Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 The Baptism of the Lord Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7 Acts 10:34–38 Matthew 3:13–17
The importance of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew cannot be overemphasized. He marks the transition between the Old and the New Testaments. Since Matthew was writing for the Jews, it was important that this sense of continuity be clear. It was also important to be clear that the good news is about the Messiah and not John.
Immediately before the event in today’s Gospel, John had reminded the Pharisees that having Abraham as a father was not enough to guarantee their salvation. Many Jews believe that their relationship to Abraham would assure them that they would be safe in the world to come. At the same time, he reminded them that the One who was to come would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. For the Jews, the Spirit was the bringer of gifts that would eliminate the prejudices that kept people from recognizing God’s truth.
The need for repentance was inherent in all of John’s preaching. Despite their reliance on Abraham, the Jews saw a turn from evil to God in their actions as necessary. The Old Testament is replete in its command to turn away from sin.
John’s baptism and Christian baptism are obviously different. Our sacrament is entry into a community. John’s was penitential and symbolized conversion. The early Church had difficulty understanding why Jesus — sinless and not in need of conversion — would be baptized by John. Beyond that, the Jews knew and used baptism, but only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. Only in Matthew do we find a dialogue between John and Jesus that addresses the problem. Matthew tells us that from the very beginning Jesus comes to do his Father’s will, which means obeying the Law. The Kingdom of God is shown in Jesus because he does all God requires. Jesus was baptized not because he needed to be baptized but because it is God’s will. The community needed him to identify himself with the people and their need for conversion.
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The words remind us of Isaiah, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold,” an allusion to the Suffering Servant of God. This was the Son and Servant affirmed by the Father whose will he had come to accomplish. Scripture scholars regard this voice as a private experience of Jesus. The Words, then, were meant primarily for Jesus. This is an affirmation that we need to hear too. We need to know that the Father intended that Jesus give himself for us. At his baptism, Jesus entered his public life. He embarked on the path that would ultimately lead him to an ignominious death.
As Christians, we take upon ourselves the obligation to do Christ’s work in the world. Like the Baptist, our role is to lead others to the Lord who will bring the light of faith to the blind and free us from the imprisonment of our own personalities.
The time for wallowing in the luxury of the Infant Jesus is passed. A task lies before us. Together we promise to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” through love and service to the community.