Summary: In our baptism, God's love takes root and grows through our ministry to others in the name of Christ.
Endings and beginnings. We think about them a lot at the start of each New Year. With this passage of time, we mark all that has happened in the last twelve months, and we anticipate what the coming year will hold. As Ken and I prepared for activities with my family on New Year's Eve day, Ken commented to me, "This is the last day of the year in which we got married!" And later that same morning, without any knowledge of Ken's earlier statement, my sister said, "This is the last day of Bryce's birth year!" Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we make note of significant endings and beginnings, and this happens especially at the turn of each year. I have some friends, and perhaps some of you do this as well, who pull out a journal at the end of each year and write about all that has happened that year. And then they write about their hopes for the coming year. Then the next year, they pull that journal out again and compare all that has happened with their hopes for that year. It seems like a really neat idea to me, and it is certainly a way to mark the many endings and beginnings in our lives.
To be sure, we have a lot of milestones in our lives. Points where we mark the ending of one thing or the beginning of another, or perhaps a single event that does both, like a graduation. It's interesting to think of baptism in this context of endings and beginnings. As we reflect back on our own baptisms, or perhaps anticipate our baptism in the future, we might see it in different ways. Perhaps some of us see it as an ending, the end of a life lived without knowing of the full claim of God’s love and grace. Maybe others of us see it as the beginning, the start of a special relationship between ourselves and God. There may be others of us to see it as both. It's easy to look at baptism and simply rank it among the other milestones of our lives; the end of one thing or the beginning of another. But baptism is much more than a graduation or a new job, it holds significance far beyond the common milestones of our lives. And to understand the full significance of our baptisms, it is helpful to look at Jesus' baptism.
Naturally, we might wonder why it is that Jesus even had a baptism. John’s question of Jesus is probably one that many of us have. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist very plainly says that he offers a baptism of repentance for this forgiveness of sins. And yet, Jesus comes to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, the very son of God himself. Though fully human, he is also fully divine; pure, and holy, and without sin. Why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? It's easy to understand John's reluctance to immerse Jesus' sacred head in the same muddy water with which he has baptized the unruly mob of sinners that now stand on the banks. But Jesus persists. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness,” he tells John. Then, Matthew tells us, John consents.
Apparently, John understood why Jesus needed to be baptized. But if you are like me, it seems as if Jesus’ statement is about as clear as mud. That is, until Jesus emerges from the water. At which point, Matthew tells us, the heavens open, a dove descends and a voice declares, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” With this claim from God, suddenly the purpose of Jesus’ baptism is clear. The righteousness of which Jesus speaks is not a position or standing that he is seeking before God; not at all. Jesus’ baptism is about discipleship. In his baptism, Jesus is showing his submission and obedience to God the Father. Jesus’ baptism is about all those people standing on the banks of the Jordan River. And it’s about all of us too. Jesus came for all of us. And the one who is now being baptized by human hands, with a clear call to repentance ringing in the background, is also the one who will usher in God’s kingdom and bring the good news of forgiveness to those same human hands. Jesus’ baptism is not about him, it’s about us! And it wasn’t just his baptism, Jesus’ whole ministry is about his consistent service to God the Father and to those for whom he is bringing the gospel. It is only proper that his baptism would mark not an ending, but a transformation, and the beginning of his ministry.