The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The overture of Matthew’s Gospel has been a lively, drama-filled one, with spine-tingling plots and sub-plots to rival any Stephen Sondheim play. We have encountered an engaged woman who has become pregnant, not by her betrothed, but rather by the Holy Spirit. We have had three wise men; Persian astrologers who travel two years to pay homage and bring gifts of great value to the new born Messiah, Jesus. Then there was the despotic, small minded king Herod who, threatened by what the wise men describe as this newborn king of the Jews, goes on a murderous rampage, killing every male child under the age of two in his realm, after the wise men foil his plot to lead him to the manager of Bethlehem. And then there is the flight to Egypt by the Holy Family to escape the murderous Herod; fleeing hundreds of miles and becoming refugees in a strange land.
Even Sweeny Todd wasn’t this suspenseful and intriguing!
Up to this point the events of Jesus’ life, as well as that of Mary and Joseph, have been fraught with spectacle and excitement. And now we arrive at the banks of the Jordan River and the baptism of Jesus. This is an epiphany moment when Jesus is revealed as God’s son. The text tells us that after Jesus comes up out of the water a voice comes from the heavens – presumably God’s – and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Greek word eudokeo translated as “well pleased” is more accurately understood as content. Which means that what the voice actually said is, ““This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am content.” Content? God is merely content at this monumental epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as his son?
What an anticlimactic response to the baptism epiphany. Up to this point we have been brought to the edge of our scriptural seats with lots of drama, waiting to see what plot twist comes next and then this; God is merely content? It’s like taking the bubbles out of champagne; it was effervescent and exciting, and now is flat and dull.
The epiphanies of Jesus are almost always accompanied by excitement, awe, and even fear. The Wise Men are “overwhelmed with joy” when they find Jesus. The steward at the wedding feast at Cana is in awe by the appearance of excellent wine after he believed it had all run out. Not knowing where the wine came from, he exclaims to the bridegroom, “you have kept the good wine until now!” And when the disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop and hear the same voice we hear today, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” They fall to the ground, “overcome by fear.” Epiphanies are high drama! Yet today at the baptism of Jesus, no drama God is merely content.
A commentary on the passage I read stated that, “God’s response is not of exponential proportions. It is not like the response shouted by fans at athletic events or concerts . . . One would expect more . . . Jesus travels from . . . Galilee, to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His vicissitudes in human form have not been light [thus far]. Surely, a baptism in the wilderness would garner more applause.”  I would say that Jesus being revealed God’s Son should result in timpani rumbling, clanging symbols, klieg lights flashing, balloons and confetti. Yet this is a subdued event. God is one cool cucumber. If there had been Anglicans back then I would describe God’s response to Jesus’ baptism as a very British one; controlled emotions with a stiff upper lip.
Why is this? Why did the drama and suspense give way to this more mundane inaugural of Jesus’ ministry?
The answer lies again in the phrase, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Biblical scholars have linked the “with I am well pleased” text to the first verse in today’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, which states, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (Is. 42:1) This verse opens what is known as the first of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah; songs that describe a redeemer of Israel who will bring salvation to the Jews, not by the sword, but by peaceful means that includes suffering.
The verses following describe the Suffering Servant thusly: “I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (Is. 42:2-4)
Christian theology understands the Suffering Servant songs as describing Jesus, who, as the Messiah, brought salvation and justice to all people, not by the sword, but through peaceful means, and ultimately by suffering through his Passion and Crucifixion.
Linking Jesus to the Suffering Servant informs us that Jesus is God’s servant who will achieve God’s goal of salvation, but not without suffering. This is a pretty sobering acknowledgement. Sobering enough to see God’s subdued response of mere contentment at Jesus’ baptism, as being that of a father who understands that even though this is a joyful moment, it also is one of recognizing that as his child leads his life it will include many challenges, pain and suffering.
Isaiah goes on to describe what the Redeemer will do as God’s servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42:6b-7)
This work of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus, ““Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11: 3-5) The prophesied work of the Suffering Servant, bringing justice to the oppressed, release to the captive, and sight to the blind is realized in God’s Son, Jesus.
Bringing people out of darkness to light, freeing them from the shackles that constrain them, feeding the hungry, bring good news to the poor is the, often, mundane work of ministry, but it is the necessary work of bringing about God’s reign. Our faith life can’t always be flash and dash and high drama. In my experience it usually isn’t. Being a Christian isn’t always about feeling the excitement of the Incarnation at Christmas, or the Resurrection at Easter. The reality is all too often we encounter a lot of suffering in living out the ministries the Suffering Servant in Jesus calls us too; we may even suffer ourselves as we do them.
At the final major epiphany of Jesus at the Transfiguration, there’ plenty of drama what with Jesus’ transfigured face, his dazzling white cloths, and three dead prophets appearing amid the bright clouds. But once it is over Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain to continue to journey and do the work of healing a broken world that they have been given to do. So, it must be for us as well. That is the journey of our Savior, and therefore it is our journey as well.
We have just completed the Christmas season; a time when there is plenty of scriptural and secular excitement and drama. Lots of drama in the story of the Nativity, lots of partying and lights, merry-making, song and food. It’s an exciting and adrenaline pumping season. But now Christmas is over, and we must descend the mountain and return to the work of bringing about God’s reign.
There’s a poem by Howard Thurman that captures the truth of this message perfectly, titled,
“The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.
 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Associate Professor of New Testament Chicago Theological Seminary; Workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 3: 13-17; January 12, 2020.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.