It’s easy to see the baptism of Christ as simply the immersion of Jesus in the River Jordan. It’s also easy to get caught up in the theological meaning of the event (the sanctification of the waters, the manifestation of the Trinity). But St. Matthew has something else in mind as well. It’s the beginning of a new Kingdom, which calls us to reorient our lives as its newest citizens.
These are notes for a sermon given on Sunday, January 14th, the first Sunday after Theophany/Epiphany. The Reading was from Matthew:
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17 RSV)
Last weekend, I emphasized three very important aspects of Theophany, the feast we just witnessed.
- The feast is the celebration of the baptism of Christ, an event in which we foresee his death and resurrection through his descending into the waters and his ascent from the waters.
- This feast is also the celebration of new creation. Jesus, the God-Man, enters into the waters making them holy.
- And finally, this feast is the manifestation of God as Trinity: the Son is immersed, the Father speaks, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove.
However, there is one more important aspect of this feast that I don’t want us to forget. Through the celebration of this feast, we become witnesses of a royal coronation, which causes us to reorient our lives in new ways.
First, let’s explore coronations in the Old Testament.
In ancient times, the kings of Israel were coronated by having oil poured upon their head, thus making them anointed kings.
Scripture tells us of several kings being coronated in this manner, including the beloved King David.
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13 RSV)
Notice, when the king is anointed, the Spirit of Lord descends upon him.
Does this sound familiar?
St. Matthew, in the telling of Christ’s baptism is, in actuality, describing a coronation to make it clear that this man, Jesus, is the long-awaited king.
It’s for this reason that we call him Christ, which in English means “anointed.” Jesus is just an anointed king, he’s the Anointed King.
Matthew Drives Home His Point
Today’s gospel focuses our attention on this coronation with some strange verses; verses that, for modern Christians, are easily overlooked.
…and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:13-16 RSV)
It’s easy to glaze over these lines and not think much of them.
But if we dig a little deeper, we realize that they come from Isaiah 9:1-2. Of course, Isaiah was the great prophet who spoke of the return of God to gather all peoples to himself in a great banquet, and who spoke of all this happening mysteriously through a suffering servant.
But, if we dig even deeper yet, we realize that these verses from Isaiah were originally a part of an oracle for the coronation of a Judean king.
Matthew is insisting and desperately trying to get us to realize that we’ve just had front row seats to the dawning of a new eternal kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.
The New King Reigns
In the verses that follow gently unfold St. Matthew’s vision of this new king and this Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus’s first task is to reconstitute Israel through the calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). The first Israel originated through 12 brothers, but this kingdom, a new Israel, will come about through the 12 disciples.
Next, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus the Anointed not only teaches but also heals.
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. (Matthew 4:24 RSV)
An Isaiah-like vision of a renewed world, a kingdom no longer enslaved to death or in exile from paradise.
The Proclamation of the King
As with any coronation, we expect to see the new king ascend his throne and sit upon it. Once seated, it is a king’s responsibility to look after his kingdom by issuing laws that keep order among his subjects.
This king is no different.
Now, seeing the crowds, [Jesus] ascended the mountain; and when he seated himself his disciple approached him; And opening his mouth he taught them, saying… (Matthew 5:1-2 NT by DBH)
Jesus, perhaps invoking an image of God seated on Mt. Zion, ascends a mountain to make it his throne. And in opening his mouth, he issues forth his law, which (starting in Matthew 5) we know as the Sermon on the Mount – a law for a new way of living in the presence of God.
Subjects of a New Kingdom
Through our own anointing – our baptism and chrismation – we have become subjects of this new anointed king. We’re disciples sitting at our Lord’s feet.
And when our king makes his first proclamation, his message is simple:
From that time Jesus began to make his proclamation and to say, “Change your hearts; for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Matthew 4:17 NT by DBH)
Change our hearts, typically translated as “repent,” means much more than simply being “sorry.”
It is a reorienting of our lives that requires both reflection and action.
Reflection, perhaps through confession, to know where it is we should be going. Action, to begin to take steps in that direction… steps which align our lives with that new Kingdom of Heaven we just saw inaugurated.
So, let’s not delay for this Kingdom is at hand.
P.S. Come and Worship the New King!
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