A Provocation: The Baptism of the Lord, First Sunday after the Epiphany: January 8, 2017: Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew 3:13-17
3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

3:15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why is this Sunday called “The Baptism of Our Lord” when so many other people we baptized before and after he was?
  • Why is Jesus joining this movement rather than leading it?

Some Longer Reflections:

John has (in the scene before this one) pointed to a day of wrath.  This has become a religious cliché.  John is given the voice and manner of a raging revivalist preacher.  Maybe he’s even a snake handler.  But no matter how you play him, he says what every religious nut has been saying for centuries: “Repent, the End is Near,” though the centuries of repetition have made the message a little hard to believe.  Such stereotypical stock characters are easy to dismiss, easy to ignore, easy to ridicule.

What matters in the preceding scene is not that John is playing the part of a crazy street preacher, but that even Pharisees and Sadducees are coming out to hear his message and repent.  John will have none of it.  He demands acts of real repentance from them.  It is easy to pay lip-service to the matter of faithfulness, but John (and apparently the others coming out to be baptized) see something happening that demands an actual change.

We may be at such a moment.


Perhaps we actually will insist that we are done normalizing sexual abuse and gender-based ridicule.

Or not.

Perhaps we will insist that Black Lives actually Matter, and that it matters that all voices join in this insistence.

Or not.

Perhaps we even have learned the lessons that (at least for many of us) began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  Perhaps we are willing to notice that it has become almost normal to see a bald eagle perched in a tree in southern Minnesota, or flying near our home in eastern South Dakota.  I grew up near here.  There were no eagles in the area when I was young.  We almost lost that magnificent bird because of our heedless use of herbicides and pesticides, and now we see eagles regularly.  Perhaps we are ready to bear the cost (collectively) of limiting the herbicides and pesticides we use, even though that makes farming harder than it already is.

Perhaps we are ready to learn, and remember, that farming is difficult and demanding.  Perhaps we are ready to reflect on why we see combines with headlights harvesting in the middle of the night.  And on why it is that we see farmers at work in town the next morning looking exhausted.  And perhaps we are maybe even ready to admit that most of us who are ready to tell farmers how to farm actually have no idea how to drive a tractor or plant a field or harvest corn.

Perhaps we are finally prepared to  pay more for produce and meat that have been produced without chemicals or antibiotics.

Or not.  

Or perhaps we are ready to consider limiting where we will allow mining for copper and nickel in order to preserve wild land, or to consider cutting back on our use of fossil fuels even though the costs of thus limiting ourselves will be real and will have to be borne by the entire economy, or to consider that the Dead Zone in the Caribbean is the result of choices each of us has made when we contribute to non-point-source pollution by over-using fertilizer or weed-killer or bug-killer.

Or not.

Perhaps we are ready to admit that all of us have colluded in keeping wages low, thus using the welfare system as a money-saving government subsidy of business, rather than as a family-saving support that allows people to rise above their current position.  Perhaps we are ready to admit that we have all used the welfare system to keep wages low.

Perhaps we are ready to notice that employers have a stake in keeping their undocumented workers nervous about possible deportation since nervous workers don’t ask for higher wages.

Perhaps we are even ready to admit that we work and vote against our own best interests and the best interests of the economy because we like to image, late at night, that we, too, might someday be billionaires and we will need a tax code that will be warped in our favor when that finally happens.

Or not.

And while we are at it, perhaps we are ready to admit that most of the people who blame teachers for whatever it is that teachers are supposed to have failed at most recently, most of those people who want to tell teachers how to teach have not been inside a third grade classroom since they were 9 years old.

Or perhaps we are ready to admit that much of our agitation over innovation in education is fueled in significant part by our desire to have our children go to school with people whose skin is the same color as ours, or at least with children who come from socio-economic backgrounds like our own.

Or at least we might be ready to admit that some of our resistance to providing adequate educational funding is a result of a grudge we still hold against our 4th grade teacher who tried to teach us something we weren’t good at learning.

But perhaps this might be the time when the Epiphany strikes us:…

…Jesus also came out to be baptized, to repent and be washed in preparation for the day of wrath, to join with those who believed that this was a moment when the world was actually going to change, for once.

Jesus didn’t come out to be baptized by John so that he could insure that the “old time religion” would never change, or so that we could come out of church convinced that “God” wanted us to be independently wealthy.

Jesus insisted on being baptized because he seems to have believed that the world needed to change and that such things will never happen unless he was also ready to change.

We may be at a moment of actual change, a moment when we commit ourselves to work to make things different, better, more just.

Or not.

We might just enjoy talking about revolution, about resistance, about being disenchanted with the political system because we like complaining that no one is listening to us and we enjoy resenting that.

At the seminary where I studied for my M.Div. and Ph.D degrees, words from Mark Twain were written on the wall:

It is noble to be good, but it is still nobler to teach others to be good.  And less trouble.

If our talk about joining the resistance is mostly recreational resentment, we ought to notice on this Sunday that Jesus is down at the river taking the trouble to be baptized by John.  No matter what we are doing, he is signing on to change everything.


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