Before Jesus begins his ministry, he is baptized by John, touched by the Spirit, and identified publicly as God’s child.
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today is celebrated in nearly every mainline denomination as the Baptism of Jesus. We were just talking about Baby Jesus, asleep on the hay, visited by shepherds, named and circumcised on the 8th day according to Jewish custom and law. Now we’ve flashed forward from 8 days old, to something like 30 years old, leapfrogging over the actual celebration of Epiphany – the visit of the wisemen, and landing precariously in the Gospel of Matthew While we hear of the nativity story each year from Luke’s Gospel, it is only Matthew’s gospel which describes the wise men, Herod’s murderous rampage, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt to take refuge from a violent dictator.
At some point, the Holy Family returns to their home country, settling in the region of Galilee. However, Matthew skips the rest of Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and picks up the story with John. John has been busy. His ministry is well underway. Preparing the way for the Messiah, instructing those who came to hear that ALL people needed repentance and cleansing. Nothing like a little fire and brimstone to get people moving and repenting.
But then Jesus shows up. The Messiah. The one John has been waiting for. The Son of God. This is it; John has been waiting for this moment all his life – since leaping for joy in the womb of his mother.
And he’s coming for a baptism. He’s not coming with fire. He’s not coming with a metaphorically violent judgmental streak. He’s not even preaching anything or taking the microphone from John. He’s there to participate. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ “No Jesus it should be the other way around, I’m not worthy to carry your sandals, let alone baptize you? What do you need to be cleansed of? What do you need to repent of? You are the chosen one from God? Why would you wade into the same muddy water as the rest of these vipers?”
And as usual, Jesus doesn’t give a clear theological argument, but gives an answer that makes us think. “It is proper to fulfill all righteousness.” These are the first words Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel. Righteousness is one of those church jargon words that gets thrown around like everyone knows what it means. Ask any Christian – you might get a few different sounding answers. A good person, virtuous person, someone who is right, perfect, just.
But there is something missing from each of those definitions because righteousness is a relational word – being made right by something or through something, or someone. Think about the word Justified or justification. The act of being justified. You know when you are typing a document and you can click right justify or left justify or center? You click puts your text in the proper relationship with the margins. As Christians, we don’t justify ourselves, we don’t make ourselves righteous. God puts us in proper relationship, it is God who justifies. It is God who puts us in right relationship, through Jesus.
In her recent commentary, Diana Chen, Professor of New Testament explains, “The concept of righteousness, especially in the Old Testament, is not limited to moral uprightness. More importantly, righteousness is a relational concept. For example, Abraham “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was righteous because he trusted God, not because he was morally perfect. Human righteousness entails being put in a right relationship before God, as Habakkuk states, “The righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). God’s righteousness, then, is expressed in his covenantal faithfulness and salvation for Israel (see also Isaiah 46:13; Psalm 143:11).”
Righteousness is relational – so when Jesus says it is proper to fulfill all righteousness, this will put relationships right. This act is the beginning of his mission and ministry, to restore humanity to a right relationship with God. But also, this puts Jesus in relationship with humanity, and with the margins, so to speak. With this baptism, Jesus joins humanity in the muddy Jordan.
He stands with the people in the margins, not the mainstream, the ones who think they might not be able to have a relationship with God, the ones who believe they aren’t as good as the rest of the proper Jews, the ritually unclean and untouched. The ones who are on the outside looking in.
Jesus’ baptism immersed him fully in the depths of humanity, into each human fear that we are unworthy and unlovable – and God the Father responds with the Holy Spirit in one voice. – In the gospel of Mark and Luke, God addressed Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), whereas in Matthew, God makes an announcement, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly. One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. The bookends of the season of revelation and uncovering who this Jesus is – and what he’s about. Both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5). A relationship – and a relational message.
Jesus has a relationship to the father – and God the Father is manifest in the son – God has shown up with us, and as he loves the son, so he loves all the children. And here’s the spoiler alert. Even though Matthew tries so very hard to make it plain that Jesus is the Jewish messiah and so connected to this long line of people being in relationship with God a certain way – it turns tour that Matthews overarching theme is that God’s salvation extends beyond Jesus’ immediate Jewish community to include the Gentiles as well (in other words, to include everyone).
The visit of the Magi, definitely not Jewish, foreshadows this broad message of inclusion, and together with the great commission at the end of the story (), frames the story of Jesus’ life. All means All.
Jesus has come to turn conventional religious ideas on their head. The one with whom God is “well pleased” doesn’t so much come “from on high” as “from below” or “from alongside,” truly standing with us in solidarity — so that in the end, our baptism isn’t only by Jesus; it’s also with Jesus and in Jesus. The Way of Jesus is a way of humble solidarity and love, coming alongside our neighbors for the sake of our common life together. Amen.
Pastor Erin Evans