Jesus doesn’t half get a good build-up in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 1 gives us Jesus’ family tree – tracing his lineage back to Abraham himself – and goes on to relate the events around his miraculous birth, complete with angelic messengers in dreams. Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the Magi, and the subsequent flight of the holy family to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, and their eventual return to the normality of Nazareth, where Jesus would spend the remainder of his childhood, about which Matthew’s gospel is silent. But we have heard enough already, between the genealogy and the birth story, to know that Matthew is introducing Jesus as the real deal, the Messiah, the one that God’s people had been hoping and praying for for centuries. We are simply left waiting for the rest of the story to unfold.
Chapter 3 jumps ahead somewhat, and the next thing we hear about is not Jesus himself, but his cousin John. John the baptist’s job – his entire vocation – was to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival, to sow the seeds about baptism, about repentance, about the coming kingdom and about what it really means to belong to the household and family of God. In the passage immediately before today’s gospel he is heralded by the gospel-writer as the one about whom Isaiah spoke his potent and portentous words, and then immediately sets about underlining his own humility in the light of Jesus, the One who is the come.
So Jesus makes his first adult appearance in Matthew’s gospel. It is clear that John is simply the warm-up act, but Jesus’ first action is to submit to John’s baptism – even John finds this hard to understand, and resists the idea at first. But Jesus insists: he wishes to be baptised not because he has sinned, but because it’s the right way to start his ministry. All that pressure, all that expectation. All that taking on the identity of the Messiah, but knowing that he’s not going to be quite what everyone’s hoping for. All that promise. All that that work to do. No wonder Jesus needs to be baptised before he starts doing it all.
And he would be glad that he did. Because when Jesus left the water, he heard the most wonderful words:
“You are my son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”
They’re the words that make audible the gift of the Holy Spirit that he receives at that moment, the words that make the Father’s love for him feel real. If you’re the Messiah, if you’re confronted by all that pressure, all that expectation, all that promise, all that work to do, what you need most in the whole world is to know that you are loved, not because of what you have achieved, nor even because of what you will go on to achieve, but simply because you exist.
It’s what everyone needs to hear who has a challenge to face, or who approaches a metaphorical mountain to climb, or who simply has a life to live, which is often a challenge enough. Every child needs to hear those words, again and again, as they grow in body, mind and spirit. And I tell every parent that as they bring their children for baptism: enabling a child to be surrounded by the knowledge that they are loved is the greatest and most essential gift that they can ever receive, and the greatest gift that any parent can give.
And Jesus needed those words, too – just as much as any of us. That’s part and parcel of his taking on our full humanity.
In the strength of those words, he faced temptation in the wilderness, beating the Devil hands down.
In the strength of those words, he emerged from his ordinary family to embrace Isaiah’s prophecy and announce the manifesto for his mission – to bring release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour.
In the strength of those words, he went three years of ceaseless ministry, healing, teaching, embracing, arguing, challenging, and bringing life and love to those who needed it most and making some enemies along the way.
In the strength of those words he walked the Way of the Cross, and accepted the suffering that was God’s love for the world, written in blood.
If anyone needed to hear those words, it was Jesus.
You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.
But those words were not just for him. They are for all of us. We are not the Messiah. We do not have to face the Devil in person, we do not have to work miracles, we do not have to bring the dead to life. But whatever we do face today, this week, over these next months, we need a safe place to stand, something to hang on to that is utterly reliable. Especially at those times when we are feeling the pressure, when we feel like we have a lot to live up to, when we are having to step up to the mark and ‘be the man’ or ‘be the woman’, when those around us are looking to us to make things right, to fix everything, to live up to all the expectation.
Today, we can put our own name on the front of God’s affirmation. Because, like Jesus, although we’ve lived half a lifetime or more, but today is the first day of the rest of our life. And we have God’s affirmation, his great words of love and encouragement, not because of what we have done, nor because of what we will do, but as a free gift, because we need it. And in the strength of that free gift we can face whatever life will bring us.
And more than that, these words and what is behind them are not only for parents to share with their children, they are for all of us to share with one another: what ways today will there be for you to show another human being, another child of God, by your words and actions, that they are beloved and valuable in the sight of God?