The Baptism of Christ, 1773 by Nicolás Enríquez de Vargas

God's Word on Sunday: Baptism is a commitment to continue God’s work

  • January 12, 2019

Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 13 (Year C) Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

“Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”

 These are the opening words of the portion of Isaiah that scholars call the Book of Consolation, and it is well-named. The exile and all that led up to it was history; now there was only a joyful and glorious future. They were going home and God was leading the way. 

The people were urged to shout the good news and to proclaim God from the mountaintops. There were to be no obstacles in this return — hills would be levelled and valleys filled in. The voice in the wilderness cried out continually for a way to be prepared for God. 

This passage had a long afterlife and not all of it was as joyful as the original context. It was used by the rigorous ascetic community at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. They envisioned themselves as the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the final days and the rather frightening visitation of God. 

In all four of the Gospels, the quotation is attributed to John the Baptist, in answer to questions concerning his identity and mission. He clearly saw the final days approaching, and his preaching was unrelenting and fierce. 

He called for repentance, a rending of the heart and mind, followed by a baptism signifying the inner change that had taken place. In both instances, the run-up to the visitation or action of God is very important. The minds and hearts of the people needed to be prepared and consciousness raised. 

In a time in which the Church is facing a crisis and loss of confidence, spiritual and psychological purification and preparation is sorely needed. So much of our old ways of thinking need to be put aside, allowing us to begin to think of God and our lives together as a people in new ways. Being able to proclaim with conviction and personal experience, “Here is your God!” would do much to further that healing and conversion.

This is not something we do on our own — Titus makes it clear that the grace of God has appeared in the person of Jesus Christ. It is He who purifies and teaches us to lead godly lives. All of this is through the goodness and loving kindness of God and not through our own merits. It is not something that we deserve or earn, but a gracious gift. Our only response should be humble and grateful acceptance, and a willingness to continue the path Christ has revealed to us.

In the early first century, the identity of the Messiah was not crystal clear to many people. John the Baptist certainly made the short list, for he was the most prominent preacher and holy man in Judea. Many wondered if he might be the one, but John consistently pointed away from himself towards a mysterious figure yet to come, who would bring the Holy Spirit and fire. 

The very fact that Jesus had been baptized by John made many in the first Christian communities uncomfortable. After all, it was a baptism of repentance and Jesus was sinless. What was He doing down at the river standing in front of John? Each of the evangelists handles this in a different way. Luke chose to dodge the issue — in the two omitted verses, John was arrested and thrown into prison before the baptism of Jesus. Luke doesn’t specify at whose hand Jesus was baptized. 

For Jesus, John’s baptism was not about repentance, but the acceptance of the human condition. It was a moment of illumination and clarity as His identity and mission was revealed.  The voice gave assurance that He was the beloved and chosen Son, and God delighted in Him. 

Reflection on our own baptism and the renewal of the promises should give us a similar clarity of who we are and why we are here. Baptism is not a talisman, membership card or free pass for Heaven, but a public commitment to follow the path of Jesus Christ and to continue God’s work on Earth. 

Baptism is not just for us, but for all whom we may touch in so many ways.

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