Jesus has come to save our humanity. In light of the Epiphany and the welcoming of the nations into the family of God, it’s also important to note that the beginning of the first century AD was a time of great uncertainty for the Jewish people—a community wrought with schism—religious and political groups responding to the occupation of Judea by Roman forces, responding to what had become of the Temple since it had been rebuilt under the Persians, renewed under the Greeks, and enlarged under the Romans. The corrupt religious elite were described even as far back as the prophecy of Malachi. God called his people to repent of their sin and says that he himself is coming and would send a messenger to prepare his way. And Jesus comes as not only the Savior of Israel but even king of the nations, sovereign over even the great empires of the eastern lands, and event we’ve celebrated in Christmas and Epiphany.
After the Epiphany account, Matthew gives us the prophecy from Malachi 3: Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. He also gives prophecy from Isaiah 40: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And now we see John the Baptist out in the wilderness along with many others protesting what’s going on in the temple. John’s speaking authoritatively as a prophet of God while doing something very specific.
What John is doing here is nothing like any other kind of ritual washing from Judaism at the time nor anything from ancient Israelite religion. And this isn’t the first time that a prophet of God performed some grand gesture to get his point across. 800 years prior, Isaiah walked around naked for three years just to show the people what would happen to Egypt and Cush by the hand of Assyria. John isn’t walking naked and barefoot, but he’s dressed in the clothing of someone who is clearly from the outskirts of society with his disciples, as God’s faithful prophets usually were. And he’s out at the Jordan River washing people clean as they confess their sins. He’s getting them ready for the coming of God himself, who’s going to bring about judgment. He even shouts to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, many of the Temple elite, when he sees them coming out to him. He addresses them as the children of snakes and asks who warned them of the coming wrath telling them that they better straighten up.
He threatens them saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Matthew writes that, while this is all happening, Jesus comes to be baptized by John. Jesus is also taking this Malachi prophecy very seriously. It’s even believed by some that Jesus himself was a disciple of John. We see with Elijah and Elisha that it was common for God’s prophets to hand off the ministry, one to another even as they continually faced opposition from the world—a world which has rejected God.
We live in a world that dehumanizes—puts our humanity in question all the time. We live in a world of materialism. We dehumanize each other from a young age. Just look at bullies in the school setting, in the workplace, in social discourse. It’s true that sometimes we look at other people like they’re not even human. It’s really sad the way that we treat each other sometimes.
This is really important, because even amidst opposition from the world around him, John paves the way for the coming of God. But he doesn’t introduce a cloud like out in the wilderness after the Exodus. There’s no burning bush or whirlwind of fire. No Sinai event. Instead, John formally introduces to his own people—to the world—the coming of God as a human being. And it’s really important that God comes to us as a human.
Knowing that he’s already inferior to Jesus, John is hesitant to even baptize him. But Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is where Jesus’ own public ministry begins. Jesus’ baptism was a gesture showing his own faithfulness to his heavenly Father, mourning the sins of his own people. It’s important because even though Jesus embodies the coming of God, he’s also a human being—a repentant human being. But what does JESUS—sinless—have to repent of? Jesus repents of the sin of his own people, and he takes ownership of it. This is one of the most profound events in the Gospel narrative. By revealing himself in Jesus at this baptism—as one of us—God takes ownership of the human condition—in all of its brokenness. God takes ownership of the sins of his own people thus fulfilling all righteousness.
Matthew writes that when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the heavens—the dwelling place of God—were opened to him. And Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him—a picture of God’s creation at its very inception, remembering the darkness and the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep waters in anticipation of God’s limitless creating power. Right then a voice from heaven itself says, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”
In Jesus’ own body—in his own existence, the human and the divine are reconciled to each other. We talk about it during Christmas. We talk about it at Epiphany. But we see it in Jesus’ own baptism. Humanity is reconciled to God now and forevermore. That means your humanity is also reconciled to God through the existence of Jesus Christ, who would go on to show his faithfulness even in the face of torture as his humanity is put into question by those around him—as they try to strip it from him on the cross.
But his accusers don’t get the final word. God does, the one who vindicates Jesus’ own life in the resurrection. In this act, even when put into question, your existence as a human being is also justified, validated. And the same goes for the lives of those around us. That means when you face trouble from those around you. When you are treated poorly. When someone sins against you. When somebody hurts you and causes pain. When somebody treats you as an object, an outlet for their anger, because, well, they just don’t care, they don’t get the final word on your worth. And when you sin. When you treat others poorly. You don’t get the final word on anyone else’s. God does.
And when we repent of our sin, we are asking God’s final word about us to be one of mercy and forgiveness. When Jesus reconciles humanity with God, he brings just that. Jesus gets baptized for us. He takes the sins of his own people—takes our sins upon himself to fulfill all righteousness, to save our humanity with his own humanity. And the Holy Spirit descends on him—comes to him—that he might give that same Spirit to each of us. May our God continue to bless you with the love and peace that the Spirit brings.