On this, the last day of the Christmas season, our Gospel reveals to us Jesus’ relation to God: the son of Mary and Joseph is also God’s own Son. The baptism of Jesus is reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Clearly, it was an event of great significance for Jesus and for the early Christian community. The Evangelist Luke report the story from Jesus’ perspective; the voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus.
John was at the Jordan River (the place where the people of Israel crossed over into the promised land), It was to this place, and into this context, that Jesus came to be baptized. Now, we Christians need to remember that our basic understanding of baptism—and of our own baptism—comes from Jesus and from what happened at his baptism, and from what happened after and because of his baptism.
When Jesus was baptized, no one told him what to do. John the Baptist didn’t tell him what to do. And God the Father didn’t tell Jesus what to do, either. The Father told Jesus who Jesus was, how the Father regarded him—“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But there’s nothing in there about what Jesus was supposed to do
Remember, Jesus was a real person who had to make real decisions, just like we do—he wasn’t a puppet or God the Father in a people-suit. Jesus didn’t decide what to do in a vacuum. He lived in his particular world, and that means that he was surrounded by a variety of traditions and expectations of what it meant to be the Messiah, the beloved.
Guided by that spirit he received at his baptism, Jesus did go to the usual Bible verses for his vision of what it meant to be the beloved of the Father, but he went to a fairly obscure part of the Bible—to a part no one, up until then, had much bothered with.
He went to the servant songs of the prophet Isaiah—four powerful poems. (The part of Isaiah we just heard is right in the middle of them. In these passages, God’s chosen one is portrayed not as a king or conqueror—but as a servant: gentle, patient, and burdened with pain. He is a servant who somehow, mysteriously and through his obedient suffering, redeems not only Israel, but all of humanity.
In these passages, the servant of God, the beloved, fulfils none of the popular expectations of a messiah. Instead, he embraces a faithful obedience that leads only through great affliction to his justification and to the victory of God. It’s no accident that the Church insists that we hear these reading from Isaiah during Christmas, during Epiphany, and during Holy Week.
When Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, he was given his identity just like we are at our own baptisms—he was named beloved of God, just like we are. He had to decide where to look to discover how he was to live out that identity. There were lots of options; there still are.
On this Sunday, we should reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant to remind ourselves that we, too, have been named beloved of God and that we, too, must live that out day by day. What does that look like? What will that look like today and for the rest of our lives? Jesus thought about this. Of all the options he could have taken, he chose the image of the servant, the one who gives up everything for the sake of faithful obedience to God’s word. Today, we again choose Jesus and his vision. That is our glory and our challenge.