This baptism scene of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel functions as a declaration of faith or proclamation of faith in Jesus as the representative Son of God. Mark and Luke’s versions of the story serve this purpose too, but it’s particularly characteristic of Matthew. Historians read stories like this and wonder about what really happened, but the more important questions for people of faith relate to meaning. What does this mean for us and what are the implications for you and me?
For all of us here Jesus is the preeminent Son of God. We may have differing beliefs when it comes to the specifics in understanding the deity and humanity of Jesus, but for all of us here Jesus is the quintessential Son of God. He’s the one we look to whether we call him Savior, teacher, prophet, Lord, or friend. Matthew’s story of Jesus birth was intended to set Jesus apart as one chosen by God for a very special work. Christians differ in their understanding and interpretation of that work, but without question, we all agree Jesus takes center stage right?
A number of Christians read into this description of Jesus as “Son of God” all that they have come to believe about Jesus, or what the creeds and Christian doctrine has said about Jesus as Son of God. And I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, though personally, I find it more helpful to read this passage in light of the ways this designation was used in the Hebrew scriptures and the way it would have been understood by Jesus’ first followers. So I ask: What did it mean for Jewish people in the time of Jesus to call someone a son of God?
In ancient Israel the king was called the son of God. And this was not unique to Israel. In fact, designating kings as sons of God was common throughout the ancient Near East. In fact, in other societies the king was even called God and the deification of the king was usually announced at the king’s coronation. Of course, in Israel, because of their monotheism, because of their belief in one God – “the Lord, our God is one” – they would never equate their king with God, but they did call their king the son of God, and apparently this designation was proclaimed at the king’s enthronement or coronation. In Psalm 2, which is believed to be a coronation psalm, the psalmist says speaking for God: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Then he says of the decree of God: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The begetting of the king as God’s son was connected to his coronation, to his enthronement ceremony. So here clearly to be a son of God is to be a representative of God in carrying out some special work.
Also, the covenant people of God collectively, as a whole were called son of God. In Exodus 4 Moses receives his orders from God and God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son.” Hosea in referencing God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage speaking on behalf of God says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (11:1). So the people of God collectively were said to be God’s son.
Then too, in the Hebrew scriptures the heavenly hosts are called “sons of God.” The story of Job begins with the sons of God presenting themselves before the Lord. The NRSV says, “heavenly beings” but in the Hebrew it is “sons of God.” Also, in other ancient Jewish literature charismatic teachers and holy men are sometimes called “sons of God.”
Certainly the NT writers attributed to Jesus special status as Son of God. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the unique Son of God. But I find it helpful not to read later creeds and doctrines about Jesus that developed much later back into this title as the Gospel writers employ it. What Matthew is saying through this baptism story is that Jesus as son of God is set apart by God for a special mission and work. And while we regard Jesus as the quintessential or preeminent son of God, and look to him for guidance and instruction Jesus is not alone in being a son of God. In fact, Paul made this an important aspect of his gospel.
Paul tells the Galatian Christians that God sent his Son Jesus to engage in special redemptive mission. But then he tells the Galatians that they too are children of God. He says, “Because you are children, [that is, because you too are daughters and sons of God], God has sent the Spirit of his Son [that is, his son, Jesus] into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” Abba was the way Jesus addressed God and it speaks of a close, personal, intimate relationship. The relationship that Jesus of Nazareth had with God as son of God is available and accessible for each us as well, who are also the daughters and sons of God. The Spirit of the Son resides in us. We are the daughters and sons of God. All of us – whether we know it or not.
So let me ask you? Do you see yourself as a beloved daughter or son of God? If not, why not? Unfortunately the Christian doctrine of original sin and what some Christians call total depravity I believe has contributed to the difficulty some Christians have in seeing themselves as God’s beloved sons or daughters. If one sees himself or herself as totally depraved or as nothing but a sinner, then it’s probably rather difficult for that one to see herself or himself as a beloved daughter or son like Jesus. And yet, that is who we are! That is our original blessing that comes before original sin. Of course we have all missed the mark. We have all failed and erred and fallen in one way or another. But the first thing and most important thing, before all of that is that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.
I love the Greek legend about Helen of Troy. In this legend Helen is kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffers from amnesia. In time she is able to escape from her captors. She roams the streets and becomes a prostitute in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends, however, refuse to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never loses faith sets out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he is wandering through the streets of a strange city he comes across a prostitute who looks strangely familiar. He asks her name and she responds with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asks if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looks at her hands he realizes who she is. In great joy he looks at her and exclaims, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she says in a whisper. And when she speaks her name, her true name, the fog begins to clear and a sense of recognition comes over her. This is the beginning of her new life as she assumes the life of a queen she had been all along.
What might it mean for you and me to live up to our identity, our daughtership and sonship as the daughters and sons of God? The first thing of course is to really believe it, to trust in our hearts that we are the daughters and sons of God. This is the first thing about us and the most important thing. I’m afraid that some folks have been told so often that they are sinners and deserve nothing good that it’s hard for them to accept that the first thing and most important thing about them is not that they are sinners, but they are children of God and loved by God unconditionally.
It’s interesting that in Matthew’s version the Divine Voice says to the crowd, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But in Mark and Luke’s versions of the story the Divine Voice addresses not the crowd but Jesus. Matthew gives Jesus’ baptism a public setting and emphasizes the proclamation of Jesus’ sonship, whereas Mark and Luke suggest that this was a personal experience, maybe a personal epiphany, where the Divine Voice speaks directly to Jesus in the second person (not third person as in Matthew), “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And maybe we need both experiences. Maybe the only way we can really hear the Divine Voice is by hearing it both within ourselves and by hearing it from others in order to really believe and trust it.
If a person or group has been marginalized, treated as inferior, beaten down by bad religion or bad social law or custom, maybe that person or group needs to hear words of affirmation and welcome and acceptance from others before they can actually believe and trust that God welcomes and accepts them. Maybe we all need that to some degree.
Lillian Daniel, a UCC minister tells about having to move every couple of years when she was in school because of her parents work. She writes about how difficult that was:
You enter the school cafeteria and freeze. You clutch your lunch and wonder. Where do I sit? Will I be welcomed? Will I be ignored? The noise of the lunch room hits you like a bomb. It is so loud and full, but for you it is empty. All that chattering, shrieking, and laughing does not include you, and it never has. You are the outsider. You have nowhere to sit. . . . “Is someone sitting here?” you ask at a table with an empty seat or two. You are greeted with a shrug. “Go ahead.”
You remember your last school where, when you asked, “Is someone sitting here?” they said, “Sorry, it’s taken.” So you sat somewhere else and then spent the lunch hour looking at that still-empty seat, and the girls around it whispering to one another, saying, “That was mean,” when their laughter indicated what it really was, to them: funny. After that, you wondered if you would always eat alone at this school. And now, sitting here, living this moment one more time, you sit down and wonder: Will they talk to me? Will I ever eat with these people again?
“What’s your name?” the girl I have joined at the table asks me. Another says, “Where did you move from?” And at her question, my heart fills with such gratitude that I fight to keep back the tears. They have welcomed me. I have a place to sit. I will not have to eat alone in the middle of a crowded room.”
Lillian Daniel finds God in such a welcome. As well, she should, because this is what God does. God welcomes all to the table of fellowship and friendship because we are God’s daughters and sons – all of us. God invites us to believe it, to trust it, and to live like it.
But you know, sometimes, some of us, maybe all of us, need to hear the voice of welcome and acceptance coming from others, before we can hear it as the voice of God.
And once we hear that voice, once we experience the power of that affirmation, then we want others to hear that voice as well. Do you realize that through the welcome and hospitality we extend to others, through our acceptance and affirmation, through our expressions of love and friendship, the recipients of these expressions of grace may just be able to hear and receive God’s expressions of grace and love and be able to respond to God’s invitation to friendship. Maybe through our voice they will be able to hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”
Someone might say, “Well, I don’t think God would be pleased with some of the things I have said or done.” Well, that may be true. God may not be pleased with some of the things we say and do. But, that being so, God is always pleased that we are God’s daughters and sons. A loving parent may not always be pleased with a child’s words or deeds. In fact, caring parents may be deeply grieved and hurt and angry with a child, but those parents are always pleased that the child is their child. I know God is not always pleased with my words or actions, but I know in my heart God is pleased that I am God’s son. I hope you know that in your heart too. I hope you are able to believe that and trust it. And if you do know it and trust it, I hope you will see that God needs you to help others know it too.
Our good God, as we share in the bread and cup together as your sons and daughters may we hear your voice saying to us what Jesus heard, may we experience your grace, your welcome, your acceptance, and affirmation and know from that experience that we are your beloved children. And may we be compelled by your grace to want others to know this too. Amen.