January 8, 2017 – Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord   January 8, 2016   Psalm 29, Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:1-12, 13-17      To fulfill all righteousness

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John the Baptist protests mightily when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, saying, “I need to be  baptized by you – what can you be thinking of, coming to me?”

John somehow understands – Jesus is the one he’s been expecting. The one who comes after him, whose dirty sandals he, John, is not worthy to carry. The one who baptizes, not with water, as John does, but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

We call this day Baptism of the Lord Sunday – but – the more time I spend here at the water’s edge, the more I believe…

Baptism isn’t the main thing at all – even for John, the Baptizer. Baptism is important for John and for Jesus, to be sure – but only as a sign that we who are baptized are serious about hearing the main message – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Repentance is an ancient and very familiar message in John’s time, one all the prophets of Israel have preached… Repentance, meaning turning and re-turning to God – till we are living entirely in harmony with God’s word – doing God’s commandments – living by God’s teaching… An old and familiar message for Israel….

Except that it’s been a long time since a full-fledged indisputably prophetic prophet’s been on the scene preaching this message with power and conviction. Malachi, the last prophet in the bible before the New Testament, came more than 400 years before Christ and John the Baptist. It’s been quite awhile since anyone preached like John.

And most all the prophets warned, like John, of dire judgement on those who fail to repent. But few if any put so much emphasis on the nearness of God’s kingdom as John does. None name the kingdom of God as close at hand, the way John does. Other prophets say “in days to come,” or “on the day of the Lord it shall be…” Only John says “the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.”

A message we’ll soon hear Jesus preaching – in exactly these same words – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…”

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John the Baptist, of course, is a major figure in the New Testament. He or his followers are mentioned at least seven times in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says no greater man of God has walked the earth then John. (Though he also says the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Something to ponder at length, but…)There’s no evading John’s importance in the gospels. Especially since John and Jesus start out together here in the waters of the Jordan River – John laying hands on Jesus in the waters – John and Jesus so very close together, bodily and in their common message at first… that we surely expect they’ll be together all the way, in long-term partnership…

Yet a little further on in the story, John seems to be not-so-very-sure of who Jesus is… As we read on into Matthew chapter 11, we find John, now in prison, having second thoughts about Jesus. John, in jail for delivering a prophetic warning to King Herod, sends messengers, asking Jesus, “are you the one – or should I be waiting for someone else?” (A few chapters earlier some of John’s followers have been asking Jesus’ followers – ‘why don’t you all fast like John and we do?’ Doubts about Jesus have arisen, probably because Jesus eats and drinks with sinners, and doesn’t always fulfill expectations of how card-carrying prophets are supposed to live…though he surely does much more than any prophet before or after…. Something else to ponder at length… and… )

Jesus sends word back to John, saying – “the blind get their sight back, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor receive good news – and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

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But now we’re running on ahead. Today we’re still wading in the water… And yes, God has gone and troubled these waters of baptism… Where, here, at the water’s edge, we still see the close relationship between Jesus and John… Still hear them singing together, in close harmony…  an old song of Israel… in a new arrangement, a different tempo and key…

Repentance and returning to God is an old familiar song for Israel… But up to now baptism has been rare – as far as we can tell, reserved mostly for converts to Judaism. John baptizing Israelites must seem a little weird – like us re-baptizing already baptized Christians should seem weird to us today. It’s like saying we need to start all over again. We’ve been doing the faith thing that wrong….

There’s a comparison here with the early Methodist revivals in England and America. John and Charles Wesley didn’t re-baptize, but they did often quote John the Baptist on the need to  “flee the wrath to come…” The established church of England, to be sure, preached repentance, but the preaching and teaching was often so formalized, so confined to certain hours inside the church, that few took it seriously. So the Wesleys joined their evangelical Congregational friend George Whitefield, preaching in fields to people on their way to work, sparking a prolonged revival. And just as John the Baptist’s strongest words of rebuke were reserved for the Pharisees and Sadducees, religious elites of their day (who, as other translations make clearer than ours today, were probably coming only to observe, even spy on John’s baptism – not to be baptized – confirmed later in this gospel in comments by Jesus about Pharisees rejecting John – anyway) – so also John Wesley’s most scathing sermon, “Almost Christian” was preached to the Oxford professors who, in Wesley’s view, promoted a smug, self-satisfied, complacent, version of faith – a faith he called sarcastically “almost Christian”… Meaning really not even close to Christian at all…

And the growing tension and contrast between those who held to a self-satisfied status quo and those calling Israel back to a much closer walk with God is certainly one reason why Jesus insists on being baptized into the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist… Saying ‘we need to do this… to fulfill all righteousness…’

But…What then, does Jesus mean by this phrase – “to fulfill all righteousness?

Righteousness and fulfillment are each enormous themes in Matthew’s gospel… And both words have shades of meaning, and we don’t have time to unpack either term in detail today… But…

Righteousness, by dictionary definition, means basically right living – living justly, uprightly, mercifully. And righteousness in biblical usage means living in right relationship with God and neighbor. Loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind; loving all neighbors as ourselves… Wanting God’s best for everyone…

Fulfill in both its plainest dictionary meaning and also in its biblical usage is about bringing about or carrying out or bringing to completion. In biblical usage to fulfill is particularly about bringing about or completing God’s purposes…

And then we also have this little word all.

And as bible scholar Walter Brueggeman has pointed out – here, in his baptism by John, Jesus re-enacts – and fulfills – virtually all of Israel’s sacred history…

In the beginning God’s Spirit is hovering over the waters – and the voice of God speaks… Now here’s Jesus, coming up from the waters, as God’s Spirit descends upon him…and God’s voice affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son…

And here is Jesus, wading in the troubled waters of repentance, reminding us of the great flood… and the dove sent forth by Noah that comes back with an olive branch of peace, to let us know flood waters are receding… And now again, above the waters, the dove of God’s Spirit descends on Jesus…

And in Israel’s exodus out from slavery in Egypt, God parts the waters of the Red Sea by a strong wind… And the same word, ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, means both wind and spirit… And God’s Spirit again is over the waters as Jesus begins our new exodus out from all forms of slavery…

And God parts the waters of the River Jordan as Israel enters the promised land after forty years in the wilderness… And here’s John and Jesus in the same wilderness, the same River Jordan’s waters… and Jesus is the way to the new promised land we enter through him… and…

If we had more time we could talk about Jesus and John fulfilling the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, prophets of old, who also part the waters of Jordan River…

We could talk about Jesus fulfilling Psalm 2, where God says “Today you are my Son…” Fulfilling our reading today from Isaiah 42, where God speaks of “my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

We could talk about all these and many other ways in which Jesus fulfills the scriptures and traditions of Israel… But most of all what we should see here today, is…

Jesus fulfilling all the very righteousness of God. Fulfilling all God the Father asks of him… Revealing for us exactly what God looks like in human form.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, coming in so very low, under our radar, in humility and meekness…Sharing in all the woes and blessings of human life…

Revealing the humility of Almighty God… submitting to the indignities of human flesh and bone and blood… And… if we look long enough we know…

The fulfilling of all righteousness Jesus is coaching us in is all about holy submission to God…

Who, in Jesus Christ offers the ultimate act of gracious and loving submission – becoming like us in all things except sin…

So that through him, with him, and in him… we may become like Him…in love.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.