- Rev. Sarina Odden Meyer
Humble Beginnings #1: John the Baptist & Jesus' Baptism
It is so nice to be back after a very relaxing vacation. Brett and I were marvelling that we go to sleep in. We hadn’t slept in in twelve years.
We are continuing to follow the narrative lectionary. This lectionary will take us through Matthew in the winter and all the way through Easter. We begin today with a sermon series called “Humble Beginnings.” Here we have the son of God, the Word become flesh, God in human form and he starts his earthly ministry with very humble beginnings. Our passage this morning starts not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist. And when we do get to Jesus, he is humbling himself coming to be baptized by John. What can we learn from this humble beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry?
As I said, our passage in Matthew begins with John the Baptist. And in fact, the Psalm we read this morning is called Zechariah’s song. Zechariah is John the Baptist’s father and he composed this song about his son. We see in verses 76-79 of our Luke passage what we can expect of John the Baptist: “And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Let’s see if we can see Zechariah’s song come to life in our Matthew passage.
In Matthew 3:2, John is telling people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This word repent is the translation of the Greek word metanoia and the Hebrew word shoov. It means to turn. It literally means, “turn away,” and implied in the word is that you are also turning towards something. In the tradition of the old testament and the new testament, God asks us to turn away from sin. Because when we turn away from sin we are turning towards God.
To the people John the Baptist says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But to the religious leaders he takes this message one step further. He sounds like the judgement prophets of old; it sounds a bit frightening. But his “demands” are quite reasonable. He is accusing the religious leaders of not leading the people towards God, but tells them in verse 8, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, John is telling them that they need to start doing things, they need to start living their lives in a way that demonstrates that they are turning away from sin. John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” which means, “The result of all you do should reflect turning away from sin.” And he follows this with warnings about judgement for the way they are currently living. He is trying to motivate them to repent: to turn away from their sins and to turn towards God.
In verse 11, John the Baptist also lets us know that someone greater than him is coming, one who is more powerful. This one is Jesus, and Jesus appears in verse 13. Now, it is clear from what John the Baptist says about the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that God is not pleased with them. However, at the end of Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” So, in Jesus, we should have an example of what is pleasing to God. Jesus is our model.
Over Christmas, I talked a lot about how Jesus’ birth is so amazing because it is the celebration of God becoming human. God decided to come down from heaven to be born as a human. That concept is called the incarnation and it means that God is with us. In fact it is in Matthew’s Gospel that we learn that Joseph should name the baby Jesus because he will save the people from their sins and that this is the fulfillment of the prophecy that God is with us. As I was thinking about Jesus as our model of turning away from sin (because he lived a life turned away from sin), I looked more closely at what happened during his baptism to see if we could learn anything from it.
In verse 16 it talks about how the Holy Spirit was involved in Jesus’ baptism, and it says this in the middle of verse 16, “and [Jesus] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” I am reading this book called Rehearsing Scripture by Anna Carter Florence where she talks about the importance of focusing on the verbs in Scripture. When I did that in this verse I noticed for the first time what the Spirit of God does. What is the verb? … The Spirit of God descending. Here we have God coming down to our level again. God comes down to be born as a human and God comes down as the Spirit descending to our level, our human level.
This is just like what we read in Hosea 11:4 today. In this passage, God is describing how God has cared for Israel as a loving parent cares for a child. At the end of verse 4, God says, “I bent down to them and fed them.” God, in the birth of Jesus, came down to the mortal world to live with us. And God, at Jesus’ baptism, came down again, in the form of the Spirit. The humble beginnings of Jesus’ birth and baptism involve God descending to be with us. God humbles Godself. These are definitely humble beginnings.
The other thing that I noticed when I carefully read the end of Matthew chapter 3:16, is that God gave us an image to imagine what it was like for the Spirit of God to descend. It says, “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a”...what? “Like a dove.” What does a dove make you think of? … In the ancient world, it would have made some people think of creation because in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the water like a bird. This imagery of the dove at Jesus’ baptism would inspire people to think of the new creation in Christ. The dove also symbolized life and salvation because it was the Dove that showed Noah when the flood was over. The dove showed them they would live, they were saved. And according to Philo, an ancient Jewish philosopher who lived at the time of Christ, the dove was also a symbol of wisdom. (Davies & Alison. Matthew 1-7. ICC. (T&T Clark: 2006), pp. 331-334). This is interesting given the discussion on wisdom in Proverbs 8. Wisdom was present in creation (here we have the idea of the new creation in Christ again), and also wisdom bears good fruit and turns away from evil. Here we have the idea of - bearing good fruit worthy of repentance - showing up again. The point of an image is not to have one meaning, but to inspire us to enter into what’s happening in a deeper way.
In addition to all of these meanings of the dove, for the early church (and for us today), the dove came to symbolize peace (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doves_as_symbols#Christianity). I think that all of these images of God are helpful for us when we think about the Spirit of God descending like a dove on Jesus at his baptism. Especially if we want to understand more deeply what John the Baptist is asking us to do by telling us to repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance.
We saw in Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:79 that John’s ministry, and then Jesus, would “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” And so thinking about how this applies to repentance, it might help to ask the the question, what is life like when we turn away from God and turn toward sin. We have an example of this in Hosea. In Hosea 11, the beginning of verse 7, it says, “My people are bent on turning away from me.” We see what the fruit of turning away from God is in verses 5-6. “They shall return to the land of Egypt.” What does this mean? Does anyone remember when Israel was in Egypt before and Moses had to rescue them? What had happened to Israel? ... Slaves. This means that when we turn away from God, we becomes slaves to bad things. The next part says, “and Assyria shall be their king.” If the reference to Egypt meant becoming a slave, what does the reference to Assyria mean? … Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and took tribute from the southern kingdom. Then they tried to conquer the southern kingdom when Hezekiah was king and we know they were very violent because archaeologists found those 12 stone slabs about the storming of Lachish. We also know that around this time there was no justice because Habakkuk wrote about that. So, this reference to Assyria being their king means that they will be conquered and oppressed, and have violence and no justice. Then in verse 6, it says that the sword rages and devours, and there is a lot of scheming. Turning away from God and following sin creates slavery, being conquered, oppression, violence, and prevents justice. Turning towards sin has pretty terrible consequences.
John the Baptist is saying repent, turn away from sin, turn towards God. The fruit of repentance that John is talking about is actually a gift and promise to us. It is not a threat, but rather will lead to good in our lives. It shines a light to chase away the darkness of sin, and brings peace into our lives. As we read in Luke 1:78-79, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In Jesus’ humble beginning of his earthly ministry, he goes to John to be baptized. And the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove. John himself said at the end of Matthew 3:11 that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus, we learned that when we receive the Holy Spirit we are new creations. We are given new life and salvation. We are given wisdom to guide us to keep repenting, to keep turning away from sin and turning towards God. We are given peace. The fire, at first glance seems threatening, but it’s not. It’s refiner’s fire, burning away sin so that we can really grow.
These humble beginnings seem insignificant at first glance, but they are not. God becoming human is humble, yet powerful. Jesus being baptized and the Spirit of God descending like a dove are humble, yet powerful. Likewise, repentance seems unimportant, but it is important. It is humble, yet powerful. By first humbling ourselves we can really turn away from sin. It is through repentance that we come to Jesus. It is through repentance that we live in light and find peace. It is through repentance that we find salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Amen.