Scripture Readings: Matt. 3:12-17; Isaiah 42:1-9
What was the best Christmas gift you received this year? Three weeks after you received it, are you still enjoying it? Some gifts are “one-time-only” events, enjoyed as they are used up quickly. But there are other gifts which slowly open for us. This morning, we will savor together a gift given by God which, over time, deepens in meaning, and which continues to give, beyond all our expectations.
Did you see me pour the water from that pitcher over there into the basin? I was trying to make it splash, so you could all see it and hear it. The basin is our baptismal font, and I poured the water to remind us of the sacrament of baptism.
A sacrament is a gift which keeps giving. It is an act and a sign, a concrete means of encounter with God as well as a tangible symbol of our identity as God’s people. Now, here’s a pop quiz. Who can tell me how many sacraments we practice in the Presbyterian Church? (Two). And what are they? (Lord’s Supper and Baptism). Good job! While we regularly receive the Lord’s Supper together, we are only baptized once in our lives. Once we’ve gotten ourselves or our children baptized, we might tend to feel the sacrament is over and done. But, as we look at the story Jesus’ baptism, we can begin to see the way baptism, though it only happens once,is also a gift which keeps on giving over the whole course of our lives.
Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism reveals at least three aspects of this gift that God is giving us over the course of our lives of faith. Here’s a little rhyme to remember them: Making things right, the dove alights, with God’s delight.
First, making things right. All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, but Matthew’s version uniquely features a conversation between John the Baptist and Jesus. There we find out that, when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized, John wants to reject the gift. He’s just been preaching that the “more powerful one” is coming, the one whose sandals he is not fit to carry. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t the “more powerful one” do the baptizing, rather than get dunked by John in the muddy river alongside all these repentant sinners?
But Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Erin Martin puts it this way, “What John doesn’t yet understand, perhaps because Jesus’ ministry is just getting started, is that what it means for Jesus to be the greater one is for him to submit to the lesser one. Soon we will hear it everywhere Jesus goes: the last shall be first, the least greatest, the humble exalted. In Jesus’ baptism, we don’t hear Jesus preach this message; we see him embody it. Jesus’ gift to John is the gift of submission.” And it is Jesus’ submission that “fulfills all righteousness.”
What is righteousness? One author tells that his car broke down in Jerusalem, and after a mechanic had fixed it so that it was running well, the mechanic pronounced a word: “Zadik.” In the context, it means “it works,” but zadik is the also Hebrew word translated as “righteousness.” Jesus’ baptism reveals him to be that One, through whom God is making things work, repairing all the broken down things in our lives, righting wrongs, healing wounds, restoring people to right relationships with God, each another, and all creation.
Submitting to all God has called him to do, plunging in to get below the lowest sinner, Jesus Christ emerges from the water as God’s Beloved Child, God’s chosen Servant. Isaiah tells us, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Renouncing all sinful ways of violence and domination, Jesus goes down with and for every one of us, joining his life to ours, so that we can arise to the lives of blessing for which God created us.
Second, the dove alights. It is a serious gift, the gift of submission. When we are baptized, we are joined to the life of Christ such that we receive it for ourselves. How will we live into this transformation? Keith and I currently have the privilege toto accompany six bright and boisterous young people as they study Christian faith. The class is called “confirmation” because its purpose is to confirm the Christian identity conferred by baptism. Later this month, we will go on a mission trip, and as we help out at the Boise Rescue Mission and the Idaho Food Bank, we will be unwrapping another layer of the gift. To be a Christian is to serve others in the pattern of the Servant whose identity we are given in baptism.
It is a serious commissioning we receive. Yet let us not mistake the seriousness for heavy drudgery. When Jesus comes up from that water, having made things right, Matthew tells us that the heavens opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and alighting upon him. One commentator suggests this image is “akin to God’s anointing of prophets in the Old Testament,” preparation for and confirmation of Jesus’ mission as Messiah.
I love that image: to say the dove “alights” upon Jesus is so much better than just saying the dove “landed” on him. There is air and space and freedom about it. It says to me that the Holy Spirit is a gift which uplifts and upholds Jesus, rather than weighing him down. Now, Jesus’ mission on earth is certainly full of gravity. He teaches a challenging way of discipleship, and he suffers and dies for sinful humanity. But there is also lightness and joy.
Submitting to God’s will and depending on the Spirit’s power, Jesus is not burdened with anxieties we experience in trying to manipulate and control for our own agendas. He is freed from self-centered preoccupation, freed from destructive compulsions, freed for truly loving relationships. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus tells us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest….For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” My friends, if we are not experiencing lightness and joy, as individuals or as a community, in the service to which baptism calls us, than let us turn to God in prayer and ask for the renewing power of the Spirit to alight gently, but decisively upon us. For we have not only been buried, but we have been raised to new life in Christ.
To unwrap the gift of baptismal identity is to live into the joy of the resurrection, set free to serve as those who are blessed to be a blessing. For, the ultimate gift of our baptized lives is the last part of that rhyme: God delights. Our reading from Matthew concludes with that voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We also have Isaiah, speaking God’s words: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”
In baptism, we are turned from the ways of sin and given a fresh start in a life which is a delight to God. Do you know what it feels like to experience God’s delight? It is that welling up of joy inside we experience in giving of ourselves. Since God is the ultimate giver, we experience God’s delight when we pass on the gifts we’ve abundantly received.
The greatest gift Dean McIntire received one Christmaswas a card from a friend which contained a $10 bill and instructions to use the money as he though appropriate. Dean writes, “I had Ken’s $10 bill in my wallet when I stopped at the grocery store on my way to work one morning. In the checkout lane next to mine was an older couple who spoke in a thick east European accent of some kind. They did not have enough money to pay for their purchases, which appeared to me to be all staples—no frills or extras. They were having to decide which of their purchases to send back to the shelves. I gave Ken’s $10 to my own checker and asked her to give it anonymously to the young woman checking out the older couple. It covered their deficit and allowed them to keep a few dollars in their pocket. They were gratefully confused as I watched them head for the door.”
It may have seemed a small thing, but it turned out that Dean had received a gift that, through him, kept giving. And that is the way we receive the gifts of baptism, guided by the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways. We serve as we pray for our world, as we offer words of encouragement, and as we freely share our gifts, talents, money, and resources with those in need. And we receive anew the blessing which comes when we bless others, God’s delight welling up in us and spilling over.
This morning, you will have the opportunity to reaffirm your baptism, to accept and give thanks again for the tremendous gift we have received in Jesus Christ. If you have not yet been baptized, I invite you to not be afraid of taking part in this service of baptismal reaffirmation. If God stirs up the desire in you to participate, perhaps the right and proper time has come for you to be baptized. Keith and I invite you to come and speak to us after the service.
My friends, baptized into Christ, we are called and commissioned to live attuned to gravity, but also anointed and upheld in the delight of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In baptism the Holy Spirit alights upon us and calls us Beloved Sons and Daughters, freeing us to fly in lives which are blessed to be a blessing. Let us celebrate this gift, this day and every day. Amen.
 Erin Martin, “Baptized into submission,” Blogging Toward Sunday, Jan 07, 2008,
http://christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2008-01/baptized-submission. I was very influenced by Martin’s framing baptism as a gift.
 Martin, as above.
 Troy A. Miller, “Exegetical Perspective” on Matt. 3:13-17, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Bartlett and Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 241.
 Dean McIntire, quoted by Erin Martin as above.