Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 29 "I need to be baptized by you...” The early Church really did not know quite what to make of John’s Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, as described to us in today’s Reading from the Gospel of Matthew. The prevailing view apparently was that it should never have happened in the first place since Jesus was obviously greater than John, and in any case he was not in need of the Baptism of Repentance preached so ardently by John. Some in the early Church even went so far as to call the Baptism of Jesus an embarrassing mistake. The Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written, does not so much as mention it. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" says John the Baptist in today’s account with a note of surprise, maybe even shock. And this is of course the issue in a nutshell. And somewhat frustratingly perhaps, Matthew’s Jesus does not give John much of an answer to his quite sensible question; saying in essence and a bit cryptically, just “let it be so now,” interestingly the very first words uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “Let it be so...” The early Church however, and Christians ever since, could not simply let it be so. And so, scholars and theologians have over the centuries sought to offer meaning and context to the reality of Jesus’ Baptism. Baptism as a religious rite has of course a long history and pedigree in many of the religions of the world, including Judaism and Islam. For the Jews of John’s time, regular ablutions were apparently commonplace, representing a sort of symbolic cleansing from ritual impurity, an impurity which was not necessarily to be confused with outright sinfulness. And until John came along, people in essence washed, or baptized if you will, themselves pretty much as you and I washed our own hands and face this morning without anyone’s help. John on the other hand personally baptized, or washed, the people who came to him at the Jordan, presumably one at a time, suggesting for the first time that one could not, of one’s own efforts, bring about either ritual purity or for that matter forgiveness of sin. Even today, no one can baptise herself or himself. You need someone else to do it. You need others. You need community. John was also unique in his call for more than simple ritual purity in accordance with arbitrary laws and customs, as important as that may have been. John demanded more. He demanded inner repentance for sin and a Baptism of Repentance. And that was new. And it was perhaps this, as much as his firebrand preaching, that drew people to him, including our Lord. People, it seems, instinctively knew or felt in their hearts that rote compliance on their own part with innumerable rules and regulations and ritual ablutions
could not bring inner peace. Yet at some deeper and perhaps even more troubling level, neither could repentance, as they came to see in our Lord’s preaching, if it was purely an act of one’s own volition and desire, an attempt thereby to win God’s favour. You cannot, in other words, make God love or forgive you, no matter how hard you try. And, that too was and is a problem. That too was something new. And still is. Jesus and his Gospel message offer a solution. At his Baptism, it seems to me, our Lord takes upon himself the sins of all humankind and receives John’s Baptism of Repentance on behalf of us all. Perhaps this is why he simply says, let things be so for now. In our Lord’s Baptism, repentance is no longer the action or decision of the individual alone. It is a grace and a gift from God, freely given and freely bestowed to humankind in Christ. You still cannot make God love you. But then, in Christ you no longer need to try. Jesus humbled himself before John in order to inaugurate his work of redemption of all humankind. Thus, the ancient Fathers of the Church called Jesus’ Baptism both the end of the ancient, exclusively Hebrew, Covenant, as important as it was and for many remains, and simultaneously the beginning of the new Covenant of grace, or “all righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus describe it, a Covenant which is then sealed by the words from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved.” These words in turn find their final fulfillment at the Cross, when the Centurion, a kind of Everyman, declares, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.” Indeed, he was. What to make of it...? Well, our Baptism in a way is also an embarrassing mistake. It should not have to be. It should not be the case that sin should still exist, much less that we should so readily and eagerly engage in it. It should not be that evil exists in the world; that madmen lead nations to war and destruction; that the wealthy exploit the impoverished; and every man and woman is too often ruled by instincts of self-importance and selfishness. Nowadays after all, software engineers tell us that even computer programmes and Smart-Phone applications learn from their mistakes and auto-correct. Surely, humankind should be able to do as much. Surely by now, corruption and sin should have long ago ceased; and the justice and righteousness of which our Lord speaks should rule the lands. Yet what John proclaimed so long ago at the Jordan still holds true: If we cannot seem to perfect human nature, and at a deeper level I fear we cannot, then we must at least accept the Baptism of Repentance; the Baptism of grace and all righteousness; the Redemption ultimately won for us at the Cross and in the Resurrection. Our Baptism is a sharing in that Redemption and so a sharing in our Lord’s Baptism as well. The Baptism of each of us is a poignant reminder that Christ’s work of Redemption is far from over, for the world around us is still a world of sin and madness from which we cannot escape, except through the grace of God. Except through the Cross. Yet in Christ and in his Baptism, we find hope after all for the world and for ourselves. Our Lord’s Baptism, and ours, remain works-in-progress as long as human nature is, well, human nature. Importantly, Matthew’s Gospel seems to be the only one which suggests that the words spoken from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," are heard not just by Jesus but also by John and those surrounding our Lord at his Baptism. For, these are words which make us one with Christ, which make us too the Beloved with whom God is well pleased. Far from being the embarrassing mistake of ancient sages, our Lord’s Baptism, and our own, is the beginning of salvation and our Redemption. To which we can only echo the words of our Lord, let it be so.
Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs