Thirty years have passed. Thirty cold winters and harsh summers lived through. Matthew pans the camera of our imagination across a new epic scene. Crowds have streamed from Jerusalem, Judea and the surrounding countryside to a river in the desert. They have come to hear a simple and austere preacher, John, known as the Baptiser. He has burst on to the scene and is calling on all who come to hear him to change their lives and be baptised as a preparation for God’s kingdom – the new Promised Land, we might call it; a land without borders or geographic landmarks and boundaries (hence the Desert), but rather a way of life whose centre of gravity is a person not a place.
What are we to make of this abrupt announcement? Within a few short verses the reader has been transported from the story of a refugee family to the wild claims of an unknown prophet and outsider of the religious establishment; a prophet who clothes himself in camel hair and wears the mantle of Isaiah. His blunt preaching gains popularity: ‘Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.’ It also gains notoriety. And Matthew more than hints that there are already enemies of this kingdom who have shown up ‘for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing.’
They are the Pharisees and Sadducees. They get the rough edge of his tongue. He brands them snakes. He will not pour water over them because he judges that their change of life is only skin-deep.
Even as he baptizes and berates, John can sense the pull of a powerful new centre of gravity approaching. It is as if the magnetic force of Jesus is already turning the compass needle of John’s heart towards the one who was worshipped as a babe, rescued from slaughter and hidden away in Galilee until now.
And yet it is the Holy Spirit who John first talks about, not the Son of God. Already John knows that this energy or life-force that has a powerful magnetic attraction will line up the compass needles of myriad hearts and point them to the Beloved One. Already John knows that this Holy Spirit will prepare hearts and minds to receive the Beloved One. The Holy Spirit is the ‘go-between God’ in the story Matthew tells. In Chapter 1, the Holy Spirit has been the go-between God for Mary, the one who ‘overshadowed’ her. And here, at the point of Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit appears like a dove coming down from heavens and landing on Jesus.
And so, after all the build-up, Jesus is announced as the one who is ‘marked by God’s love, the delight of my life’. He is the Beloved – not because of anything he has yet done or signified or achieved. He is wholly loved and accepted. He is the model of how we, too, are created for God’s complete acceptance and delight, marked by love. Thunder in the desert leads to a deluge of endless grace.