Psalm 27:1-14, Matthew 3:13-17
January 8, 2012
Did you ever get an answer that didn’t help at all? Did you ever ask a question about something, and the answer you got was just as confusing as the question?
That’s the way I’ve often felt about this passage. Jesus comes to John to be baptized, and John immediately recognizes him as the one who he described as being “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” And he says to Jesus, “It is I who need to be baptized by you!” But Jesus answers him saying these words. “Let it be so for now. For thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean? To me, it doesn’t seem to answer John’s concern.
Well, I think we sort of know what it means. At first, it seems to have something to do with Jesus taking part in the religious practices of the time. His parents made the traditional offerings and dedications at the time of his birth. He was part of that whole culture as he grew up. He honored their traditions and took part in them. And now he was asking to be part of this movement John had started as he ushered in the “kingdom of God among them.” But there was also something very important about Jesus being baptized that was deeper even than what John may have realized.
I want you to think about John for a moment. When we first meet him, he is baptizing people in the Jordan river. He’s calling for their repentance, and he’s preaching the kingdom of God. And he’s wowing them! He’s knocking ‘em dead – or alive, actually! They came from all around the region to hear him. And before long, they began to wonder if he was somebody – somebody important! They began to ask him if he was the Messiah, or at least one of the prophets.
We actually have a conversation about that in the Gospel of John. There it says, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” John’s immediate answer was, “I am not the Christ.” “What then?” they asked. “Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?” (John 1:19-21) The footnote in my Bible says that “the prophet” referred to another, more obscure prophet, who was also “an expected messianic forerunner.”
You see, they knew this stuff! Sometimes we think all this about Elijah and the prophecies of the Messiah weren’t known very well at the time. After all if they knew them, why didn’t they believe them, right? We think that people only saw them falling into place years later. But no. The people of the time understood these signs quite well. They were actively waiting for Elijah’s return, to usher in the time of the Messiah. And they began to wonder if John was he!
Well, at first John said no. But later on Jesus would say he that was Elijah. Maybe that was because God didn’t want that information to come out right away. Remember how Jesus himself said on a number of occasions that he didn’t want people revealing who he was. At least not yet. There was a sense of timing going on.
Or, it could be simply that John was human. (Like us!) And sometimes he just wasn’t sure about all of this. We see that later when he sent word from prison to ask Jesus if indeed he was the Christ. “Or should we look for another?” he asked. Do you remember that story? Remember what Jesus said? “Tell John what you have heard and seen: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers and cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:3-5)
So think about this scene. John, the Elijah figure, the one sent to herald the arrival of the Messiah, stands with Jesus in the Jordan river. And I think Jesus, by taking part in this ritual, made himself more fully connected with this movement of repentance and preparation that John started. I think it made this whole picture more complete. It made them part of one ministry together. That’s part of the “righteousness” that was being fulfilled that day.
I think the other part of that “righteousness” is seen in what took place at that moment. In this scene, we see that Jesus’ baptism was so much more than just the elements and the ritual involved. God himself was there! He spoke through his spirit in a way no one expected. And because of that, this baptism of Jesus helps us to understand that what we do in baptism is so much deeper than we can ever imagine.
Sometimes we need that. Sometimes we see our rituals as though we’re looking only across the surface of the water. We sometimes miss the depth that underlies what we do. Sometimes we even make our rituals the “end all” in our faith. But they are only tools. Their purpose is to point us to the big picture. They are not the righteousness that is being fulfilled. They point us to that righteousness. Jesus was “fulfilling all righteousness.” He was participating to the fullest in what would become this sacrament we remember today. He was giving it its full meaning, a meaning that we can only begin to understand.
As we baptize, the element of water that we use symbolizes the vows we have made, and how God “fulfills his righteousness” in us. In just a few minutes we’re going to use some other symbols in our second sacrament. And again, these elements of the bread and the wine only symbolize that sacrifice that Jesus would make for all of us. That makes this picture complete! We have pledged ourselves to him. He has given himself for us. And it’s always so much deeper than we think!
Last week I asked you to remember the time in your life when all of this became important to you. I asked you to think about that time when you had your own personal “epiphany,” your “sudden realization” about Jesus. I hope you’ve thought about that. Now I’d like you to remember that time in your life as we move to a time of recommitment.
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to stand and face the baptismal font, and say once again these baptismal vows. And in doing so, I want you to remember the vows that you said, either at your baptism or your confirmation, or however that happened for you. I want you to remember your commitment to Jesus the Messiah. And in doing this, I want you to renew that commitment. Then I will “reintroduce” you to the waters of Baptism.
Recommitment and restatement of Baptismal Vows.
Eternal God, with Jesus before us, we have taken part in this sacred ritual that we remember this day. Help us to remember also our commitment to him. Help us to pledge ourselves to continue his ministry of love and reconciliation. Help us to be the people he calls us to be. For we pray in his name, Amen.