Before our gospel passage this week we are introduced to John the Baptist in all his fervor. In Matthew, John acts as Jesus’ ultimate hype-man. He was wild, peculiar, and a little smelly but, boy, could he really get the crowd going! People from across the region would line up to hear what John had to say and be baptized by him. At the time, baptism “wasn’t just a symbolic cleansing for individuals; it was a sign of the new thing that God was doing in history, for Israel and the world.” This act embodied the steps of their ancestors, who a millennia earlier had passed through the Red Sea into freedom and crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land. Ushered in by John, the people of God returned to that same water, confessing their sins, as a reenactment of their freedom and “a sign that they were getting ready for a greater conquest, God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven.” Matthew including so much of John’s proclamations (ie. “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,’ John continued. ‘But the one who is coming behind me is more powerful than me!…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!’” (v.11)) sets the stage for the main act, who just happens to waiting in that long line.
On this day, in particular, I imagine John’s arms tired from all the baptizing and his voice a little horse from all the yelling of the judgment to come. One by one, people would wade carefully into the river and John would firmly grab their hand, keeping them from getting washed away in the river’s current. They would confess their sins, how easily they had forgotten their identity, then John would dunk them into the water and usher them out. What a humble yet hopeful ritual, anticipating together the new thing God was about to do.
But imagine the shock when the next hand John grabs is the hand of Jesus. John must have been mortified. Even though we, the readers, have only met Jesus in Matthew’s account, “as a baby with a price on his head,” John seems to know exactly who Jesus is. Jesus is the one John had been waiting for – the one who would carry out God’s agenda of victory and judgement on the earth.
So, imagine John’s horror, and maybe even disappointment, to see Jesus wading in the waters of the Jordan, waiting for John’shand to usher him into the deeper water. John had given himself entirely to the anticipation of the one who would come and make things new again, for the king who would come to bring victory for the people of God. And here He is, “A Jesus who comes and stands humbly before John, asking for baptism, sharing the penitential mood of the rest of Judea, Jerusalem and Galilee. A Jesus who seems to be identifying himself, not with a God who sweeps all before him in judgment, but with the people who are themselves facing that judgement and needing to repent.”
Even still, John responds to Jesus, “No. No way.” But as Jesus wades deeper into the water, with assurance in his eyes, he tells John that though he thought things would be different, “This, [this right here,] is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” Still disappointed and confused, John yields to Jesus and plunges him under the waters of renewal, bringing him back up in the promise of a new kingdom.
Just as Jesus surprised John in that baptism line, we are all surprised by what happens next. “…suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (v.16). Here, the symbol of the peace dove is given to John and to us not only as an embodiment of the Spirit, but also as a symbol “that the coming judgment will not be achieved through warlike or vindictive spirit, but will mean the making of peace. Judgement itself is judged by this spirit, just as Jesus will at last take the judgment upon himself and make an end of it.” Imagine the look on John’s face as yet again, what he thought he knew to be true was but a glimpse of the bigger story.
Matthew’s fundamental reinterpretation of judgment here in the baptism of Christ is shocking not only to the smelly John the Baptist and Matthew’s Jewish audience, but to us even now. The victory and triumph of the Kingdom of God will not come through the violence or punitive justice we expect. In fact, the Kingdom of God might not be about “winning” at all. It might be about humbly wading into the flow of the renewal waters and listening long enough to let God surprise us with his delight and remind us of our freedom.  Wright, Tom. “The Bible for Everyone: Part 1, Chapters 1-15.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. p.18.  Wright, p.18.  Wright, p. 21.  Wright, p. 21  Wright’s interpretation Matt 3:15, p.20  Wright, p.22.