Wednesday, May 16, 2007
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
John the Baptist heralds the coming of the Messiah. Such a simple fact, and yet such a profound one. One site goes so far to proclaim that "Christianity begins with John the Baptist". This hyperbolic statement, nonetheless, has some merit to it. The radical breach of the Incarnation changed Mary and Joseph's lives forever, but God the Father ordained Joseph as foster father and Mary as mother to the growing child Jesus. John's ministry begins the unveiling of Jesus' divinity - an ongoing process that began with Jesus' baptism and ended with His resurrection.
My annotated NAB points out that nearly thirty years have passed since the end of Matthew 2, when Joseph hears of Herod's death and moves Mary and the toddler Jesus out of Egypt to Nazareth. Both the Father and the Son waited patiently, knowing that the time had not yet come to fulfill the divine plan.
When John comes, he says, "Repent!" The Jews hear him, confess their sins, reform their lives, and submit to his baptism in the Jordan River. Baptism was a common practice among the Essenes, and some scholars speculate that John, with his ascetic lifestyle, was himself an Essene. But why baptism now? John does not call the Jews to repent for their own sakes; rather, he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" (v.2). The baptism of John makes no sense apart from the imminent public ministry of the Messiah. Hence, he warns the Pharisees who seek him not to boast of their Abrahamic descent (v.9), for one man greater than Abraham already walks among them.
And so John, protesting his own insufficiency for the task, baptizes his cousin Jesus. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit rushes upon Jesus (as it did upon the young King David when Samuel anointed him), and God the Father announces His pleasure with His Son. With John's baptism, Jesus has passed the first test of his young life: growing to maturity in submission to his Father's will. But a far greater test awaits him.
Tonight's prayer: Jesus, you submitted to baptism by John in the Jordan River not because you needed to be cleansed, but so your plan for our salvation could be fulfilled. We are full of sinfulness and hypocrisy, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John. But, because you persuaded John to baptize you in water, we are beneficiaries of your baptism in the Holy Spirit. Kindle a fire in our hearts so that we may be continually cleansed by the living flame of the Spirit. Amen.