Isaiah 42. 1-9; Acts 10. 34-43; Matthew 3. 13-end
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’Matthew 3. 13-end
When I was out in Kenya just over a year ago, I met an old man named Eustace who came from a remote village on Mount Kenya. In the 1950s, someone had come to the village and told them about Jesus Christ. Eustace was so drawn to the stories of Jesus that he decided to become a Christian. He was told that an important part of becoming a Christian was to be baptised. But there was no minister or church in his village where this could happen. So, Eustace and another boy decided to walk to the nearest church in order to be baptised. They were only about 14, they were barefoot, and – it was a three-day walk. That would have been like you or me taking off our shoes after church this morning and leaving them at the door for Veronica to trip over, and then us walking from here to Chester Cathedral. Barefoot. I’m not sure how many of us would even get as far as the Cock and Pheasant! But getting baptised meant that much to Eustace. And he made it! It is an awesome thought.
Our reading this morning in Matthew tells the lovely, gracious story of the baptism of Jesus. How one day Jesus walked out of the obscurity of his village life in Nazareth down to the Jordan in order to meet up with John, and to be baptised. The story in Matthew takes up only four verses – but how rich in meaning it is!
It is well worth remembering some of the bigger picture around it, in order to fully appreciate just what happened that day at the Jordan. First of all, John the Baptist had arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt, and his baptism was shockingly new. Never before, in all history, had any Jew submitted to being baptised. Of course, the Jews knew and used baptism, but it was only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that a sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptised, in order to clean them up a bit. But no Jew had ever dreamed that they, a member of the chosen people, and assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners on the outside, and no Jew ever thought of themselves as a sinner shut out from God, for were they not sons and daughter of Abraham?
So John the Baptist was a real shock to the Jews. His fiery message that they too were doomed unless they, too, repented, was unprecedented. For the first time in their national history the Jews woke up to their own need of baptism. And they did wake up! Hundreds and probably thousands of them went out to John the Baptist. Never in all of Jewish history had there been such a unique movement of penitence and of search for God. No wonder that the countryside was in an uproar, with everyone discussing repentance. It must have been a bit like Brexit, with people arguing on both sides, but no one staying neutral. Love it or loath it, you thought about it.
Which is exactly why God had sent John the Baptist in the first place – to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
This was now Jesus’ opportunity, the perfect and prepared time for his public ministry to begin. The way had been prepared for the Messiah, and here he was, ready at the Jordan, asking John for baptism. It seems an odd beginning for a Messiah, to seek baptism. And down the centuries, many people have wondered why on earth Jesus would chose to be baptised. Even John was astonished! But in his baptism Jesus was identifying himself with the people whom he came to save. In the hour of their new consciousness of their sin, and of their search for God, Jesus’ baptism was his way of publicly declaring that he, too, needed to live a life consecrated and holy before God, doing only what the Father commanded him to do.
What about the voice that Jesus heard at the baptism? The words are of supreme importance. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. That sentence is composed of two quotations. ‘My beloved son’ comes from Psalm 2, which every Jew knew was a description of the Messiah, the mighty King, sent from God, who was to come. ‘In whom I am well pleased’ is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which is a description of the Suffering Servant. So at the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven was declaring two certainties: that Jesus was indeed the chosen One of God, chosen to be King, and the certainty that the way in front of Him would be the way of suffering – the way of the Cross.
And so, the dove descended gently upon Jesus. With it, Jesus was given the power of the Holy Spirit. From now on, in full obedience to the Father, and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus would fulfil his calling. He would be the Messiah, both as suffering servant, obedient unto death, and then – as king of kings, lord of Lords, at whose name one day every knee under heaven will bow.
And so yes, my friend Eustace in Kenya was right to take his baptism so seriously all those years ago. It was his declaration that he was repenting of his sins, and dying in order to rise again with Jesus to new life. He was reborn in Christ. Eustace went on with his faith in God. He somehow got to university in Nairobi, and became a university lecturer and a local church leader. Today he is retired, but has the pastoral oversight of about 20 churches, and is on the board of a big medical mission in Nairobi. His life has been so fruitful for God, and it began all those years ago with a barefoot teenager, walking lonely miles in order to be baptised and so declare his commitment to Jesus.