This homily was delivered by Seminarian Carl Lehenbauer for the Baptism of Our Lord on 13 January 2008, and is posted here with his permission.
Matthew 3:13-17 “A Picture of Perfection”
Dear friends in Christ,
It’s more of a picture than a story. Our Gospel text this morning takes us to the Jordan River for a holy Kodak moment, a picture so powerful that no film would be able to capture it, and even the inspired words of Matthew are not quite enough to portray the splendor of Jesus’ baptism. We see the Jordan River flowing around Jesus, as the Son of God stands up and the pure water pours off of him, reflecting the light like crystals. A dove, white as snow, is descending from heaven, the Holy Spirit of God. The river bank stretches out behind him, earthy and subdued in the background. We look to the top of the scene, but human language is not enough to fill in the gaps, and so our imagination does its best to sketch in a sky that has been physically torn open. Maybe we use light, blindingly white, as bright as we can visualize, to show us the glory of heaven bursting through on Jesus. We can’t see it, but we can hear the words. The Father speaks in a voice we only begin to imagine. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” resonates across the river valley.
And then, after our eyes have adjusted to the glory and our hearts have stopped pounding at the voice of God, after we have torn our eyes away from the face of Jesus, wet with the water of his baptism and shining with the glory of his divinity, perhaps then our eyes will find their way to the face of John. Our pupils have compensated now, filtering out the brilliance of the moment, and gradually the hazy, shaded, sun-burnt face of John the Baptist comes into focus. His eyes, too, are taking in the scene. But what do we see in his face?
Matthew doesn’t tell us. The gospel writer keeps the focus exactly where it should be, and the picture he paints shows us the King of kings and Lord of lords, dripping wet with the radiance of God’s glory glowing around him. But it is the face of John that beckons us to come closer, to examine this painting for details in the artist’s blurry background. The face of John beckons us closer, because in truth we are searching for ourselves. In the blurs, and shadows, and the pale background, we must find the face that we recognize as our own. And so our eyes rest on John’s face.
Perhaps we see eyes widened with fear. His lips are parted slightly as he gasps for the breath that has been suddenly snatched away. His hands, raised to his face to block the assault on his vision, the brilliant glory streaming from heaven, reflected from the water, resplendent in the man he just baptized. The glory that threatens to consume him like light vanquishing a shadow. The words, “This is my beloved Son, with Him I am well pleased” are still echoing in his ears, and the downturn of his mouth tells us that the man in the river has found himself lacking. He is bent at the waist, leaning away from Jesus, and his overpowered posture cries out with Peter, “Away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
This was the face behind the blur for Isaiah when the prophet stood in the throne room of heaven. This was the face painted in the background of Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It is the face of the man or woman who suddenly sees the way things really are. A God who burns with wrath against sin. Fire from heaven destroying a city of sinners called Gomorrah. Water from the deeps drowning the sin of the world in the righteous, indignant anger that cannot be appeased by anything in you or in me. All of it is written there in the glory streaming from heaven, inches away from the sin stained hands of the one who just baptized the Son of God. It is a face that too often we don’t recognize until it’s too late, until the last tears have been cried, the bottle of pills emptied, the casket closed. Despair is the name of that face.
When we come face to face with the all-consuming glory of God, what can we do but despair? If God truly does hate sin, if God truly does burn with wrath against the sinful man I was born as, then the glory streaming from heaven is nothing less than my destruction. And so this would be a picture of despair. This would be a picture of John, in the shadows, searching desperately for some safe place to hide himself.
Maybe that’s why Matthew doesn’t mention what John saw. In fact, none of the Gospel writers tell us what anyone besides Jesus saw. Only Luke implies that others may have seen the glory of God, and even he doesn’t say so explicitly. So maybe John was shielded from the glory. For his eyes there was no terror in that day, no reason to despair at his sin. Then all his eyes could see was the water that dripped from Jesus just like it did from everyone else he had baptized. The heavens opening were for Jesus’ eyes only, and in John’s view the sky held together, blues and grays carelessly mingled like any other day.
Maybe this is where we find our face in the painting. John’s eyelids are drooping just a little bit. You can see the weariness in the slump of his shoulders. A few lines of disappointment crinkle his forehead, and the hands that were expecting an electric sensation at the touch of the Christ are limp, now, at his sides. The water that drips from his fingertips melds with the river the same way that it drips from Jesus, and the turn of John’s head betrays the fact that in his eyes the world hasn’t changed.
This is the face we know from Nicodemus, who brought his hopes and his questions to Jesus in the night and turned away puzzled at the answers that did not seem to fit. This is the face of Naaman, the leper who traveled mile after mile for a miraculous cure from leprosy and instead received instructions to bathe in the river seven times. But we know it even better as the face in the mirror. We have seen these downcast eyes return our gaze when days, weeks, and months pass, and the miracle does not come. Doubt is the name of that face.
If we had the photograph of this moment, maybe that is what we would see. Doubt blanketing John’s face, or despair overthrowing him in a moment. But we do not have a photo, instead we have the words, the inspired, holy words of Matthew. And so we can’t search the background of this painting until we find our face in John’s. Instead Matthew rushes us onward, this picture of the glory gives way to another and another and another. First the wilderness, the temptation, the sinless Lord. The healings, and the perfect Jesus Christ. Food for thousands from the hands of the flawless Son of God. Storms calmed, water becoming a sidewalk, a mountain transfigured in a blaze of glory and there, always there, always in focus, the guiltless Messiah. Image after image, and each picture reflecting in one way or another the fact that this is the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased.
And then the filmstrip stops. The image freezes. Something has gone wrong. The peaceful face of sinlessness is contorted in righteous anger. A whip hangs in the air and animals flee from the temple. Then the image changes again, the face is wounded, red streaks trickle from the forehead. Another shift. A new image. The face is red and purple, swollen and in agony. It’s been abused, almost past recognition, and yet there is something familiar there. The lips curled, the eyelids are drooping, the mouth open in a shout. No longer, “This is my beloved Son,” this voice cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And there it is, bleeding through the agony, the face you recognize: the face of doubt, the face of despair, the faces of lust, and greed, idolatry, deceit, immorality, rage, hatred, gossip, everything that God hates all poured at once into that perfect face. Here at the cross, it’s easy to find our face in the painting. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, it is here, revealed behind swollen eye sockets and innocent blood. It is not his face on the cross. It is ours, contorted by the wages of sin. We have found our face at last.
And so, with trembling hands, we turn the page. And Matthew has another image for us. A tomb stands empty. A Savior stands exalted. And then we gaze at Matthew’s last image. The hands of Jesus raised in blessing, final instruction on his lips: Go. Make disciples. Baptize. The last image takes us back to the first, and we find ourselves again at the water, staring at the painting where the whole journey began. The heavens torn apart. The dove on Jesus’ shoulder. The beloved Son of God, His face tranquil and at peace.
But now we know where to find ourselves. We’re not hidden in the background or in the face of John. It’s not the pale, shadowy backdrop that conceals us. No, we are hidden in the glory itself. The pure glory that consumes sinful men, like light vanquishing the shadows, pouring down on Jesus. There you see the face that belongs to you. There, where the same water drips from Jesus that fell from your forehead. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, baptismal water carries you into that picture. The faces of despair, and doubt and everything else that separates us from God, washed into the glory of the cross and vanquished, darkness fleeing from light. And so you see yourself in Matthew’s portrait, in the face that’s turned toward a rift in the sky, that’s turned toward indescribable glory.
It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Naaman, who left the river cleansed of leprosy and believing the God of Israel. It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Nicodemus, who left that night full of questions, but found his answers in the cross and empty tomb. It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Isaiah, cleansed by the sacrifice from the altar. The face of Jesus and of Paul, by faith a child of God.
There’s a purity in that face. The concerns of this world are smoothed away from the forehead. The lips are parted in perfect worship of the Almighty God. The eyes gaze unblinking into the light. The ears are turned toward heaven to catch the words, words intended now, for you, “This is my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.