As I sit here in a Hotel in Wellington, Aotearoa (New Zealand) having had two 5 plus earthquakes after midnight the last two nights, I am pondering on what really is important and who is really worthy. Yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, there are so many rich themes to draw from: the sacrament of baptism, preparation for ministry, fulfillment of scripture, and the significance of family are just a few that one can name. A powerful theme within Matthew 3 for this week focuses on Jesus’s preparation for formal ministry.
To truly appreciate Jesus’s and John’s interaction, we must take a step back. The sons of Elizabeth and Mary were related to one another. We can find that Mary spent time with Elizabeth during Elizabeth’s last trimester and early in Mary’s pregnancy. We don’t know if this interaction in Matthew 3 is Jesus’s first time meeting John face-to-face.
In the scriptures, we only find them interacting once, in this place located in the Jordan River. Here we find John, who is reaching the peak of his ministry, living in the margins of society calling for repentance in Yahweh (God’s) name. John has his own set of followers and disciples. Next, we find Jesus, who is beginning the formal stage of his ministry, approaching his older cousin John. What was the significance of John baptising Jesus in the Jordan River as Jesus was beginning his ministry? How do we discern which mentors, teachers, and spiritual leaders are the ones to follow?
What does it mean for us to hear God’s calling through mentoring and guidance of others? As we seek to discern God’s calling for each of us, how do we know who to listen to and how to be in alignment with God’s will? For those who will be in service this coming Sunday which has the theme of the Baptism of our Lord, congregations most likely expect a sermon on the baptism of Jesus or a general message on the meaning and significance of baptism for the life of a Christian. The problem with these preaching options in the year of Matthew is that the actual baptism of Jesus does not seem to be the point.
Rather, the narrative space, at least for Matthew, is given to the exchange between John and Jesus on John’s worthiness (or perceived unworthiness) to baptise Jesus. John’s question to Jesus, “Who? Me?” encapsulates the irony of the entire good news of Jesus. If we are honest, our response to God wanting to be with us, to be Emmanuel, is the same as John’s. That God would choose to be us elicits the same question, “Who? Us?” The radical promise of the incarnation should not wear off this close to Christmas, yet we easily leave it behind and replace it with our doubts, our questions, and even our denial.
“God with us” can be tolerated for only so long before we convince ourselves that God’s decision can’t really be true. John’s question to Jesus reminds us that we move too quickly away from the claim of Christmas and risk forgetting why Christmas occurred in the first place. As we enter this new year, I have in front of me some questions. These questions are namely, could a sermon on this text create a new experience of the meaning of Emmanuel through the lens of baptism? And, how can baptism be another expression of “God with us”? Something for not only Christians to ponder but those looking at us and assessing whether Emmanuel has value and importance for them.