Baptism of Jesus by the Spirit

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; 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.
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (Is 42:1-9)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, 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 it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:13-17)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents came to town and barely found a roof to shelter them. The angels sang and the shepherds came. The wise men brought their gifts. Mary listened to all that happened and treasured all that she heard, pondering it in her heart. Then danger came, and the little family fled to Egypt. When the coast was clear again, they went back to their home in Nazareth. Then follows a long silence. Except for a brief bout of adolescent rebellion, Jesus-style, we hear nothing more about what happened to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus for nearly thirty years.

In their culture, thirty years was most of a lifetime. In a culture where most girls were married in their early teens, a thirty year old could expect to be a grandfather. A man’s career was prepared for, entered, practiced, and nearly completed in that time. For those of us who are barely grown up at thirty, or even much later than that, it’s hard to imagine someone of thirty as beyond middle age. In those days, thirty was pretty much over the hill.

Mary was very patient in her waiting and pondering. While other boys were learning their trade, Jesus did too. While other boys were growing up and raising families, she waited. While she watched Jesus grow in knowledge and wisdom, she waited. She may have nudged him a bit from time to time, but she let him make his own decisions.

How much do you think that Mary and her cousin Elizabeth told their boys about what had happened when they were born? We know that the whole village was involved when John’s father Zechariah lost his voice and got it back again. In John’s village, he would have been the center of a certain kind of attention, with everyone knowing that he was destined for great things. He had a special upbringing, living in the wilderness until he began his ministry. Living in the wilderness probably didn’t mean that he was abandoned to live there alone, of course. In those days hermits and members of the sect known as Essenes lived out in the desert, and these might have been John’s teachers.

The miraculous events around Jesus’ birth didn’t happen in the village where he grew up, so he wouldn’t have been a celebrity among the other boys. In a sense, hearing nothing about his childhood and young manhood leads us to think that he was “normal,” doing the expected things a boy did—except for his unusual interest in studying the scriptures. He probably learned and practiced his father’s trade, and there was lots of work for carpenters in the area in those days.

Remember that this was the time of the Herods and the Roman occupation. There were new cities being build all over the place, and archeologists have uncovered one small Roman city that was built near Nazareth. Herod the Great had begun the reconstruction of the great temple in Jerusalem, and there was work going on all over that city as well. With the Roman enforcement of safety and tolerance for different religions, it was also a time of great religious growth in the Jewish community. The Sadducees and the temple establishment were restored and growing in influence. The Essenes had flourishing communities out in the desert. The new purification movement of the Pharisees, bringing religious practice from the temple to the family, was flourishing. It was an exciting time to be a Jew.

For Jesus, interested in the scripture as he was, it was an unparalleled opportunity. The rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammi were active and growing. Argument and discussion of Torah and its application were all around, not just in the synagogue but in the marketplace and in the air where the elders gathered at the town gates. People were talking and arguing and advocating and studying in their determination to understand the words and will of God. A boy growing up and a young man struggling to understand his destiny had only to listen to what was going on around him.

How well do you think Jesus and John knew each other before they came together in today’s scripture? Their mothers were friends as well as cousins, brought closer together by sharing the time of their pregnancies together. Even though they lived at a distance from each other and John was growing up in the desert, they probably saw each other from time to time. When their extended families came to Jerusalem for the festivals, the two boys probably had time to play together and talk together. John is probably one of the few people Jesus could have shared his own story with, since John was in the middle of a story of his own. I can imagine the boys saying, “My Mom said …. That’s weird. What do you suppose it means?”

Both boys had something else in common, something that would have been more obvious in their culture than it would be in ours. Both were special given names that were not part of their family tradition. For John, there was a lot of discussion about his name at the time. Luke says,

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:59-63)

For Jesus, his name was given to his mother, quietly, by the angel Gabriel:

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Joshua. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. (Luke 1:30-32)

We sometimes miss, because we call Jesus by the Greek version of his name, that he was named for the great war leader Joshua, the one who led the Israelites into the promised land. I can see him wondering, “Why on earth am I named for Joshua? How am I supposed to be like him?”

The two boys, wondering together, must have wondered why they received such unusual names. The stories their mothers told would have led them to expect strange and wonderful things. But what would it mean in practice? John knew how to learn to be a prophet; because this was a career path that had a long tradition from ancient times. But the two of them must have wondered together what was in the plan for Jesus. One thing is clear—when they came together at the Jordan, they didn’t come together as strangers.

Jesus has been waiting for this moment, the right moment, to come to John. It wasn’t that he just heard about John’s preaching, because John had been preaching and baptizing for some time. Jesus needed to know, for himself, that it was time. He was no fool. He knew, because he’d read the scriptures, that the path he would be taking would not be easy. Listen to the warnings he had from Isaiah:

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.

How would you like to get up in the morning and know that your to-do list for the day has “establish justice on earth” on it? How would you like to know that it’s going to be an uphill battle, knowing that you’ll have to struggle on and “not grow faint or be crushed”?

I can see that for Jesus, the moment of decision to begin his ministry was very like the moment of trial in Gethsemane. Once the decision is made, once the first step is taken down the path, all of the rest will follow. Yes, the glory will follow, and the victory, but the cost is so high! Taking that first step brings into the real and immediate future all the effort and all the suffering that are required to win through in the end. Jesus knew what he was starting, and, like the king he talked about planning to go to war, he knew enough to count the cost up front. The cost was high, his own life, but ultimately he was willing to pay it. So, finally, he came to John to let his journey begin.

Jesus was scheduled for an encounter, not with destiny, but with the power of God the Holy Spirit. John’s been baptizing with water for the forgiveness of sins, and John knows that this man coming to him has no need of that. He’s seen this person, boy and man, and knows that sin is completely foreign to his nature. Of course John is concerned. He knows where he fits in the hierarchy of heaven, as the announcer rather than the star of the show, and he has no desire to offend God Most High. John knows that there’s nothing he can give his cousin that Jesus doesn’t already have, or that God won’t give him directly. John knows the priorities when he says,

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?

But Jesus sees his situation more clearly.

Jesus gave up all his power and divine knowledge when he became a human being, but as a human being he does know one thing. Whatever he has to do, there’s no way he can do it alone. He needs help, and he knows that it’s through baptism that he can receive it. Jesus is the first person to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, filling him and giving him the strength and the power he needs, to go foreyard and fulfill his calling. Did Jesus know what he was asking of John? I don’t know. He might simply have been listening to Isaiah, who said,

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations

Jesus knew he was called, and to fulfill all the formalities that were required of him, he needed to be baptized. Whether or not he “knew” that he’d receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus did know where he needed to be and what he needed to do.

Jesus tells his disciples what it will be like for them to receive the Holy Spirit. He says in an appearance to them after his resurrection,

This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. (Acts 1:4-5)

you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

The power to do this ministry, whether it is the ministry of Jesus himself, of the disciples, or of those of us who follow him today, is enabled and empowered by this one Holy Spirit. As Jesus received the Spirit in the river Jordan, as the disciples received it at Pentecost, as Paul received it on the road, so do we receive it in these later days. Whenever and however the gospel comes into the world, it’s through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

As we share our communion, we also have the opportunity for an encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit that makes our communion a sacrament, the Holy Spirit that makes our simple eating a piece of bread and drinking a sip of juice, into a real encounter with the living presence of Jesus. It’s the Spirit who brings us into the presence of Jesus and who joins us with all the others who also love and serve him. It’s by the Spirit’s power that we’re cleansed and renewed and strengthened to continue on our own journeys, to undertake things we’d never thought possible, in God’s name.

The Holy Spirit is a worker of miracles. The Spirit rested on the one who had been born in Bethlehem with the character and person of God inside. The Spirit alighted on him, filling him with the love and the power of God.. May that same Spirit touch each of us, so that we have the strength to be his workers, here in this corner of the world, and empower us to grow to be more and more like the One we serve. Amen.

©2009 Jean F. Risley – All Rights Reserved