1. Until I am seen, I do not exist!
Peter Senge and his colleagues in their book, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organisation, write that the common greeting for “hello” used by tribes in northern Natal in South Africa is the expression: Sawu bona, “I see you”.
If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhona, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.
2. Your identity, who you are, is how you are seen and how you relate to that!
In Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus just appears. Unseen, an ordinary human being, an anonymous member of the crowd who turns up to be baptised. He arrives without credentials. His origins are obscure. As Dan Clendenin informs us, Matthew introduces his ancestors with forty-two generations of men,
then four women with unsavory pasts. Tamar was widowed twice … a victim of incest … abused …used as a prostitute. Rahab was a foreigner and [an unsavoury woman, a spy, a liar]. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow … Bathsheba…. These women stick out like a sore thumb; but they nevertheless formed part of Jesus’s family of origin.
His hometown Nazareth is an unremarkable village. Galilee was notorious, “regarded with contempt and suspicion by most southern Jews.”
Little wonder he was an utter shock and surprise to that society when it encountered this marginal, ordinary human being.
Yet, in his baptism, Jesus is seen and named as the beloved child of God. In this powerful experience, Jesus mysteriously encounters the loving, affirming and empowering presence of the transcendent God, a caring, compassionate, generative parent God.
Matthew, borrowing Mark’s interpretation of this event, adds strong themes from Israel’s history to develop the depth of meaning in this event.
As Ched Myers tells us, “the symbolics surrounding Jesus’ Baptism has a social function that indeed signals the creation of a new humanity”.
The opening of the heavens is an almost exact wording of Ezekiel 1:1. As Warren Carter notes,
The link evokes the exile of 587 BCE at the hands of the Babylonian imperial power and God’s liberation from it… which recalls the exodus, God’s liberation of the people through the water from Pharoah (Isaiah 43: 14-21).
Baptism, therefore, shapes and names Jesus and his followers as those who will become a new community of diverse individuals.
Jesus seeing the Spirit descending is a visual recognition of his being seen and loved by God. It echoes and evokes Genesis 1:2 and the hovering of the Creative Spirit over chaos and unformed world to, forming a new creation. This time it is a reshaping of Jesus’ identity, who will live generatively to work with humanity to reshape society!
Finally, the heavenly voice! This is God’s seeing of Jesus. Most New Testament commentators only emphasise that this creative word of God has a functional role: it discloses, anoints and empowers Jesus as God’s agent to carry out God’s desire to bring freedom and hope to the world.
Yet this call to fulfil God’s desire begins with God as Parent seeing, valuing and affirming and taking delight in this child of God. As William Loader puts it more holistically:
In all the Gospels the baptism has a mythical quality as portraying a point where the heavenly world and earthly reality meet. … However it may be linked with Jesus’ actual baptism, perhaps even a sense of call, it also celebrates who Jesus is.
Jesus is seen, loved, affirmed, named, and invited to receive a new self, “brought into a new existence” by God’s seeing, naming and calling. In our baptism, we receive and live a new self.
Rev Vladimir Korotkov