Text: Matthew, Chapter 3
The River Jordan is an ordinary-looking, small, and muddy body of water. When I visited Israel some years ago, my first thought on beholding the Jordan was: “But this river is not different from the Caroni!” (the biggest river in my island, but a muddy stream most of the year…)
I was just beginning to feel guilty for that thought, when I heard the Israeli tour guide actually apologizing for the smallness of the Jordan!
It all reminded me of the story of the Aramean general Namaan, in 2nd Kings, Chapter 5, who had been told by the prophet Elisha that he would be cured of his leprosy if he washed himself in the Jordan. Namaan had reacted with scorn, wondering why he couldn’t wash instead in the great rivers of his own land...
Jesus didn’t scorn the muddy Jordan. He, the only sinless person ever, queued up alongside a multitude of sinners for the baptism of repentance preached by John the Baptist...And we ask “Why?”
The baptism of the Lord is recorded in all four Gospel accounts, which suggests its significance. Bible scholars tell us that only a handful of such events appear in all four Gospels. Matthew’s account provides us with rich details. For example, it is the only account in which Jesus actually speaks. In this season of Epiphany, we seek to find God manifested in this event, and as we explore the passage, we find little pockets of Epiphany throughout.
The account may be divided into two parts. Verses 1 to 12 tell us what happened immediately before the baptism. John the Baptist preaches: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” We are told what to do, and why. The call to repent is to make a complete change—of mind, heart, and behaviour; a turning away from sin and (re)turning to God. The term “kingdom of heaven” is found only in the gospel of Matthew. It refers to the reign of God in Christ Jesus, when all evil will be vanquished, and righteousness, peace, and justice will reign. Of note also, the expression “kingdom of heaven” was used to refer to God himself, since Jewish believers were reluctant to use the holy name of God...And so, John himself does not know how near the kingdom of heaven really is, even as he preaches it!
Along with the multitudes who had confessed their sin, we read that there are “many” Pharisees and Sadducees present. John has some choice words for them.
Why are they, the unrepentant, there? Their presence tells us that all humankind is sinful, the repentant and the unrepentant. John preaches of the mighty One whose sandal he is not worthy to carry, who will judge and cleanse and save...We need this One who saves...This is the start of our Epiphany, the realization that God alone, powerful in Christ, saves us from sin. In verses 13 -17, we see that Jesus appears, in the midst of the great crowd of sinners, to be baptized.
John is utterly confused, and he too asks “Why?” Jesus gives the answer: “to fulfill all righteousness.” And Jesus is plunged into the muddy, dirty Jordan, just as He plunges into the mire of humanity’s sinfulness. The voice of God resounds, proclaiming over the waters that here is the beloved Son who pleases the Father; and simultaneously, the Holy Spirit alights. The Trinitarian God is present as the divine plan for our salvation is launched. This is our Epiphany: our God saves! Hallelujah! Amen.
Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago
Jesslyn Ramlal is an elder, a lay preacher, and the Clerk of Session for her Pastoral Region. She also serves as the president of the women’s group, the secretary of the Local Board, a choir member, and Sunday School teacher in her own congregation