January 8, 2017 – The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
This week, as I read today’s gospel lesson, I encountered a peculiar phrase that didn’t quite make sense to me. Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, but John objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you—not the other way around.” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean—fulfill all righteousness? The funny thing is that I know what each of the words mean—“righteousness” means “the condition of being right in God’s eyes” and “fulfill” means “complete” or “finish”—but, when you put the words together in this particular context, I lose track of what they mean. Fulfill all righteousness. In what way does Jesus’ baptism fulfill all righteousness?
If you read my blog at all this week, you know that I found an answer to that question in an unlikely place. I hardly ever use The Message version of the Bible. Unlike most translations, including the NRSV, which we use in church on Sunday mornings, The Message is a paraphrase, which means that it often leaves behind the actual words and phrases of the biblical text, substituting idioms that, in the opinion of the author, are easier to understand in contemporary English. Because of that, the text that it gives us is highly readable but inevitably reflects the interpretive biases of the author to a greater extent than a word-for-word or thought-for-thought translation. But I was desperate to make sense of this phrase, and none of the standard translations gave me any help. But The Message broke it open in a way that felt like a light being switched on in a dark room.
In The Message, Matthew 3:15 reads, “But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” Instead of “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” it reads, “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” If that isn’t clear and right, I don’t know what is.
For thousands of years, God had been in the business of making things right. He called Abraham and promised to make of him a great nation, through which the light of salvation would spread to all peoples. Through Moses, God set his people free from captivity in Egypt, gave them the Law, and brought them to the Promised Land. Over and over, God sent the prophets to remind God’s people to be faithful and to call them to repent when they weren’t and to bring them hope when they were surrounded by darkness. And, finally, God sent his Son into the world to bring all of that making-things-right together, and right there, on the banks of the Jordan River, in this moment of Jesus’ baptism, God was at long last making that righteousness a reality. It makes me wish that I had been there to see it and hear it. Then again, perhaps in a way I was, and so were you.
When Jesus came up from the water, he looked up into the sky and saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And so began the public life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph the carpenter, rabbi, prophet, healer, rebel. Of course, there were other rabbis and prophets and healers and rebels back then. But this baptism showed the world that Jesus was different. As God’s beloved Son, Jesus didn’t just do godly work; he did God’s work. Welcoming outcasts, eating with sinners, touching lepers, proclaiming forgiveness of sins—this was all the fulfillment of God’s plan. But there’s more to it than that. Betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by the religious authorities, tried and convicted, tortured and executed—this was the means by which God’s work of making all things right would be accomplished. In that way, Jesus not only showed us the way the world is supposed to be. He made it the way that it’s supposed to be. By living and dying and rising again, Jesus established God’s all-things-right-ness, God’s righteousness. And it all got its start right here in the waters of baptism.
In all three synoptic gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated by baptism in the River Jordan. Even John’s account, which doesn’t follow the others very closely, goes out of its way to mention Jesus’ baptism in the first chapter, right as his ministry is getting started. This moment, when Jesus comes out of the water and the Spirit comes down and the voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” this is the moment when God says to the world, “In my Son Jesus, I am finally making all things right. He is the one to show you the way that the world is supposed to be. He is the one to make it happen.” And, when we come up out of the waters of our own baptism, we, too, hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are now a part of my making all things right.”
Baptism is how each of us gets our own new start. It’s how God begins his ministry within each of us. Through Baptism, we are united with Jesus in his death and raised with him to new life. By uniting us with his Son, God makes all things right within us. The dog-eat-dog, to-each-his-own, I’ll-get-mine-you-get-yours mentality that is so strong within us and within the world washes away, and we discover instead our place in God’s economy of the-first-shall-be-last, the-weak-are-made-strong, the-poor-become-rich, the-dead-are-raised-to-new-life. Our biology is too strong for us to discover that other-worldly truth on our own. We need God’s help. We need him to enable us to start over on his terms. We need Jesus to make us new. We need Baptism.
But Baptism isn’t only about us. It’s about us and something bigger. It’s about accepting the call to take our place as a part of God’s work of making all things right. God’s righteousness may have been fulfilled in Jesus, but, when we look around, we see that that righteousness still needs to grow and spread because the world isn’t the way it is supposed to be. The world does not know the fullness of God’s making-all-thing-right love in Jesus Christ. And I’m not talking about taking the gospel to the deepest, darkest jungles on the planet. I mean establishing God’s justice right here in our own community where it still has not taken hold fully.
Jesus broke bread with sinners. Jesus brought good news to the poor. Jesus proclaimed release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. When we look to Jesus, we see God’s vision for the way things are supposed to be. It is too small a thing for that justice to be reserved for those who have the inside track on religion. In Jesus’ baptism, God’s righteousness wasn’t being fulfilled for a select few. It was being fulfilled for all people. And, when you were baptized, you were made a part of that fulfillment. Because of Jesus, God has established his righteousness within you. It started with your Baptism, but it continues today. As a baptized child of God, God is calling you to work for his kingdom until that righteousness is made a reality across the globe, starting right here in our own hometown. Will you accept that call? Will you say yes to God’s righteousness?
There is no more appropriate day to be baptized than today. We don’t often do “altar calls” in the Episcopal Church, but today we’re going to do a “font call.” If you have never been baptized before and you feel God calling you to be a part of his centuries-old work of making all things right, which God brought to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, now is the perfect moment for you to be baptized into this faith. Would anyone like to be baptized today? Nothing would give this congregation more joy than to stop right now and celebrate that new beginning with you.
Most of us have already been baptized, but that does not mean that we do not have a call to answer. In just a moment, all of us will have the opportunity to answer again God’s call to be a part of his work of righteousness by renewing the promises made at our baptism. Listen to the questions that are asked of you. Hear how they ask whether you are willing to be a part of what God is doing in the world through his son Jesus Christ. And if you are willing—if your answer is yes—then say it with your whole heart: “I will with God’s help.”