Baptism of Jesus A, 2008
Matthew 3:13-17

Liturgy is also available


During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post Christmas ritual
of disassembling the lounge room christmas tree.

The fairy lights and decorated wreaths and been packed away.
The last remaining spot of candle grease removed from the dining room table.
        And the christmas cards been dropped of at the local Post Office,
        a donation to ‘Planet Ark’.

Family home guardians called cupboards and ‘under beds’
have once again received their annual ‘gifts’
and will not be invaded for another 11 months. 
        It’s back to reality!
        Time to get back into the public demands
                of commuting and work and all that.


In the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’
let me then pose a couple of questions.
How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight?
And how do we act once we are out in the public view?

Parties, media releases and performances
are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view.

But something which has stuck with me for nearly 35 years now,
is a query contained in an article I read in a 1970s copy of On the Move
a magazine produced by the then Joint Board of Christian Education -
and written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.

The query?
How can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations,
to include those important special stages of life - such as
        applying for a first job,
        or leaving home to go to university,
        or heading off overseas for 12 months?

What rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate,
as those among us step out into the public spotlight
in these ‘first time’ public events?

I am left with the conclusion we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that yet.
Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket.
        Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate.

On the other hand the church has been reasonably successful
in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry.
        In mine and others cases, for instance, the ritual was ordination.


The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew,
is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus
into the public spotlight.

And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself,
others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so.
For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ is of the one
who will “establish justice upon the earth”...
through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus
has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story.

For instance, only Matthew: 
• includes a conversation between John the baptiser and Jesus;
• recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request; 
• stresses the public character of the baptism - the ‘voice’ addresses everyone.

And the baptism of Jesus was also a very controversial subject.
John was not the first to baptise people.
Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptise other Jews. 
Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew:
“No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God's salvation, could ever need baptism...” (Barclay 1956:52-53).

(I have also said elsewhere...
However, it still needs to be said: (i) Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports’ but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community, (ii) that tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptising Jesus, and (iii) the John baptism was not a Christian baptism!

Grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is also tricky business.  There is no consistent or one New Testament view so that understanding should be abandoned.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism.  Only that Paul already met with baptism.) (Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities.
Especially the debate around the different style and theology
of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptiser!

Dom Crossan also puts this in context for us:
“The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful”
  (Crossan 1991:232).

That’s right!
We have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists
that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life.
        Like us, but not one of us.

So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise
by setting a good public example?

Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance.
He was content to be identified along with
        the tax collectors,
        the lowly,
        the outsider.

Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister now living in Victoria, suggests:
“Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons...  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity...” 
(Bruce Prewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue.
In Matthew’s era and in our era.
        And no doubt all of you
        will have your own opinion on this issue as well.

I am sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively
and aware of the raging debates of his time.

But I am also inclined to the view the reason he told this story
was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’
to the life of the man Jesus who’s vision
would enlarge their experiences of God.


Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism.
And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism.
        For the refreshing waters of baptism
        enlivens, and nurtures us each new day.

But more than that, it reminds us that we live in God
and that Creativity God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us.
        And I reckon that’s worth ‘coming out’ and celebrating!

Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.