A covenant with all flesh

8 January 2017
The Baptism of our Lord
First Sunday after Epiphany A (RCL)
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Among the Synoptic Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, Matthew’s stands out for a couple of reasons. First, John tries to prevent Jesus from seeking baptism, by saying, “I should be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Secondly, in Mark and Luke, the voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” In Matthew’s account, the voice says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Both these difference carry forward Matthew’s unique theological project.

Matthew seeks to locate the new Christian community in firm continuity with the Israel of God. John had preached that he baptized in water for repentance (Luke and Mark add “for the forgiveness of sins), but after him came one who would baptize in Holy Spirit and fire. Hence, John’s statement that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (compare the passage in Acts in which the apostles visit some Samaritans who have received the baptism of John, but not the Holy Spirit, until the apostles lay hands on them). The need to fulfill all righteousness by water baptism indicates that the new Jesus community, despite the gift of the Holy Spirit, remains in continuity with the community that passed through the Red Sea and crossed the Jordan on dry ground.

The shift in wording of the voice directs the readers attention to the Servant Songs of Isaiah, rather than to Psalm 2 as antecedent. Mark and Luke use the language of Psalm 2, a coronation Psalm, to indicate the unique status of Jesus as the new Christ. Matthew refers us to the servant songs with their ambiguity. The first song (which we read as the Old Testament lesson for today) may refer to Cyrus, or it may refer to the prophet, or it may refer to the whole people. The later servant songs clearly no longer refer to Cyrus, but to either or both the prophet and the people. Paul recovers the language of the suffering servant with reference to Jesus (and by extension to this new people). Matthew sees to be implying that all the baptized share in this new righteousness and this status as members of the people in the role of the suffering servant. Matthew’s whole project is to show that Jesus, and by extension the Jesus community, recapitulates the history of Israel.

In that case, Jesus is the servant who brings justice, but does it without the vindictive retribution, the terrible recompense that had been expected. Jesus brings justice by dying on the cross and being resurrected (vindicated) to God’s right hand. The community of Jesus shares in that vocation.

Matthew is also the only Gospel to tell us that the dove alighted upon Jesus, calling attention to the Spirit in the form of a dove. The dove (particularly in the context of baptism — see 1 Peter) recalls the dove Noah released from the ark, which returned with an olive branch in its beak when the water had receded. When Noah came out of the ark, God made a covenant with Noah and “all flesh” that never again would God destroy all flesh. God has constrained Godself to work within the limits of human sinfulness to bring about justice upon the earth. We, the baptized community of Jesus, who share his humanity (all righteousness has been fulfilled, so there is not break between spirit and flesh) participate in the vocation of God’s servant.

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