of Jesus by John is packed with theology. What does it mean to “fulfill all righteousness“? Jesus was certainly not baptized for confession and remission of sins. Nor was He baptized for repentance. It was simply the right thing to do. Perhaps in two specific ways.
It was a matter of example. Jesus knew we could follow in His steps in this example he set. Can anyone claim to be a disciple of Jesus but reject baptism? When Jesus was baptized, the Father was pleased. I believe He is today as well.
It was a matter of incarnation. Jesus stepping into the muddy water was a beautiful signal to us of Divinity that chose to become Human. He experienced life as we do. And baptism was a part of his incarnation experience.
John’s preaching and baptizing, and Jesus’ participation in the event, helps make this a lessons we can certainly revisit when one begins the search to follow Jesus.
You’re invited to join in a discussion of the text as well as sharing of resources in my Facebook group, Narrative Lectionarians. These are initial thoughts on the text. Sermon notes and audio are posted weekly on the website of the Forsythe Church of Christ.