Olu Brown: Jesus' Baptism--Hope for the World

Matthew's Gospel narrates Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in Matthew chapter 2, the beginning of his earthly ministry in Matthew chapter 4, stories of his healing crusades also in Matthew chapter 4, even his crucifixion on the cross of Calvary and his resurrection from a borrowed tomb in Matthew chapters 27 through 28.

Matthew's Gospel covers Jesus' entire life experience on earth. This is what separates the Gospel of Matthew from Luke, John and Mark. So, it's only fitting that the Gospel of Matthew recorded Jesus being baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist. In the Gospels, most of the narratives about Jesus are related in his public ministry only. Very few times do we see the intimate glimpses into Jesus' personal life and his spiritual journey. In just a few short verses, the Gospel of Matthew quickly covered Jesus' birth and lineage in chapters one and two and the tension surrounding his parent's attempt to protect his life and destiny from Herod. As quickly as Matthew gave the brief biographical and geographical sketches of Jesus' birth and pre-teen years, chapter 3 shifts to Jesus as an adult beginning his earthly ministry and sharing the Good News with a world in need of God's grace and God's mercy.

The scene that we see during Christmas is so brief in Matthew's Gospel because shortly after the nativity scene, then we see an adult Jesus Christ who is on his way to Calvary's cross. One of the most significant parts of Matthew Chapter 3 is Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It is also important to understand Jesus' connection and closeness to John the Baptist. As mentioned earlier, they were cousins; in the Gospel of Luke 1, when Mary, Jesus' mother, received confirmation that she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit, like anyone she was a bit in awe but yet she was excited and she ran to talk to her cousin, Elizabeth, to share the announcement. Of course, today in modern-day times, she would have posted on social media, but in antiquity, she had to run to the next house, the next town. When she arrived and saw Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, John began to leap within his mother's womb.

John the Baptist baptizing his cousin who was the savior of the world was extremely important and symbolic. The two of them who first met in their mother's wombs were now together again at Jesus' baptism. This had to be an "Ah" moment for John the Baptist who had spent his ministry baptizing others and now to see at a distance and now up close his cousin Jesus asking to be baptized by him. Who could have ever imagined his ministry would have ever evolved to this place and time?

As a pastor of a local church, one of the great experiences I have had is baptizing individuals and standing with their family and friends during this wonderful sacrament in the life of the Christian church. Although, I understand my role as a lead or senior pastor, I have always been willing to yield my position to an ordained family member such as a grandparent or relative who would like to share in the baptism experience of their loved one. There is a sign of connectedness when family members share in the baptism of their loved ones. Although Jesus' baptism was packed in just a few short verses, I imagine for his family, this was a very memorable moment to see his cousin baptizing him in the Jordan River.

Not only have I been fortunate to have family members share in the baptism of their loved ones, I have also seen and been blessed to share in baptism experiences in multiple contexts. There are times when Christians feel a baptism has to follow a particular rule or order or location, but I am so glad Jesus was baptized in a river which helped people understand that the location or style of baptism is never as important as the act of baptism itself. Historically, there are those who have been baptized in fields, lakes, hospital rooms, college campuses, churches and large public outside baptism ceremonies all over the world. Each of these locations and styles of baptism may have been uniquely different from the other, but all are vital and significant. As you celebrate your baptism or the baptism of others, don't be overly concerned or critical about the location or style, but give God praise for the act of baptism and the grace of God in the life of the person being baptized. I am so glad that even the savior of the world was willing to be baptized by John the Baptist. It serves as a model of hope and humility to each of us living today. Yes, the baptism of Jesus Christ is hope for our world.

Perhaps you are contemplating baptism or concerned about being baptized, Jesus opens the way and opportunity for each of us to be baptized and to celebrate this wonderful ceremony, not by ourselves alone but with family and friends, who know that the grace of God not only is present within us but in the community that serves as witnesses. There's nothing to be afraid of related to baptism. There is nothing to be ashamed of about baptism, because baptism is our opportunity to be joined together in a community of faith for Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus' baptism is hope for the world.

As we reflect on Jesus' baptism in Matthew's gospel, we see that Jesus had a personal and spiritual preparation process. Even though Jesus is the Son of God, the gospels demonstrate his personal and spiritual preparation that led all the way to his crucifixion on the cross of Calvary. In Matthew 13:57 the following profound words are recorded, "But Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.'" This scripture gave a glimpse into Jesus' personal life while traveling to and from his hometown, and that he wasn't able to do many miracles there because to those who knew him best he had become a common individual. Sometimes prophets are accepted the least in the places and spaces that know them the best. I appreciate Matthew for giving us a view into Jesus' personal journey and helping us understand, in many ways, his path was not unlike that of all of humanity, experiencing joy and pain along the way. These personal moments in Jesus' life were part of his preparation and the fulfillment of the scriptures. Throughout Jesus' earthly ministry, he was being prepared for Calvary: whether it was the rejection he experienced in his hometown or the awkward witnessing moment to a Woman at the Well in John Chapter 4, who went on to be a great evangelist in the Gospel of John. His baptism by John the Baptist was a part of his overall personal preparation that continued to allow humanity to identify with him as both divine and human.

Yes, Jesus was the son of almighty God, but he was also the son of a carpenter who grew up much like each and every one of us. That's why is baptism is hope for the world, because his story is much like our story and because there is great hope in his story of baptism, we also have great hope in our lives today.

In addition to the personal preparation, we also see spiritual preparation. Reflecting on Jesus' baptism narrative in Matthew's Gospel, I think about my faith tradition as a United Methodist pastor. In the Methodist tradition, baptism is seen as "an act that looks back with gratitude on what God's grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God's grace, and it looks forward to what God's grace will accomplish in the future." [United Methodist Book of Worship. United Methodist Publishing House. Nashville, TN, 1992. Pgs. 81-82.)

Think about it. Baptism is a sign of God's grace that is already at work within our lives. Sometimes, as people prepare personally and spiritually for baptism, they think that it is a moment when they will receive God's grace for the first time. But no, theologically God's grace has always been with us and will always be with us. And so, in that moment of baptism, it is an affirmation of what God has already done.

Through baptism, Jesus represented the fulfillment of God's grace and love for all of humanity, and although Jesus was both divine and human, his time of baptism marked the beginning of his earthly ministry and his own continual spiritual preparation. Shortly after Jesus' baptism, in Matthew Chapter 4, Jesus went into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Once again, Jesus encourages humanity by helping us understand that although we prepare personally and spiritually, we will still face the attacks and blockades by the enemy, but we are called to hold fast and persevere.

Today, like Jesus, God is preparing you personally and spiritually for your journey. And it is my hope that you would be encouraged along the way and know that Jesus is your example of hope through God Almighty.

In addition to Jesus' personal and spiritual preparation, his baptism moment in Matthew's gospel was also an opportunity for God to affirm to the world, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." That is a hopeful statement that we all want to hear in our lives, perhaps from a parent, a guardian, a loved one. It makes a child feel special and loved when they can see an elder from the community look at them and declare to the world, "This is my child, whom I love. This is my child, who is special not only to me but is special to the entire world." This was more than a general statement by God Almighty; it was a divine affirmation setting Jesus apart from all other humanity. Thanks be to God that God was willing to place an announcement of favor and grace over Jesus' life to remind the world that God was not only with Jesus but also with us. So, when you hear God saying, "This is my child", hear God telling you, "You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love. And with you, I am well pleased." This is why Jesus' baptism is hope for the world.

It would seem unnecessary for God to say publicly, this is my son with whom I am pleased, because I am more than confident that God was sure of His relationship to Christ and Christ was sure of his relationship with God. So, what was the purpose of this public declaration if it wasn't for God and Christ primarily? Here is the answer. It was for the people to know and be assured that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of Almighty God.

We aren't clear if this was a private baptism between John and Jesus or if others were close by, but in any case, I am sure news traveled fast like the social media era we are living in today. From town to town, people heard and talked about what happened at Jesus' baptism. God's public affirmation of Jesus at his baptism is a sure and certain hope to the world that Jesus is the Christ and the Savior of the world. Historically, we know there were other Jesus-like characters during the time that Jesus walked the earth who were false prophets, and I am sure when some were introduced to Jesus, they may have been a little skeptical.

Even today, when people are introduced to Jesus, they may be skeptical because of those who may not have acted out of the true character of Christ and misled others along the way. I rejoice in the fact that God spoke a word of affirmation over Jesus so that the world would know that he is the One. I know today some of you aren't quite sure of who Jesus is. Perhaps you had a loved one who had a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and you thought that your loved one was unique, and that loved one was the only person who could have a special relationship with Christ. But that's not true.

Thanks be to God for God's words of affirmation over Jesus and those are the same words of affirmation over your life. God loves you. God has claimed you. And God is pleased with you.

I believe God's words were also important for John to hear since so much of his ministry was built on preparing the way for Jesus, so in that very moment, he had to be affirmed as well and to know that his ministry work had not been in vain. There are times when we live out the plan and purpose that God has for our lives when we aren't quite sure if we are on the right road or the right path. And in those moments, we need to be reassured that God is with us and that we are not alone.

As a pastor, I have had many opportunities to welcome new life into the world, and I have had many opportunities to sit with those who are leaving this world after a long and fulfilling life journey. So often, some of those individuals, at the end of their life experience, they wonder: Were they on the right path? Did they do everything that God wanted them to do? Somehow and someway, the warm touch of a loved one's hand and the prayer of a pastor over their bodies, in those moments they are reassured that their life was not in vain. Perhaps this was the feeling that John the Baptist had. He just needed someone to tell him that all that he had done in ministry at this point had not been in vain. So, to hear the voice of God say, "This is my son whom I love and am well pleased, wasn't just for Jesus. It was also for John. Through God's declaration, Jesus was affirmed as savior of the world. John's ministry was reassured.

And today, we hear God's word from more than two thousand years ago, telling us in our moment of baptism that we are loved by Him as well. Not that baptism is the only point on the Christian journey that reminds of God's love; I believe it is one of the most significant moments to be reminded and reaffirmed through God's grace and mercy and love that God claims us, that every day of our lives God is claiming us, God is affirming us, God is reminding us that we are God's children, and we are loved. And God is pleased.

In this moment of holy baptism of Jesus Christ, we see these wonderful works of grace and these wonderful works of love. But, finally, through Jesus' baptism, we know that he was willing to live a life of humility instead of making demands through his Divinity and that he was willing to live at a standard in level with those He came to love and serve. This is why Jesus is so important to the world, because he was a servant leader. Think about it, he was both divine and human. He could have demanded great authority. He could have had his baptism experience at a palace, but no. There in the open air, at the Jordan River with his cousin, a son of Almighty God allows humility to flow through his veins, and he is baptized in an open air space by John the Baptist.

As Jesus approached John the Baptist, John said the following words and raised the following question, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Matthew 3:14). Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:15). Although Jesus was the literal Son of Almighty God, he was still willing to humble himself and be baptized by John, which is in line with stories of Jesus throughout the New Testament.

Remember at the beginning of this sermon in John Chapter 4, we mention Jesus with a woman at a well. He wasn't supposed to be with this woman publicly. He wasn't supposed to be with this woman alone. But yet, the heart of Jesus caused him to be with those who no one else would be with.

Baptism is a celebration for the individual and for the Christian community at large. This is why in the baptism liturgy the following statement is said by the congregation, "With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life." [United Methodist Book of Worship. United Methodist Publishing House. Nashville, TN, 1992. Pg 89]

Wouldn't our world be a different and better place, if every morning we woke up and reaffirmed this baptism liturgy to say that I will pray for my brothers and sisters. I will forgive my brothers and sisters. And, I will do everything in my power to help them grow and to become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life. Wouldn't our world be a different and better place, if we all took the baptism liturgy seriously.

As the faith community surrounding persons at their baptism make those types of statements of care and love out loud, it is simply an acknowledgment that they are committing to living a Christian life together. As baptized believers in Jesus Christ, we must always - always - always commit to living together in the midst of our hurt, in the midst of our disagreements, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our joy, even in the midst of our hope.

Why do we do this? Because we follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We know from Jesus' earthly ministry that living in community was not always easy. Think about the disciples and how at times the relationship was tense. Even at the Last Supper, one of his dearly beloved disciples was about to betray him. His name, Judas. Even then, Jesus remained at the table with those who were at odds with him.

What does this say about our lives together today? As a community of faith living in our world, it says that through our baptism, it says that through our forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it says that through our witness of grace, we must be a better community, we must be a loving community, and we must be a forgiving community.

Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist meant hope for a world that needed a clear and present incarnation of God's grace and God's love. Not only did Jesus come to earth in a human body as our savior, He also experienced all that we face in our human journeys, and through His baptism, we have an example of affirmation, an example hope, an example of humility. Even today, God is still affirming us on our Christian journey through our baptism experience.

I remember when I was baptized and how, through that baptism experience, surrounded by family and friends who celebrated for me and with me rejoiced for me and with me. It is an experience I will never forget. More than not forgetting the experience, what God expects of us thought our baptism as Christians is to live out the power and the grace and the hope of our baptism every single day. And if we do this, not only will we be different but the world that we live in and the people we interact with will also be different.

Today, we commit to loving each other as the Body of Jesus Christ. May God bless you, may God keep you, and may God's favor always abide with you. In Jesus' name, Amen.

This sermon was edited for broadcast.