Bill “The Old Arbitrator” Klem was the umpire behind home plate. He called pitches for thirty-seven years, including eighteen World Series, and is also credited with being the first umpire to use hand signals so that the fans could see how he called a pitch. Not everyone always agreed with the pitches he called, but everyone knew that whatever he did call—ball, strike, out—was gospel. Klem also had an annoying habit of making everyone wait while he decided whether a pitch was a ball or a strike. You would think it was obvious, but Klem must have let it play out in his head a couple of times before calling the pitch. Losing patience, one batter turned to Klem and asked, “So what was it, a ball or strike?” Klem responded, “Sonny, it ain’t nothin’ till I call it.” (Source)
Our Gospel reading today is from chapter three of Matthew’s Gospel and the chapter begins, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” We are told, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” John is baptizing those who come to him and confessed their sins. A spiritual washing. But why did Jesus need that washing? St. Peter, referencing the prophecy of Isaiah:
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
So, we can understand John the Baptist’s confusion at Jesus coming to him to be baptized: Jesus has not sinned and has no need for repentance, so why is he needing this baptism?
The Ascent of Isaiah is one of those beautiful deuterocanonical books of the Bible (those books that are not included in the canon of scripture). It is the story about how the prophet Isaiah ascended into heaven to the seventh level of heaven, and while there learned many things, one of which is how the Lord, Jesus, descended through the seven levels of heaven and was born of a woman, yet as he descended was not recognized by the other angels or demons as being the very Son of God. Isaiah records the words of God the Father: I heard the voice of the Most High, the Father of my Lord, saying to my Lord Christ who will be called Jesus: “Go forth and descent through all the heavens, and thou wilt descent to the firmament and that world: to the angel in Sheol thou wilt descend, but to Haguel thou wilt not go. And thou wilt become like unto the likeness of all who are in the five heavens. And thou wilt be careful to become like the form of the angels of the firmament [and the angels also who are in Sheol]. And none of the angels of that world shall know that Thou art with Me of the seven heavens and of their angels.” (Source) And eventually, he would descend into Mary and be born of a woman. Following his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended back into the seventh heaven and as he went, all the angels praised him, but also failed to understand how he could have passed through their midst, undetected, as he descended.
Yes, a story that is attempting to explain the unexplainable, but that also conveys a truth, for St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Philippians, “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Why was Jesus baptized by John, even though he was without sin? It was so that he could fully identify with us. To redeem us, he had to become one of us. Our God is not a god that sits in the heavens like Zeus or Baal and waves his hands this way and that to bring about the desired results. Our God is one that not only created us, but also became one of us. Why? So that he could fully identify with us that he may redeem us. There was no other way, because we were not going to be redeemed through the blood of a bull or goat.
Remember how the Temple priests made the daily sacrifices and that they did it for the forgiveness of sins? But why did they have to make these same sacrifices day after day? St. Paul answers, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) We couldn’t be fully redeemed by the blood of bulls and goats. We had to be redeemed by one who was without sin, but who would fully identify with us as flesh and blood human beings, and that was Christ Jesus: “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12, 14) To redeem us, he had to live as one of us: humbling himself, being born, falling down and skinning his knee, learning a trade, being baptized, fulfilling God’s purposes, betrayed, suffering, separation, dying. All of that, so that you could be with him where he is. All of that, so that we too could hear the words of our Father, not only spoken to and of Jesus, but also spoke to and of us: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” What did Klem the umpire say? “Sonny, it ain’t nothin’ till I call it.” And through Christ’s actions, including his baptism, God has called it. He has called us: His sons and daughters, with whom he is well pleased. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now.” (1 John 3:1a, 2)
Jesus identified with us through his baptism so that we might identify with him as sons and daughters of God. Funny thing is… or perhaps it is a sad thing, I look in the mirror and I don’t see a child of God.
So many Sundays I have stood up here and preached about how we are to see God in the eyes of our neighbor, the stranger, our enemies. We are to see God in all that we meet, and I think you do or at least you are working on it, but I would wager, if you were to ask anyone here, “Do you see a child of God when you look in the mirror?” I think, most of the time, the answer would be, “No.” What do we see? We see a failure, a fake, a liar, a hypocrite, a sinner. We see someone who we believe unworthy of the promises of God and not very likely to attain them. Perhaps this is the reason there is so little love in the world, for scripture says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and since we have so little love for ourselves…
It ain’t nothin’ until Klem calls it and we ain’t nothin’ until God calls it, but God has called it: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and through him, you are my children, with whom I am also pleased. What would your life be like if you could live into that? How greatly could you love, if you loved yourself—if you understood that Jesus endured it all so that not only could he identify with you, but so that you could identify with him.
You are loved by God. You are his daughters, his sons. Everything he did, from the manger to the tomb, including stepping into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John, was done so that you could become and believe that you are his child: his beloved.
Let us pray:
Father in Heaven,
when the Spirit came down upon Jesus
at His Baptism in the Jordan,
You revealed Him as Your own Beloved Son.
Keep us, Your children,
born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to our calling.
May we, who share in Your Life
as Your children through Baptism,
follow in Christ’s path of service to people.
Let us become one in His Sacrifice
and hear His Word with faith.
May we live as Your children,
following the example of Jesus.