I must admit I had a hard time with how to preach this text (being a short sermon for an Evensong of sorts). I am not sure if it’s because of the complex Trinitarian theophony or because of the brevity of Matthew’s narrative to that point. I strangely found it difficult in my gut to take a “canonical” approach and incorporate other Gospel texts. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the hermeneutics I’ve read or what but I ended up bringing in a tiny bit of Luke and an allusion to John. The balance between the independence of a Gospel and the canonical context is not yet something I’ve fully worked out. This seems like the right thing to do – not least since I wasn’t afraid to parallel Samuel! If it had been a full sermon I probably would’ve brought in Isaiah 42:1-9 and spent some more time on the sacrament of baptism, as well as included a couple more jokes. If this and my other recent sermon are any indicators I tend to lean in a ‘didactic’ direction.
I don’t intend on posting every sermon I do (so don’t worry, you don’t have to read them) but I’m still rather fresh at this and I don’t do it that often so if it comes across anyone’s mind it’s nice to get feedback. The primary text was taken from Matthew 3:13-17. I found a book by the famous Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, The Friend of the Bridegroom: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Forerunner, the second in a ‘minor trilogy’ of books (the first being The Burning Bush and the third, Jacob’s Ladder: On Angels) to be very helpful and so far the book is absolutely fantastic, I highly recommend it.
Each of the Gospels tend to have their own way of telling things, and while stories often overlap between them, their placement and wording can often differ. The Gospel of Matthew opens his book with reference to King David of the Old Testament. If I was to be honest, I would say that starting with a genealogy of ancestors -“so and so was the father of so and so who was the father of so and so” and so on and so forth – is not the best way to grab my attention. But it does alert us immediately to a way of understanding Matthew’s purpose in writing, and this is very helpful.
Our text today describes the Baptism of our Lord, which is at one and the same time the witness about him to all of humanity and to his people Israel, that is, his Epiphany, from which we get the name of our season; it is where his human nature was filled with the Holy Spirit and the first revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity; it is his anointing for a messianic kingship, a sign of his death and resurrection, and the beginning of the baptism in which we all now share.
And this kingship is in the lineage of David of the Old Testament, as Matthew is anxious to have us understand. So let us recall the beginning of David’s reign. It will become clear that though there are certainly similarities between David and Jesus, Jesus does not in the end appear to be anything like a king as commonly understood.
The book of Samuel opens with a birth brought about by the power of God, here the child Samuel, who will become a prophet is given to his mother, who to that point had been barren. By the time Samuel is ready to begin to serve as priest and prophet to Israel, the nation is in dire straights. The family who had lead the priesthood until that point had been killed; the prophetic Word of the Lord was rarely heard in those days; Israel was defeated in war and worst of all, the Ark of the Covenant, the very presence of God himself, had been taken by the Philistines.
In response to this crisis, Israel for the first time in her history was demanding a King. But the first king, king Saul, was turning out to be a disaster. And so God has Samuel secretly anoint the young, small, scrawny David king, who despite all that, we are told, had beautiful eyes. As soon as Samuel had anointed him, “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.” David was an unlikely king. The youngest boy in a family of men who, rather than do the hard labor of farming was tasked to keep watch on the sheep. Indeed when Samuel sees David’s older brother he was convinced this was the guy. We can only assume he was tall, dark and ruggedly handsome.
But David, as it turns out, will in the course of time, unite all of Israel, return the Ark to his new capital, Jerusalem, defeat her major enemies, expand her territories and be promised a lineage of kings for perpetuity. Not bad for a skinny red head if I do say so myself. David, as the Old Testament would continue to develop, will serve as the fundamental archetype of what a king should look like.
The beginning of the story of Jesus is not very different. In the Gospel of Luke, an old and barren women is given the gift of a child. This child will be John the Baptist and he figures very much like Samuel. According to Tradition, it was believed by many in Israel that prophecy had ceased, or as the book of Samuel might put it, “the Word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Israel was on the one hand building a Temple and the territory had been, at least in theory, restored. Yet darkly and ironically, the land was actually ruled by Rome and the austentatiously Jewish governor Herod was just as evil and capricious as any Roman representative, as Matthew tells us in the story of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents. The Israelites were keenly aware of this. As far as they were concerned, the presence of the Lord was yet to return to their midst.
But many were looking for the Messiah, or for a new David, who would restore them the same way that David had restored Israel way back then. Their enemies needed to be defeated and the presence of the Lord needed to dwell in the Temple. And so there were many political movements that were seeking to make that happen.
It is into this scene that John the Baptiser arrives. A thunderous and authoritative prophet who was announcing that the Kingdom of God, and all they were hoping for, was soon to come upon them. And the Messiah would be revealed. John is first of all, a witness to Jesus Christ. It is, then, important to note that his is a baptism of repentance – in order for us properly to understand Jesus, it is necessary that we, as John puts it a few verses back, “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Our hearts and our lives must be continually handed over to be reshaped by the power and presence of Jesus. This is why we speak of baptism as a dying to our old selves and a rising to new life in Christ.
And when the time finally came, Jesus looks not at all unlike David did at the beginning. A young, “working class” Jew from a small town, whose birth was shrouded in doubt and who had to this point pretty much stayed under the radar. But the Baptist knows better. It had already been revealed to him who Jesus was, nevertheless he was less than enthusiastic and very obviously confused when Jesus asked to be baptized by him. John says to Jesus that it is he, the one greater than John, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, who should baptize him. And when we think about it, this makes sense. Jesus had no need to repent of anything, and as John the Baptist is passionate to say, Jesus is greater than he is – but, as a great theologian says of this incident, “In order to be the perfect God-Man, the Son must receive as Man that which He possesses as God.” Now, I’m not going to launch into a metaphysical account of the Trinity and in the hypostatic union, so let’s note Jesus’ reply: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” We can put it like this, Here we have revealed a God who considers it right to identify with us in all things. His baptism is both like and unlike ours. Jesus’ baptism is also an anointing for kingship just like David, and like David, this anointing will bestow on him the power of the Holy Spirit.
Also like David, Jesus restores to Israel the presence of the Lord in the gift of the Holy Spirit. And like David, Jesus will unite Israel, in fact not only Israel but even the whole world, a kingship which knows no boundaries and honors no other authority – all kingdoms are subject to his rule. And our most powerful enemies, death and sin, he also conquers, bearing our own rebellion on the Cross and rising in victory.
But by describing this, it should be becoming clearer just in what way Jesus is also very different than David. His is not a military victory, it is not accomplished by violence and force – neither is his unity brought about by coming together around a capital city, but the whole earth is now a potential place where his Kingdom can break through. By looking at Jesus, we see just how it is that God works and how God wills for us to be. This way of working, this ruling, is very different than the way of ruling we see around us. It is perhaps even different than we should want it to be sometimes. Certainly when we see the ceaseless conflicts between nations on the news, when we look at the fact that this country is itself at war, we might might wish that God would come like the Baptist expected, with winnowing fork at hand to burn the chaff in unquenchable fire. But then, how good it is to know that God’s way of defeating his enemies is very different and diametrically opposed to the ways America and other countries defeat their enemies and secure their peace.
Let us always be thankful and marvel at a God who conquers by weakness, who identifies with and indeed, mysteriously becomes humble humanity, and who in our Baptism gives to us his Holy Spirit by which we are ourselves adopted as children of God so that we can experience his wonderful saving presence, as the collect for today goes:
“Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Saviour; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting, Amen.”