Hoping to give preachers today a window into how the baptism of Jesus merges heaven and earth, creating our kinship with the Trinity, David Gambrell offered in Homily Service this image for preachers to ponder.
It is a scene from Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence (New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1980 – page 38). Here, in 17th c. Japan where religious persecution is raging, a Portuguese priest and missionary conducts a baptism.
“It was late at night and we were secretly baptizing a baby that had been brought along by Omatsu and two men belonging to the Tossama. It was our first baptism since coming to Japan, and of course we had no candles nor music in our little hut—the only instrument for the ceremony was a broken little peasants' cup which we used for holy water. But it was more touching than the liturgy of any cathedral to see that poor little hut with the baby crying and Omatsu soothing it while one of the men stood on guard outside. I thrilled with joy as I listened to the solemn voice of Garrpe as he recited the baptismal prayers. This is a happiness that only a missionary priest in a foreign land can relish. As the water flowed over its forehead the baby wrinkled its face and yelled aloud. Its head was tiny; its eyes were narrow, this was already a peasant face that would in time come to resemble that of Mokichi and Ichizo. This child also would grow up like its parents and grandparents to eke out a miserable existence face to face with the black sea in this cramped and desolate land; it, too, would live like a beast, and like a beast it would die. But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt—this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.”–– David Patrick Gambrell
Both the cosmic and the salvation-historical dimensions are present in the gospel reading. Significantly, Matthew has Jesus come to John and his followers on the banks of the River Jordan. By this literary device, Matthew depicts the adult Jesus joining a story already in progress: the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel. John the Baptist plays a transitional role in this story, standing astride Old Testament promise and New Testament fulfillment. His desert setting, his prophetic style, and his apocalyptic message are all reminiscent of the Old Testament. . . . Though John resists baptizing Jesus, in recognition of his superiority, Jesus makes clear that at this moment they are called to join in obeying God's will (v 15). – Fritz West
The vocation of the servant proclaimed by the prophet is understood by Christians to be referring to Christ Jesus – an altogether different form of ruler.
The servant's revelation of Yahweh's divine justice (mishpat) and steadfast love (vv 3c, 4b) will be a light to the nations (v 6), drawing them all to the one true God. This servant will not have the commanding demeanor of an earthly king, but rather “faithfully bring forth justice” without breaking a reed or raising his voice (vv 2–3). Thus will the old promise to Abraham be fulfilled in a new servant (v 9). – Fritz West
Just as Abraham became “the father of a multitude” and the suffering servant a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6), so too does the church embrace the gentile mission. Here one finds the ironic tension, first present in Israel, between the particularity of revelation and the universality of its message. Through the partiality shown to Israel, God revealed impartiality to all. – Fritz West
Fritz West, a liturgical author and retired pastor of the United Church of Christ livin in Minnesota, serves as the Presiding Member of the Association for Reformed & Liturgical Worship Steering Committee.
David Gambrell is Associate for Worship in the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 99-110.