Please read Matthew 3: 13-17 and Isaiah 42: 1-9 and then pray; Gracious God, as we continue to step forward into this new year, strengthen, guide and inspires us through your most holy Word. Amen!

You may well be taking tentative or bold steps into 2023, but I am still catching my breath and reflecting on a most momentous and historic 2022. Some serious reflection upon last year is in order, such was its significance socially, politically, and economically. Take just one fact. In 2022 the UK had three different Primes Minister’s – and all from one political party! That is unusual! The UK also took a huge nose-dive economically and we will be reeling from that for some time into the future. However, the thing that shook our nation more than anything else was the loss of our dear Queen Elizabeth II.

2022 was a rollercoaster ride and many of us are still feeling dizzy from it. It began with us all being released from tiring traumatic lockdowns, but our focus soon changed to the Queen’s historic and unprecedented Platinum Jubilee. Oh, how the nation celebrated in those early days of June 2022. The celebrations were fittingly spectacular and they united a somewhat fragile, frightened, and depressed nation. But it was only a few months after those heady days of rejoicing that our nation received news of the death of our Queen early in September. Our mood changed again. Many, including myself, found themselves shedding tears. King Charles III immediately succeeded his mother and formal proclamation of his accession took place on September 10th just two days after the death of the Queen. King Charles will be crowned later this year on Saturday 6th May in Westminster Abbey, and we wish him and Queen Consort Camilla a blessed future. We must keep them and their family in our prayers.

Matthew’s great gospel is all about a King. The theme of Kingship is central and prominent throughout. Jesus of course is that King and he will arise and teach much about the arrival and availability of his kingdom, which Matthew refers to as the Kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses the term Kingdom of heaven no fewer than 50 times, preferring it to Kingdom of God, but what is important all above all else is that this Kingdom (of heaven or of God) belongs to and arrives with JESUS. The long-promised royal son of King David has finally arrived to take up his throne and rule. The King is among us!

So, in Matthew chapter 1 what appears to be a boring genealogy is in fact verification of royal ancestry. (1: 1-17) This is followed by the angelic announcement and proclamation of the upcoming birth of the royal son of David. (1: 18-25) The startled Joseph is of David’s line but it is the Holy Spirit who will be at work within Mary womb. Then Matthew presents the adoration and worship of the new born King as mysterious intellectuals arrive offering rare gifts to a child born and raised in poverty. (2: 1-2) There is then the attempted murder of the King, but he escapes with his parents and with angelic assistance.

Then Matthew skips about thirty years and suddenly we are face to face with a rough and rugged Elijah-like prophet who is known as John the Baptist. His greatest and most privileged task is to prepare the way for the arrival of the King. (3:1-3) It is a time of national excitement and spiritual revival as thousands flood out into the wilderness confessing their sins and receiving John’s baptism of repentance in the waters of the Jordon River. Now we arrive at one of the most critical points in Matthew’s gospel; the introduction and unveiling of the King. It is time for Jesus to be introduced to the world for which he has come to die. It is time for him to be unveiled. It is the epiphany moment. Jesus is to be baptised just like all the others and yet different from all the others. We, as a Church have entered the Epiphany season and we once again see the unveiling of the Son of God.

Jesus’s baptism is unique for He is the unique King and Messiah – in fact God with us. (1:23) Understanding what Matthew says about the King’s baptism is critical because this is the starting and directional point of the ministry and life of the King. The first thing to note is the resoluteness of Jesus. He has come to be baptised – and to be baptised right now – and to be baptised by John who was born, called, and equipped to prepare the way for Jesus. What we must discern here in our bible passage today, is the strong compulsion Jesus felt to be baptised.

One of the things I have experienced many times throughout my Christian life is meeting with people of all ages who become Christians and then feel compelled to be baptised. This was indeed my own experience. After I received Jesus as my King and entered his kingdom, I felt constrained to be baptised. This I now believe was due to the call and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit pointed me in the direction of baptism through the Word of God, and through His personal work within my renewed heart. As a Minister, I have seen this same eagerness for baptism, and not just within young converts. It seems to be part and parcel of being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). You simply cannot hold people back from this need and desire to be baptised. It would be like trying to hold back a forceful rising river from bursting its banks. Of course, this can and should be the same with confirmation candidates. They should be chomping at the bit to be confirmed in their precious faith.

Jesus felt compelled to be baptised. He felt the drawing of the Spirit towards the Jordon and toward John the Baptist that day. Others around him did too, but the King certainly did. Jesus would later feel compelled to make a journey to Jerusalem to die for the world he came to serve and save. No-one (not even Peter 16:23) would be able to dissuade him from the cross. Nothing would deter him from the suffering and pain. Likewise, Jesus would often feel compelled by compassion to heal the sick and deliver the oppressed. Try stopping this King from being merciful –  he healed even on the Sabbath!

Jesus knew he had to be baptised. This was necessary and significant for him, and as we shall see, for the Father and the Spirit also. The initial problem he faced was the Baptizer’s strong reluctance. John protested. John resisted.

But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (3:14)

The problem for John was twofold. Firstly, his was a baptism of repentance for penitent sinners who must confess sins and turn away from sinful rebellion. But the King before him now was spotless, pure, and clean, and did not need baptism. Baptism is for sinners. John knew through prophetic insight and discernment that he was at that moment in the presence of majestic holiness. But secondly, John consequently felt his own contrasting unworthiness. He was not fit to tie Jesus’s shoe straps never mind baptise him.

Despite John’s strength of feeling and his serious reservations – Jesus insisted!

Let it be so now…

When Jesus Christ the King spoke with authority at any time – there could be no resistance either from devils, winds, waves, or anointed prophets like John the Baptist. When this King spoke to John, he immediately submitted to his divine word and relented. What John came to realise (perhaps later after some time of reflection) was that baptising this pure Messiah King was the final piece of his preparation jigsaw. This was the greatest moment of his ministry – baptizing this King from Nazareth. This was tied up with God’s righteousness as Jesus was about to reveal. John consented and immediately witnessed a vision of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus which would remain indelibly imprinted on his mind forever. (John 1:32-34)

John also heard Jesus’ crucial word about the fulfilment of righteousness.

Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.

Why did this humble yet holy King feel compelled to be baptised? Why was he so insistent? Well, as John has already so accurately discerned, it had nothing to do with the King’s sins or shortcomings. He had none! He was perfectly holy. However, there were many sins in the hearts and lives of all he had come to die for. It was now time and it was now right for the Saviour King and Son of God to step down into the same waters as all the others, and identify with them in THEIR sinfulness. His baptism has nothing to do with his sin, but it everything to do with yours and mine. As the ever-perceptive apostle Paul was to later write on two different occasions in 2 Corinthians;

God made him who had NO SIN, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5: 21)   –   (it is proper to do this to fulfil all righteousness Matt 3:15)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.  (2 Corinthians 8:9)

This was the moment when Jesus began to embrace the calling to become the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. John would also perceive this. (John 1:29) The road to Calvary really began in the river Jordon that day as Jesus descended into the waters and then purposefully stepped straight back out of them. This is the reason why Jesus describes his own death as a personal baptism later in his ministry. (Luke 12: 49-50, Mark 10:39)

But I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until it is completed. (Luke 12:50)

The first baptism in the Jordon therefore always pointed forward to the later one on Calvary. The path was set from the Jordon. The Spirit was given to empower the journey to the cross, and the Father’s word of affirmation came to seal love and eternal affection toward an obedient Son.

Look at this another way with the help of the text. Jesus explains to John that he must be baptised in order to fulfil all righteousness. That is the reason for His baptism. It is about righteousness – a plan to execute God’s righteous will for salvation which will make God’s righteousness freely available for all penitent sinners. What we have as Old Testament background here are the Servant Songs of the prophet Isaiah who Matthew loves to quote and reference throughout his gospel. (1:23, 12: 18-21, 8:17). We know this because of the declaration from God the Father at the end of the passage; This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. (3:17) Now see Isaiah 42: 1 ff

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.

Notice also later in Isaiah 42:6 – the strong reference to the predominance of righteousness.

I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

Then, inevitably, one is almost always led to the famous passage in Isaiah 53 concerning the Suffering Servant and his sacrificial death on behalf of others. For our purposes Isaiah 53: 10-12 are especially relevant – but the whole chapter rings with truth about the vicarious suffering of God’s Servant;

Read Isaiah 53: 10-12

Notice again the reference to righteousness and the way this Servant King fulfils it all;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify (make righteous) many, and he will bear their iniquities.

And note also what many see as a reference to Jesus’ baptism and general identification with sinners;

because he poured out his life for many and was numbered with transgressors.

Surely as the King was baptised on that monumental day, he was amongst other things, numbering himself with the transgressors. He was taking up the role of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and setting out to fulfil all God’s righteous will and plans for our salvation. He was determined to fulfil all righteousness. That continued as he immediately went on face the temptations of the devil in the wilderness. Nothing would deflect him from the righteous path to service, suffering and death.

Jesus’s righteous act in being baptised and John’s righteous act of baptising Jesus led to an immediate awesome response from heaven. The heavens were opened (16), the Spirit descended directly upon Jesus, and His Father affirmed him as His beloved Son. Salvation is a trinitarian affair and mission. Father, Son, and Spirit work in harmony to bring rescue to the world for whom the Son willingly suffered and died. That is why is right and proper for Jesus’s disciples to be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) This is the commission of the King.

This is the reason why sinners who become saints feel compelled to be baptised. All over our world the baptisms continue in great numbers – and many still take place in the river Jordon. I have seen them there myself. People personally and openly want to respond to the love of God in Jesus. They wish to embrace and identify with the righteous way of his death and resurrection. They want begin a journey of following Jesus for the rest of their lives. They become part of the mission and outreach to others with blind eyes and oppressed spirits. They join the Church – the body of Christ the King.

So, at the beginning of this new year and of this season of Epiphany, what is your response to the King who is presented in Matthew’s gospel and baptised by John in the river Jordon?

Do you know that people who are sinful like you and I can be forgiven all our sins and clothed in the righteousness of God? We are not just forgiven and set free through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection; we can be clothed in and with divine righteousness. We can be made ready for the Kingdom of heaven. We can be given by God’s gracious love the wedding garments to wear for the heavenly banquet. They are perfectly fitting garments of pure righteousness. Can you sing and celebrate with Isaiah? I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10) Is that your testimony?  Do you understand what baptism means and its place within a saving pattern and way of life?

Will you continue to steadfastly work and pray to see people in our nation return God through the righteous way of the cross. Our nation, as I said at outset of this sermon, is in dire straits. Fear continues to mount; economic gloom encircles us like an ugly menacing vulture; social collapse and chaos continues apace as a result of a nation’s rebellion against God and his righteous laws of love. Are we going to be ready for the day when many begin to seriously question the moral direction and failure of this nation, and think again about whether there might be a different righteous alternative? I think that day is coming. Perhaps it has already arrived. Our new King will be crowned later this year, but I feel that another King, a supreme King above all kings, is needed significantly more. This is a King who was born in simple poverty, who was numbered amongst transgressors, who loved and healed the sick, and who gave up his own life on a cruel cross for a guilty world. He is the all-glorious universal King who lives and reigns forever. His name is Jesus. Let us serve Him with humility, loyalty, and love throughout this year and beyond.

And now unto God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – be all glory, majesty, power, honour, and praise. Amen

Revd Peter Clarkson (8.1.23)