From St. John’s Gospel, the word of John the Baptist: “I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
And from St. Matthew’s Gospel, the voice from Heaven: “Thou art my Son, my beloved.”
This morning for the sermon I want to do a bit of Bible study. Last week we celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of that event. Today we heard what would appear to be another version of the same incident, reported this time by St. John. I want us to think about the Baptism accounts and look carefully at what Scripture says, for there is no doubt that His baptism was a critical moment in the life of Jesus. Other than the feeding of the five thousand, the Last Supper and his trial and Crucifixion, it is the only event all four gospels report. Not only that, in all four Gospels it marks the beginning of His ministry of preaching and teaching, and so I think that it is very important, even crucial, to understand what is going on. Perhaps indeed, to understand this moment in His life will bring us to a deeper understanding of the meaning of all of His life.
As I said, today we heard about the baptism from St. John’s Gospel, and it is not so much a report as it is a memory. The Baptist is with a group of his disciples when Jesus approaches. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sin of the world,” John exclaims, and then he recalls something which happened before, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
St. John’s account is significantly different from that of the other three Gospels. In the first place, John knows nothing about a family relationship between Jesus and the Baptist. St. Luke has it that they are cousins, but John would seem to deny this: “I myself did not know him,” the Baptist says.
Secondly, the first three gospels picture the aftermath, so to speak, of His baptism as an interior and spiritual event experienced by Jesus alone. In Matthew, Mark and Luke it is either stated or implied that only Jesus saw the heavens opened and only He heard the voice proclaim. In John, however, the baptism would seem to have been a public event. Public enough, at least, for the Baptist to have been a witness. And another divergence is this: in John’s Gospel the voice from heaven is spoken to the Baptist not to Jesus and it is John the Baptist, not the celestial voice, who proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God.
But if there are differences between John and the other Gospels, there is also one very striking, in fact surprising similarity: the image of the dove. All four gospels liken the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus to that of a dove. It’s odd that few scholars make much of this, but there it is. Indeed, it is the only explicit detail upon which John and his three colleagues agree.
Now what does all this mean? Let’s think together.
You will remember, I am sure, that the fourth Gospel is rather sparing. It reports considerably fewer events in the life of Jesus than do the other three, and when it does report an incident, its primary intention is to make clear the meaning of that event. St John seeks to make explicit that which is implicit, to make public that which may have been hidden or concealed. And so it should come as no surprise that what is reported by Matthew, Mark and Luke as something interior and spiritual is changed by John into a public proclamation. “Thou art my beloved Son” – heard by Jesus – becomes “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
But what about the voice that speaks to Jesus? “Thou art my Son, my beloved in whom I am well pleased.” What does it mean ? And what kind of interior event is Scripture describing ? The answer to both of these questions is the same and involves a look at what was spoken from heaven, for you see the voice is actually quoting two verses of Scripture. The one is from the Book of Psalms (2:7), and at the time it was understood to refer to the Messiah who will come to save Israel. The other is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (42:1) and it describes a man who will suffer and by his suffering will somehow bring redemption to the world.
Isaiah’s idea is unique in Scripture. As Fr. Wood pointed out last Sunday, it stands alone. Suffering, if not simple misfortune, was usually seen as a divine punishment. One might be chastened by God and learn from it – a good thing – but that was as far as it goes. How could suffering be anything more than that? Isaiah was convinced that it could.
Moreover, as unique as Isaiah’s idea may have been, the bringing together of these two ideas – the Messiah and the man who suffers for others – it is so unique, so unparalleled as to be outrageous. This was a thought which had never been thought. A suffering Messiah? Impossible. Triumph through pain? Unheard of. Redemption by defeat? Ridiculous. This was an idea which could only have come from heaven and at His baptism, it was spoken in the heaven of His heart. And so, you see, as I understand it, this was the moment of our Lord’s answer to his call, the affirmation his vocation. It was the event in which he decided actively to take upon Himself the destiny which God decreed. To be the Messiah. Yes. To save Israel. Yes. To save humankind. Yes. And more: To save not by might, but by meekness. To conquer, by obedience. To triumph, by the enduring of hatred and pain, and by death.
The Cross, then, is there from the very beginning. It’s not some terrible mistake, a dreadful injustice which befell a good man. No – suffering and death were there as part of His vocation from the beginning. There He accepted them and took them upon Himself. And everything that He will say, and everything that He will teach, and everything that He will do must be seen in that light. In the light of the Cross.
And at that moment of decision and vocation He was anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. As I said before, this is the only detail upon which all four gospels agree. I should also tell you that here we once again come upon something unique. You and I are used to it. We’ve heard the story again and again, and we’ve seen it depicted in paintings and windows. The dove an image of the Holy Spirit, an image of the power of the Spirit, of the anointing of the Spirit. In fact, it is something new in Scripture. The association of the Spirit of God with a dove begins with the Gospels, specifically it begins with the accounts of Jesus’ baptism.
The question of its meaning, then, imposes itself, and this is the answer. The dove was an animal of sacrifice. If you could not afford a sheep or a goat or a bull, you offered a dove in sacrifice And certain rituals specifically required a dove. Remember. At his Presentation in the Temple, Mary and Joseph offered two turtledoves, as the Law required. And Hebrew lore and legend had it that often the dove willingly offered its neck to the knife. That is to say, the dove allowed itself to be killed. A dove was, therefore, a symbol of sacrifice, but even more than that, it was a symbol of self-sacrifice.
When Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism – with the power of the Holy Spirit – it is not with a power of domination or might. Rather, it is the power to obey. The power to sacrifice oneself. The power willingly to give up one’s life. The power to let go of one’s very self. It is the power to fulfill the destiny which God had decreed and to be the Messiah and the sacrificial lamb which would take away the sin of the world and bring us back to God.
And to that Lamb, the Lamb anointed by a dove, and destined to be slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), to Him be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and glory, now and forever.