The glory of the Triune God is the richest, most important treasure of our Christian faith, and it is also a great mystery: something to ponder, to bask in, so that we may worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Spirit and in Truth. Yes, the Trinity is a deep mystery and a rich treasure—but the mystery of the Trinity is no hidden secret. The Father loves the Son by the Holy Spirit; the Son returns the Love of the Father through eternal faithfulness; and the Spirit descends and ascends, eternally uniting and flourishing the relationship of the Father and the Son. By the Spirit the Father claims Jesus Christ as his Beloved Son, for all the world to hear. And all of this is made manifest, is revealed before our sight, as the heavens are torn open and the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back. All of this is revealed at the baptism of Jesus Christ—at his baptism!
Baptism is not when Jesus becomes the Son of God—hardly! That happens in the Incarnation itself, when human flesh unites with God the Son in the womb of Mary the Mother of God. Jesus does not become the Son at his baptism, because Jesus has always been united with God. No, the baptism only shows what has always been true for Jesus, pulling back the curtain for a moment on who Jesus really is, on how he really lives, from his Incarnation to his death to his resurrection and ascension. That is the chief difference between Christ’s baptism and our own: when we are baptized, we become something we were not before our baptism. When we are baptized, whether as infants or adults, we are changed, transformed, by the grace of God. At our baptism, we become children of God, when we had been children of sin. Christ does not become anything at his baptism. He has no need that must be quenched by the waters, no desire that must be fulfilled by the grace of God, no lack that must be met for him to follow faithfully the will of God.
But that does not mean nothing happens at Jesus’s baptism. This is not just a show for our benefit, or for the benefit of John the Baptist and the others gathered at the River Jordan. God does not just put on shows for us; God is not our eternal entertainer. Baptism is never just a token, never just a symbolic act, never just something that is done so that others can see that it happened. Whenever there is a baptism, something real happens, because baptism is an event, a cosmic event, an earth-shattering, attention-grabbing, heaven-rending event every time it happens, whether with Christ or with us. At every baptism God does something, which is why we don’t baptize twice, no matter how far we may fall from our baptisms, no matter how little we may remember our baptisms, no matter how tempted we may be to believe that baptism somehow depends on us or on our decisions. At baptism God shows up and acts, every time a person is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And that’s the first thing that happens in Christ’s own baptism: although John has baptized for the repentance of sins, Christ enters the waters, not in the name of repentance, but in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus tells John the Baptist, this is “to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew has already told us that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” but which god is really present among us? There are, after all, many gods and so-called gods in our world. In ancient times they went by names like Diana or Zeus or Neptune; nowadays they tend to pass with names like “comfort” and “success” and “security,” but gods they still are, and a god by any other name will still bind us just as mercilessly. At his baptism, Jesus claims the Trinity as his God, as the God who is with us. This God, and none other, is the one present among us, the one united to our nature for us and for our salvation. No other God but the Trinity can save us, by water and the Spirit or by any other means.
At the same time, a second, just as important, thing is happening: the Trinity claims Jesus as the way into the life of God. Jesus is no mere prophet; no angelic messenger he: Jesus is the Beloved Son of the God who made heaven and earth, all things seen and unseen. There is no other way from us to God; there is no other way from God to us. There are many prophets and many preachers, and they can deliver inspired words and practices from God, but, without Christ, none can deliver God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity. None but Jesus can accomplish that.
Fittingly, there is yet a third thing that happens in the glorious event of Christ’s baptism. Jesus claims the Trinity as the God for whom he is Emmanuel; and the Trinity claims Jesus as the person by whom the Trinity will be Emmanuel. Third, the Father gives a fresh, superabundant portion of the Holy Spirit himself to Jesus. This is truly grace upon grace; Jesus has no need for this added gift. As the Son of God, he is in constant communion with the Father and the Spirit, by the Spirit. Having been already given all he needs, Jesus receives still more from the Father: the Spirit, with purpose this time, to equip him for the start of his ministry.
This is why the Spirit comes to Christ: not so that he can be something he wasn’t before; not so that he can have a great spiritual experience of being close to God; not so that he can feel personally led by a higher power, by God himself. The Spirit comes to Christ so that Christ can set his feet on the path that leads from the Jordan back to Galilee, and then from Galilee to Jerusalem and the cross. The Spirit comes so that Emmanuel can begin his long journey to the crucifixion. By this gift, the Father says to the Son, here is my love for you; my love for you can never be bound, not even by the boundlessness of eternity in our life together. And immediately, the first thing that happens is that Christ begins to fast. The gift of the Spirit leads to a forty-day fast, a rigorous path of self-denial and relinquishing of the many blessings Christ has enjoyed to this point in his life, for the sake of the mission of God he now enters with complete focus and vigor.
At the beginning of Advent, the start of the church’s new year, we remembered our baptisms and renewed our baptismal vows. This morning the other shoe drops. At our baptisms each of us received a full portion of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth and of Adoption in Jesus Christ. Yet from time to time the Father sends the Spirit once more, so that we may grow in faithful service of the mission of Jesus Christ. Too often I have heard these outpourings of the Spirit associated with the bounty of this world: comfort, success, security, or with a deepened spirituality, or with the delightful fruit of good works (but not with the works themselves). Today, however, Christ’s baptism stands as a model and a challenge for us: are we really prepared for the hard road of faithful Christian discipleship? If we have received the Spirit ourselves, will we fast and pray so that we may devote ourselves even more to God’s mission of love and mercy in 2017?
In a moment we will install this year’s congregational leaders, who yesterday discovered that when they signed up to serve on this or that committee, what they really did was say a fresh “yes” to the model and challenge of Christ’s baptism and the hard work of the Holy Spirit. But it takes more than leaders or a few individuals here and there for a church to remain a faithful community of the body of Christ. This year each of us is called by God into a life of discipleship that touches on every corner of our existence, that refuses easy answers, that willingly abandons the fast delights of this world for the joy of standing, by grace, shoulder to shoulder with the Beloved Son of God. For the call, the destiny, of every Christian is to follow in his steps, in the way of his holiness, so that we may enjoy eternally the rich treasure of the glory of the Triune God in whose name we have been baptized, claimed, redeemed, and sent.