Preaching Matthew 3:13-17
One preaching possibility: start with the images of the text, the river and the dove descending. At the level of dream and primordial imagination these form an associative link with Genesis 1:1 ff. and the Spirit of God hovering over the deep. A poetic interpretation, the kind that marks the work of hymnists and visionaries, might look at Jesus' baptism as an act of creation or more accurately of re-creation. Just as God brought order out of chaos in the beginning, now God through Jesus is starting a new creative action, a symbolic action that manifests Jesus' willingness to be immersed not only in the river, but immersed in the reality of this broken world and its desperate need for repentance and new life.
I can imagine a preacher, as a former student of mine once did, telling stories about the different ways that people approach the water at a beach. Some run full force, plunging right in, others wet themselves and slowly get used to the water, others just walk or put their toes in. And so it is as we approach the Jordan, the waters of baptism. Some are ready to plunge in with the savior but others are cautious: am I really ready to risk this act of re-creation? After all, such an action takes us down under to the depths, to chaos, to the place of no breathing, to death.
But then we look at Jesus in this scene and realize that he has gone before us, and the pattern of his going beneath the stream and rising, like the pattern of his death and resurrection, gives us heart to risk the waters of baptism. Or if we have already been baptized this passage may give us strength to risk reclaiming the meaning of baptism for our lives. Many denominational worship books provide a ritual for the reaffirmation of baptismal vows, and I can imagine a sermon on this text that concludes with that ritual action.
Another preaching possibility: the text says "John would have prevented him" but then finally "consented." Matthew makes it plain that although John baptized Jesus, it is Jesus and not John who is God's "Son, the Beloved." The result of Matthew's attempt to clarify the relationship between John and Jesus is a scene that portrays a powerful transformation in John the Baptist: he moves from blocking the baptism to consenting to it.
John's protest is based on a sense of his own unworthiness. But Jesus does not let John's unworthiness serve as an excuse. Jesus needs the unworthy person's ministry in order "to fulfill all righteousness" or as the New English Bible puts it "to do all that God requires."
What an important insight this is for people who get hung up on their sin and unworthiness: from the start of his ministry Jesus is clear that he is not only able and willing to receive the ministry of imperfect people, but that it is necessary for him to do so. Jesus grants an immense dignity to John the Baptist by placing himself in the hands of the fiery riverside preacher. Imagine yourself baptizing Jesus. Would you be willing to do it, would you not join with John and say instead "I need to be baptized by you?" But in order "to do all that God requires," in order to set the ministry of Jesus in motion, it is necessary that he receive the ministry of baptism through the hands of one who feels unequal to the task. By receiving baptism from John, Jesus sets a pattern for all of our ministries to one another, reminding us that our unworthiness, our imperfect nature, is no excuse for refusing to offer the ministries of redemption that others may seek from us. If John could not disqualify himself from baptizing Jesus, then we cannot disqualify ourselves when Christ comes to us in our sisters and brothers, needing the ministry of new creation.
This insight may have been especially germane to Matthew and the community to whom he writes since his gospel ends with the great commission, including the words, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them." If members of the community felt unworthy of this sacred commission, they could recall that John had initially resisted baptizing the savior, but then went ahead and did it in order to "do all that God requires." Perhaps this is why God is "well pleased" with Jesus: because he does not wait for people to be perfect to start the ministry of redeeming the world, but plunges in, willing to accept the ministry of people as they are, even those who feel unworthy.
Thomas H. Troeger Iliff School of Theology Denver, CO