Baptism of the Lord – The Approach of the King

Isaiah 42:1-7, Matthew 3:13-17

In the Chronicles of Narnia, the first experience the children have as they encounter the enchanted land of Narnia is quite gloomy. The legitimate rulers of Narnia have not appeared and the land has been enslaved by the white witch. It is all frozen and the creatures are miserable. But suddenly, there are new signs of hope. The ice is starting to melt for the first time. There are excited and hushed whispers among the creatures. Aslan is on the move. The King is coming. And it meant the end of the reign of the White Witch.

As Matthew’s magnificent gospel opens, we encounter Israel very much like Narnia – enslaved and miserable. There has been no proper priesthood, prophet or sacrifice in generations. God’s choice of Israel was for the salvation of the world. Israel was called God’s first-born son. To them, God gave his presence and his love. But Israel was as fallen as the rest of the world. They lost the presence of God through their sinfulness. And without the presence of God, Israel had no hope; which meant the rest of the world had none either. God had promised the throne to David forever. David was God’s representative, his vicar on earth. To the Davidic Kings was given the title of ‘son of God’ as they represented Israel. Through him God was meant to rule and bring his justice to all the world. But now, the hut of David lay in ruins. Israel had been conquered by pagan nations. Which meant, there was nowhere in the world where God’s justice could be found. And there was an illegitimate, evil king – Herod, on the throne – an adulterer and a murder of children.

            But suddenly there come new signs of hope. Matthew opens his gospel tracing the genealogy of Christ. Even in the silent years, God had been working. He had preserved the line of the Davidic Kings and the true and final one was about to appear. And the announcement comes from his herald – after centuries of silence, there finally appears a prophet, John. In him, Israel hears the voice of their God once again.

As John baptises, the king make his first public appearance. But he is nothing like what people were expecting. Even John is startled – he recognises Jesus as the one he has pointed to, who will baptise with Spirit and Fire. Why is he coming for a baptism of water? Why does the sinless one join those confessing their sins? But Jesus doesn’t come to confess sins, rather, to fulfil all righteousness – all justice. Before Christ, justice meant attributing holiness to God and sinfulness to man. And that is still true.

But now God in flesh comes alongside sinners, goes into the same waters they do. He wears the cloak of a sinner. This is justice, in the new economy of grace. True justice is built on love. And Love refuses to remain far, it always draws close to the beloved. We only know what love is because God has loved us – by descending into the depths of our sinfulness, not to destroy us, but to show mercy. The one who loves knows each one by name, he calls them his own. This is the complete opposite of Herod, who would destroy the innocents enmasse to serve his own guilt. The true king comes close to embrace the guilty, clothing them with his own innocence.

Emerging from his baptism, the action of the King becomes clear. The heavens are torn open and the Father’s voice is heard.

‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased‘.

For a first century Jew this would have set off a hundred and one echoes from the Scriptures. I will pick up three. The first is the allusion to Psalm 2 which talks about the Davidic King.

You are my son, today I have begotten you‘.

The Father reveals that the one who looks a sinner, is really the much awaited king of Israel – the Messiah, anointed by God. Psalm 2 continues with the promise –

Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance’.

The King has come, to receive his inheritance -not just Israel, but the nations. You and me. And for that, he will fight to the death. The second is to the beloved son – Isaac was the one referred to as Abraham’s beloved son in the OT, who was prevented from being sacrificed. Jesus is the beloved son of Father, who will be sacrificed.  And the third is what we just read in the first reading. In Isaiah, there appears the mysterious figure of the Servant of the Lord. He bears God’s Spirit and brings about God’s kingdom and justice, through much suffering. Israel was called to be that servant, which they failed. And in Israel’s place, comes its king, who will take on all her sin onto himself. He will have mercy on the sinner; he will destroy the sin.

In the Lord of the Rings, once Frodo wears the ring, the Ring Wraiths, the dark horsemen immediately come after him; at the Jordan, in Jesus taking Israel’s sin onto himself, would have lit a signal for all the powers of hell to come for him. They will hunt him down, nail him to a Cross, torture him and kill him. But they would not know that that was simply the demand of perfect, unconditional Love. Even the Baptist did not know that this was the baptism of fire and spirit he had prophesied. In Jesus’ own body, the Spirit of God would burn the disease, the death we carried in our bodies. And in the Resurrection, this work would be complete as the Spirit would raise Jesus with a new body that had overcome all powers of death. And finding his disciples, he will breathe into them the same new life he now had won for us all.

Every week, he comes to you and me, humbly, as the Servant of the Lord, to bear your burdens and mine. If we will confess our sins, he is the sacrifice who will take it away.In the Eucharist, he gives us his own resurrected body, the healing for our disease. And he breathes on us the same Spirit that raised him from the death that holds us captive. The King has come alongside us in the Eucharist. Whatever I face, he has already won the battle. I don’t need to be afraid for his love for me is certain. He is for me, not against me. And he is near to save me. If you truly believe that, stand up and profess your faith, like you mean it.

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