The Baptism of the Lord marks a critical beginning in the life of Jesus Christ. Once his life was quiet, but as he emerged from the waters of Baptism, a fundamental shift happened. The heavens parted and Jesus heard his Father’s voice proclaim: “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.” This is the son whom God has sent and in whom the Father is well pleased. For Jesus, this event marks an awakening. Things will never be the same again. He comes out of the water and is taken immediately into the desert, where that new identity is tested by satanic forces. The struggle in the desert is to doubt or deny his sonship with God. Two temptations are introduced by words “If you are the Son of God”: then make rocks bread and throw yourself down from the parapet or activate your powers for all to recognize. The 40-day struggle strengthens the determination of Jesus to follow through with his Father’s plan.
And so, his public mission begins. But just how and where does a public ministry start? Joseph’s son, a commoner, the guy next door; how does Jesus shift the perceptions of the people around him to see him as the one who fulfills the words of the prophets? For Jesus, it begins in the synagogue that he regularly attended. Here among his neighbors and peers, Jesus opens the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah, who foretold that a Messiah would be anointed with the Spirit and that Spirit would bring joyous news to the poor, liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed. Every eye in the synagogue was upon him as he rolled up the scroll and proclaimed himself as the one whom Isaiah was talking about.
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
For a moment, the people thought him wonderful. They thought his words were gracious, they spoke highly of him, they were amazed by his authority. For a moment, they could “see” with their spiritual eyes what, or should I say who, sat before them. They had great expectations at the river Jordan that the Messiah was coming, and the time of fulfillment was near. And yet, something shifted inside of them. The mob mentality pulled them out of the deep insights and expectations that they had, and suddenly those hopes were dashed to the ground.
“Wait, wait, isn’t this Joseph’s son? Where did he get this strange notion that he is the fulfillment of the prophet’s words?” And like a cloud comes quickly over a sunny day, darkening the landscape, doubt forged its way into their hearts.
Jesus saw it. He felt it. And he addressed it.
Jesus confronted the doubt with a type of clarity and wisdom saying to them, “You will one day say to me, ‘Physician cure yourself.’” Indeed, his words would come to pass when later Jesus hung on the cross and jeering voices said: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” (23:35)
The doubt turned to hard-heartedness in the synagogue that day, and Jesus placed before his detractors two incidents from sacred Scripture which revealed their ancestral sin: hard hearts. There was no faith in the country when the famine struck and Elijah saved the life of a Gentile woman and her son. There was no faith in the country when Elijah saw to the healing of Naaman, the Syrian. Already Jesus is letting his own people know in the synagogue that salvation will come to the Gentiles. Like it or not, the salvation of God belongs to all people. It was a convicting statement, one which caused a moment of bliss to turn into such vehement fury that they attempted to throw Jesus over the brow of the hill.
What about us? Do we become so familiar with the Jesus of the Gospels that we shrink from our own intimate relationship with Jesus through our daily prayer? Sometimes I fear that is the case. One of the reasons Jesus was rejected in this setting is that it goes against the grain for God to become concrete in our lives. Let’s face it, we avoid God. For when we allow God to become real in our lives, then we must put away our desires and our favorite notions, which are often complicit with sin.
The self wants to taste jealousy, dance with self-interest, collude with brooding over injury, rejoice over wrongdoing and avoid truth — just the opposite of what love is about.
Jesus modeled that love; he escaped the brow of the hill, but he did not give up on the people. From Nazareth, he went to Capernaum to heal, to the seashore to call his disciples, into the byways and hillsides of the country, inviting those who would listen to draw near to the one called Messiah. He travelled to places where crowds gathered and people reached out for healing. He went to Calvary, arms outstretched with love and forgiveness. And for what it is worth, he continues to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed.
Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in our hearing.