Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 8, 2023
Matthew 3:13-17 Commentary
In the early third century church, it was the baptism of Jesus that focused the Epiphany celebration, not the visit of the Magi. In fact, Epiphany was included with Easter and Pentecost as the major Christian festivals marked by the Church (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). In the fourth century, Epiphany came to the Western churches, and it was in their midst that the shift from Jesus’s baptism to the visit of the Magi took hold. (Hence most of the focus for our modern churches.) This year of the Lectionary helps us connect with an otherwise unknown history of Christianity.
Jesus’s baptism is theologically understood as his anointing to ministry. In each of the four gospel accounts, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) going so far as to say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove.
A number of scholars have helpful reflections about how this detail of the dove is part of the meta-narrative of Scripture. Davies and Allison, for instance, remind us that the Spirit “brooded” over the waters as creation commenced, and here a Holy Spirit “dove” descends upon an entirely new creation (the incarnation) which will usher in the new creation to come.
Further to the point, some exegetes have pointed out that it was a dove used to mark the end of judgement after the flood. When the dove returned to the ark with an olive branch, and then when the dove did not return at all, the earth was dry and God told Noah to bring all livings things back to land.
But I am especially caught up on Dale Bruner’s sense of meaning about the dove for the church. In the first volume of his commentary on Matthew, Bruner writes of the Holy Spirit Dove:
She does not come in a form that might have been suggested by John [the Baptist’s] just proceeding portraiture (fire, axe, shovel)—like an eagle, lion, or tiger. The remarkable office of the Spirit is to nuance strength, to modulate power, and to deliver what is deeply needed in common and public life—the way of gentleness.
For Bruner, the symbol and method of the anointing matches the character of the task that Jesus takes on and calls his followers to embody. Bruner continues,
That the Christian Spirit is identified with a dove should have world-historical significance. When the church grasps even a portion of the gospel’s downward and dovelike message—theologically (the humility of God, grace) and ethically (gentleness, nonviolence)—the church will be in a stronger position than she now is under a frequently nationalistic and so inevitably militaristic spirit. Christians are given power by the gift of the Spirit in baptism. But it is dove power. (The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, p. 110, revised and updated in 2007)
Dove power. Even the fiery John the Baptist immediately receives God’s will with humility, agreeing to baptise Jesus in order to fulfill righteousness. The word used to describe John’s “consent” carries a lot of legal undertones about releasing from responsibility or obligation, either of someone else or one’s self. Is John releasing himself, releasing Jesus, or Yahweh?
John is brought to this position of humility because of the humility that Jesus shows. Jesus comes to him from Galilee in order to be baptised even though John’s baptism is about repentance—something Jesus has no need of! And yet, it is God’s will; this partnering with humanity by undertaking the baptism of repentance shows Jesus’s commitment to us. Even in this, our humility is born from the gift of his.
In point of fact, Jesus’s words, spoken with such humility, are the first he says in the gospel of Matthew. So along with the clear message of dove power, we have a message of humility in pursuit of God’s righteousness. And, as we consider that we have the baptism that John promised Jesus would provide, a baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, we realize that our baptism is laid out for us here in what Jesus experienced: dove power received with humility, coming to know the Father’s voice as he calls us his beloved children.
Like so many of these early gospel stories we’ve been remembering during Advent and Christmas, it strikes me yet again how important it is for us to remember how much of these events happened because other humans humbly said yes to God, becoming part of God’s unexpected path of righteousness, and how those tasks were made by a God who humbled God’s very self to include us.
We run the risk of thinking that God’s big and important work is over—of subconsciously thinking that God will not ask us to do something so vital to his renewal of all things. The metanarrative has been written and set, after all, and we’re just waiting its fulfillment with Jesus’s return. But the Holy Spirit continues to descend upon us, continues to fill us, continues to call us to paths of righteousness through peace. Will we humbly consent to the humble Spirit who guides us in the way of Christ?
Matthew’s account is the only one of the four that has Jesus speak to John prior to the baptism. (The Gospel of John presents some of the same ideas, but as a speech from John, not a dialogue between John and Jesus.) This makes Jesus’s explanation about why he is being baptised unique to Matthew. In verse 15 Jesus says, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” In essence, Jesus says to John, “This is the way that God would have it,” and this convinces John to agree.
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the St. John’s Bible, the first of its kind in the modern era. Along with its hand-written script, it’s filled with numerous illuminations of biblical stories. The art that depicts Jesus’s baptism is an especially interesting one to me. (Here’s a close-up of it from a story by the CBC.) John figures prominently at the front of the piece, while a very small, golden-coloured Jesus (the colour that signifies the divine throughout the manuscript Bible) is almost lost in the crowd of people around him and the golden heavens opening up above him. John appears to be walking away, palm open, stepping aside for the one he has proclaimed to take his rightful place as the connection between heaven and earth. To me, it feels less like John’s work is done and more like a picture of his humility and consent: he does as God wills and he gets out of the way of what God will do next.
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