What Does Jesus Hear at His Baptism?

Today is Epiphany, the day set aside on the church calendar for celebrating the revelation of Jesus to Israel and the world at his birth and baptism. This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday on Jesus’ baptism.

Carracci - Baptism of ChristWhen Jesus hears the voice from heaven—God’s voice to him—saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” what does Jesus hear? Embedded in this divine message to Jesus are echoes of two very different biblical statements.

The first echo is from Psalm 2. This is a Psalm that was understood in Jesus’ day as messianic—pointing forward to the coming Messiah, the promised King in the line of David. The Psalm itself was possibly a royal coronation song, sung as each successive descendant of David ascended the throne in ancient Israel. It speaks of the Lord’s “anointed”—YHWH’s “messiah”—which referred to the new king being crowned. It describes how God sets up his “anointed,” the king, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, from where the king will rule over God’s people in anticipation of God’s coming reign over the whole earth.

And in the middle of this Psalm you have these words: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’”

This is God’s benediction over each successive king in Israel, anticipating the coming Messiah who would reign over the earth. It is God’s decree affirming the king’s special status: “You are my son,” the Son of God.

This is the first thing Jesus would have heard in the voice from heaven: this baptism was his anointing as Messianic King. God was doing for Jesus what he had done for all the kings of ancient Israel, what he was to do for the promised Messiah: declaring that this one was the rightful king of Israel, the one who would bring in God’s kingdom on earth.

But there’s another Scripture passage Jesus would also have heard in the voice from heaven: Isaiah 42. Isaiah 42 is one of four passages in Isaiah called the “Servant Songs,” because they speak of God’s “servant” who was to accomplish God’s purposes for Israel. The thing is, this “servant” accomplishes God’s purposes by suffering and even dying on behalf of God’s people—he is a “suffering servant” (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).

The very first of these “Servant Songs” is Isaiah 42, and it opens with these words: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

This is the second thing Jesus would have heard in the voice from heaven: this baptism was his appointment as Suffering Servant. And, as promised in Isaiah, the Spirit of God comes upon him—but as a dove, a symbol of humility, of peace, and like the dove of Noah’s ark fame, a sign of new creation.

Jesus had come to John to be baptized by him “to fulfill all righteousness,” Matthew’s Gospel says—in other words, to be a faithful Israelite, to fully identify with God’s people. But God had more in store for Jesus: at the moment of his baptism, God gave Jesus a vision of who Jesus truly was, what Jesus was called to do, and how much this would cost Jesus.

Farrant - Jesus' BaptismThis was a very personal event for Jesus—none of the Gospels says others present saw or heard anything, only Jesus and John the Baptist. I actually think this vision was the first moment when Jesus had a real inkling as to what God wanted of him. And this is why the first Christians started their basic Gospel story of Jesus with this event: it’s the moment when Jesus gets his orders from heaven, it’s the moment when Jesus hears God say, “This is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

This is the moment in which Jesus is anointed by God to take up his calling to be the Messiah, to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace through his own self-giving, suffering love.

All that waiting—Israel longing for a Messiah, the world yearning for a Saviour, all creation groaning in anticipation of renewal and restoration.

All that waiting—and here comes the one everyone has been waiting for, bringing in God’s kingdom, bringing salvation from our sin, bringing new creation for all things.

All that waiting—yet the result is not what anyone expected, a King who would suffer in weakness, a Saviour who would die in humility, a Redeemer who would give himself to the uttermost in love.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.