The biblical passage: Mt 3, 13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The above biblical passage provides us with a good opportunity for a closer look at the circumstances and place in which Baptism (one of the two sacraments recognized and practiced in Lutheran Churches) was instituted. Interestingly, the source of Baptism cannot be found in the catechisms or theology of the reformers, it cannot be found in the order of Baptism given by Christ, which closes the Gospel according to St Matthew, either. The baptismal practice has its origin in Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan. Following the wish of Jesus, His Baptism was performed by John the Baptist, who lived as a hermit near the river. It is not quite clear why Jesus chose John the Baptist. We know, however, that in the valley of the Jordan John delivered his famous sermons which attracted people from near and far. His fame was known even in the remote city of Jerusalem. It is noteworthy that to get from Jerusalem to the Jordan to listen to John the Baptist one had to travel two days on foot crossing the sun-drenched desert! Obviously only few people could do that, the few who sought and desired a true life with God.
We know today that John did not possess any secret knowledge reserved for the most enduring among his listeners and disciples. One could say that John was a charismatic preacher of penance, concentrated on two fundamental religious themes. First of all, in various ways he proclaimed the validity and importance of the commandments – the Decalogue. He assumed that if God gave them to the Chosen People, we should stick to them. Secondly, John proclaimed the kingdom of God, which develops dynamically and comes closer and closer. Indeed, it has come so close that one can no longer remain indifferent to God’s initiative. John encouraged his listeners to plunge into the waters of the Jordan and believe infinitely that God is truly gracious and merciful; that with Him a new beginning is always possible, for “What is impossible with men is possible with God,” (Lk 18,27). One can easily guess that the countless crowds of people who listened attentively to John, would then receive Baptism. It was the Baptism of water, which stood for a sign of penance and religious rebirth. One day, among pilgrims who traveled from Jerusalem to the Jordan and to John came Jesus from Nazareth. We heard the words: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” Apparently He did not wish to be treated differently than other people. We do not exactly know whether He needed any kind of penance or religious rebirth, but we know that He headed for John the Baptist.
In the biblical scene that is depicted by the evangelist Matthew, Jesus stands among sinners who have arrived from Jerusalem to John and plunges in the Jordan together with them! On the one hand, this shows Jesus’ solidarity with the people with whom He feels He belongs. On the other, at this unusual moment something happens that marks a breakthrough, that sets Jesus aside from other people: John the Baptist initially refuses to baptize Jesus! We have heard him saying, “’I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” Who knows, maybe this initial refusal hurt Jesus? Then, however, following the explicit wish of Jesus, John overcomes his doubts and performs this exceptional and unique act of Baptism. “And when Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.” At this point it is as if other people move to the background, for the foreground belongs to Jesus and the Holy Ghost.
Immediately after He had been baptized Jesus saw in His vision Heaven opening and the Spirit of God, who, in the form of a dove, descended from above and alighted on Him. Jesus also heard a Voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Contrary to appearances, the words sound familiar. From the time of Jesus’ childhood we can probably recall the scene which took place in Jerusalem Temple: little Jesus addresses His bodily parents with striking and prophetic words: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2,49). After the Baptism in the Jordan the Holy Spirit unequivocally confirms this thought of Jesus. The Spirit of God descends on Him not with the impetus of, let us say, an eagle, but with the serenity of a dove. And such unusual serenity characterized Jesus throughout the whole later period of His public activity that eventually led Him up to the Cross of Golgotha. Even today the dove continues to symbolize such features and values as submissiveness, purity and peace.
Of course, the Baptism of Jesus is an original model of every Christian Baptism. As Jesus was once called by His name and filled with the Sprit of God, so we have the promise that the same Spirit is granted to us. He is active in His gentle, almost imperceptible way at the moment of our Baptism and accompanies us all the time in our Christian life. This Spirit does not only introduce order and clarity into our thoughts, but also strengthens our love, opens our lips and helps us behave honestly. It is because of this practical dimension of Christian life that we speak today of Baptism and its consequences.
Each Baptism has its external aspect (we know it well for during our sermons we have an opportunity to take part in baptismal ceremonies). Yet apart from its externality Baptism reminds us of the hidden activity of God, which took place in the very act of Baptism and which takes continually place in our Christian life. You could actually say that it is thanks to this hidden activity of God through the Holy Spirit that our Christian life is possible in the first place. I mean both our individual life and our communal, congregational life.
The fact of being baptized, and the awareness of God’s incessant activity, sealed in the act of our Baptism, obliges us to give our testimony. And this testimony once again has two aspects: contrary to appearances it is most effective when it is silent, even wordless. On the other hand, the testimony of Christian life must be somehow perceptible, it should be objective and public to be noticeable. Of course it should be anything but importunate and noisy.
May you all, Brothers and Sisters, have the skill to bear witness to Jesus in your families, with your neighbors and at work, for we need this testimony every day. Amen.
Rev. Dr Dariusz Chwastek, translated by Dr Joanna Teske