The First Sunday After Epiphany
The Matthean account of the Baptism of Jesus
Every year it happens. The name report. My mom is an elementary school music teacher. And every year there comes a point when she comes home fed up with trying to remember six hundred children’s names and the usual and sometimes very unusual ways that they are spelled. Sometimes it is the boys names, too many Brandons and Brendans and Brennans and Braydens and Bransons to be able to keep straight. Sometimes it is the girls names, how many different spelling variations are there of Kaitlyn or Catherine and which want to be known as Cate or Cat or Kathy or Katie? However, we all know what power there is in remembering someone else’s name. In society, being on a first name basis with someone else used to mean that you knew them very well. With the rise of the informal culture, this understanding has disappeared and knowing someone’s first name is not as powerful as it used to be. However, knowing someone else’s name still is very important for having a relationship with that person.
Because of the way the holidays fell this year, we missed the celebration of Holy Name Day on the eighth day of Christmas. Jewish tradition has children being named on the eighth day, when they are presented at the temple. In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is given the name Jesus very specifically. Jesus comes from a long tradition of Hebrew names which means “God saves.” With Jesus, God is doing something very particular in the world, and he wants everyone to know it.
This is part of what happens in the Gospel passage for today. God names Jesus when he comes up out of the Jordan River during his baptism. God names Jesus as his son. This is my son, he says. God is calling out their relationship, their closeness. This isn’t some random man being baptized today, oh no! It is God’s son. God is naming Jesus for everyone to see and hear and know. This is someone very important, because he is my son, my beloved. Through this naming, God tells us who Jesus is.
This is really helpful, because in the days of the gospel writers, there was still some confusion about who Jesus was. Was Jesus God’s son? Was Jesus part of God? Was Jesus a man possessed by God? Was Jesus fully human? Or fully divine? These were the questions that started the debates that led to the creation of the creeds. However, we know where Matthew stands. Matthew thinks it is very important that we know that Jesus is God’s son and that Jesus does a very human thing like being washed to fulfill the law. As we can see in the story, John has a different perspective. John thinks that Jesus should be baptizing him. However, Jesus says it is proper for him to be baptized by John. In a way, as the full perfect sinless Son of God, Jesus doesn’t need baptism. On the other hand though, as a human being who is giving himself up to God’s will and not his own, baptism make a lot of sense. Baptism was a washing or purifying act in which the person being baptized was realigning themselves with what God wants and not themselves. For the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this makes a lot of good sense as a first step. Jesus is publically acknowledging that it is not his own will that he will be following, but God’s.
The larger picture here is the overarching goal of Epiphany. We read this gospel passage today during the season of Epiphany because it gives a look into who this Jesus person really is. Epiphany is the church season where we focus on seeing who God is through Jesus. An epiphany is an aha! moment, and the hope is that at some point throughout the season, maybe even more than once, you’ll have an aha! moment about who God is, especially in light of this Jesus character. In Christmas we celebrate the birth of a miraculous baby born to us… and now we want to take some time to figure out who he really is. The gospel readings for the season of Epiphany take us on this journey… first we see who God says Jesus is, as we have heard today at Jesus’ baptism. Then throughout the season, we hear who other people think that Jesus is and who Jesus himself says he is… and at the end of the season, we return to how God names Jesus in the transfiguration, where God again names Jesus as his Son, the beloved.
So what does his name and baptism teach us about Jesus?
We see Jesus in many different lights throughout the gospel stories. He is named in so many different ways. We know him as the Son of God, as the Good Shepherd, as the suffering servant, as the Word made flesh, as the new Adam, as the Christ, the Messiah, as a part of the Trinity of God, as Jesus of Nazareth, the adopted son of a carpenter. But what we see today is a man who cares about relationship, who is in solidarity with humanity, and who is on a mission to save his people. Jesus is known to us primarily through his relationship with God. God comes first and everything else is in alignment with that relationship. Jesus choses solidarity with humanity through being baptized in the simple act of washing. Though this washing, Jesus shows that he understands what it means to be a human being and what it means to be in relationship with God. Jesus, by being named by God as his Son, shares his mission objective with us. Jesus wants to save his people, the people given to him by God. He wants to do this by sharing God’s love for the people.
So what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!
If Jesus wasn’t named Jesus, would he still be God’s Son?
Well, I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that names have power. There are many Johns in this world, but we all know which John we are speaking of when we say John the Baptist. His name calls up images of a very hairy man in the wilderness or by the Jordan River, crying out about repentance. Mr. John Washer as he would have been known if he was English. For that is all that baptism means, washing. We have taken the normal ancient Greek verb for washing and turned it into a religious term. We don’t baptize our vegetables before we cook them! Yet, in ancient Greece, even vegetables were baptized. Names have power and the naming of Jesus in baptism is extremely powerful for us, because in our naming in baptism, we become part of Christ’s body and part of the kingdom of God. We are baptized in God’s name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We are named with Christ as beloved children of God, but only because first Jesus was named so. I hope that you may find this Epiphany season a new understanding of who God is through Jesus and who you are because of Jesus. Amen.