"To Be God’s Chosen"Katerina K Whitley Matthew 3:13-17 Year A - Baptism of the Lord - First Sunday after the Epiphany
Listen to the words from Isaiah: (Isaiah 42:1-9)
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
And now listen to the words of Matthew at Jesus’ baptism: (Matthew 3:12-17)
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
No wonder the early church put the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah next to what was known about the life of Jesus and concluded that the words of the ancient prophets had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.
What does it mean to be God’s Beloved, God’s chosen? All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism by John, with a few minor variations, but with a core truth emerging from all of them: that Jesus is God’s chosen one, God’s beloved son. A voice from heaven belonging to God’s Spirit declares about Jesus or directly to him, “You are my beloved.”
In all of the four versions of this remarkable story, we hear an affirmation, an acknowledgement, and the tender approval of a son by his father. As the scholars tell us, this is an act of will—to be beloved—not an evidence of feelings. Throughout the biblical story, the acts of love and approval contain no sentimentality; they are acts of God’s good will.
We dare surmise that John reported this startling event to his disciples, but there were also eyewitnesses who saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove or who heard the voice sounding forth like thunder from heaven while declaring words of affirmation and approval.
The question immediately arises: Why did it take so long for Jesus to make this decision to become public with his understanding of the character of God? In that first century, which afforded a much shorter life span, thirty years was a very long time. The world doesn’t seem to know him. Yet, by age thirty he is already beloved of God, approved by God, because of who he is. The time of preparation proves to be as important as the time of action.
All four gospels agree that Jesus’ known ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the River Jordan. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wills to be baptized by him. Had the two met before that moment? Probably no. Had they heard about each other? Undoubtedly. At this time, John is the famous one. He is the one with a following of disciples and of a huge crowd who trek to the desert to hear him deride the rich and powerful. The crowd must have delighted to hear the religious authorities, who were also political authorities, being called “a brood of vipers,” by John.
Jesus must have prayed for a long time before making the decision to appear on the banks of the Jordan. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he reassures his cousin. What is breathtaking in this story is the utter humility of both men. John, the famous one, is convinced of the ascendancy of Jesus and his ministry. He humbles himself again and again before his own disciples telling them that the one who comes after him is greater than he is. Jesus, who knows who he is in relation to the Father, does not hesitate to be baptized by John who is initially so reluctant. “You, you are coming to be baptized by me?” We hear his amazement but we also see Jesus bending the head before John and the water of baptism.
John knew that he was destined to be a Pro-dromos, the marvelous Greek appellation for John the Baptizer. It means the one who walks ahead on the road to open the way for another. John must have remembered the stories Zechariah, his father, had told him in childhood. You will be the one, my son, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” But stories told in infancy by fond mothers and fathers are forgotten in adulthood. John had no idea that the one who would come after him was his own cousin.
Yet, both young boys must have been told by their mothers that they were God’s chosen; in that religious environment, that was probably what most male children heard from their mothers. But these two proved to be exceptions. They never wavered from the path of the chosen ones of God. When John grows up he chooses the path of the desert, a difficult and ascetic life that forces him to confront people; he would rather have stayed alone with his thoughts and his prayers.
Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering; he has to struggle to find time to be alone and to pray. Jesus’ deliberate choice is the way of the servant, a ministry of teaching and healing, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in direct confrontation with the religious authorities of his time and in the midst of occupation by the greatest earthly power of the first century, the Roman Empire.
Both of their ways lead inevitably to death. Ah, the chosen of God, the beloved of God. What a terrible end awaits them. Again and again we are reminded in scripture that the chosen of God are not the ones who receive riches and power but the ones who suffer with and for the people. Let us be aware of how we use that powerful and tragic word. Did John and Jesus on that day when a voice broke through the silence between God and humanity to proclaim love and favor, did they suspect that they would die violently—they, the favored ones—one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life?
If they did suspect, (and I believe they did), nothing in their few remaining years showed that they abandoned their chosen path in order to avoid humiliation and early death.
John’s life was filled with courage. Some would call it madness to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the “voice crying out in the wilderness,” had no choice but to call sin by its name as he stood up to a weak king and his corrupt family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance.
Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body in the most gruesome form possible.
What does this story say to us?
Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism reminds us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him.
It makes us more wary than ever to call anyone chosen, especially those who benefit financially from proclaiming the distorted gospel of prosperity, fame, and easy money. It makes us terrified to call anyone chosen who does not do the will of the Father. Yet, it is never too late for anyone of us to say “Yes” to God.
The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God, are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words, “With you I am well pleased.”
About the writer:
Katerina Katsarka Whitley is a native of Thessaloniki, Greece. A graduate of Furman University, she has spent her life teaching, writing, and sharing the good news of Epiphany through the Incarnation. She lives in Boone, NC, teaches communication courses at Appalachian State University, leads retreats and writing workshops. Her books are biblically based. They can be found wherever books are sold: Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women; Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus; Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross; Waiting for the Wonder: Voices of Advent; Light to the Darkness: Lessons and Carols. Also, a cookbook: Around a Greek Table, Recipes and Stories Arranged According to the Liturgical Seasons of the Eastern Church; and a novel, A New Love, on the early Christians in Greece. Her forthcoming memoir covers her Greek years and is a memory of occupation. She can be reached through her website: www.katerinawhitley.net
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 72:1-7, 10-14
As with Gladness Men of Old
We Three Kings of Orient Are
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Christ Is the World’s True Light
O Splendor of God s Glory Bright
Arise Your Light Has Come
Angels from the Realms of Glory
On This Day Earth Shall Ring (Personet Hodie)
He Comes to Us (Jane Marshall)
The Three Kings (Healy Willan)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
A Wondrous Mystery (Lloyd Pfautsch)
Light Everlasting (Gordon Young)
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (Claude Bass)
The Birthday of the King (Neildlinger)
What Will You Do with Jesus?
I Wonder as I Wander