There are many things we learn from our faith. We learn how to treat other people. We learn what priorities to set in life. We learn moral guidelines to use in making decisions. But what you believe is the most important thing we learn from our faith depends on who you listen to.
The gospel writers, for example, have a difference of opinion concerning what is of primary importance in our understanding of the defining element of our faith—the identity and mission of Jesus. The writer of the Gospel according to Mark, for example, wants to emphasize that Jesus came to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. So, what are the first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”.
Luke also emphasizes the preaching and teaching aspect of Jesus’ ministry. So, the first words Jesus speaks publicly in Luke’s gospel are spoken in the synagogue, as he reads from the book of Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah, and then proclaims himself to be the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The writer of the Gospel according to John, however, is very much into signs and wonders—the things that Jesus actually DID. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the first public appearance of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John is at the wedding in Cana, where he changes water into wine.
None of the gospel writers dispute that Jesus is the Son of God. They just have a difference of opinion about the most important aspect of Jesus’ ministry. And they voice that opinion by the way they present him. For our Gospel from this morning, Matthew, Jesus is first presented to us publicly at his baptism. And when Jesus goes to John to be baptized and John protests, we hear Jesus’ first public words in the Gospel according to Matthew, and he says “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean?
Well, I was in my teens the first time I remember hearing a sermon preached on the baptism of Jesus. And I’ll admit that my response to the sermon was somewhat less than enthusiastic. It was something like, “So what’s the big deal? Jesus was baptized. So was I. It seemed to me the most natural thing in the world for Jesus to be baptized. But it didn’t seem so natural or easy the first time I tried to PREACH about it!
It was about this time of year, January of 1991. I was in seminary and I looked up the lectionary readings for the first Sunday after the Epiphany and learned that the gospel selection for that day was Matthew 3:13-17, the Baptism of Jesus. So, I opened my Bible and began reading. Since I like to go back a little and get a feel for the setting of the text, I read,
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.’” Then a few verses later I read, “Then Jesus came to be baptized by him.” Well now! Is that right? Is there a direct connection between the baptism of Jesus and his repentance? I quickly flipped over to the Gospel of Mark, who said that John was proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” I thought, wait a minute! Why did Jesus feel the need to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin? He’s supposed to be the one who was without sin. I understood why repentance and forgiveness were necessary for ME, but for JESUS? It just didn’t make sense!
Frantically I consulted every commentary I could get my hands on. And the authors of those commentaries listed several reasons for Jesus’ baptism, most of which didn’t help me one bit! Even those Bible scholars had to admit that it was a bit of a puzzle, and that it was by no means a new issue.
When Mark wrote his gospel, he simply reported the event of Jesus’ baptism with no elaboration, almost like, “Oh, before I forget about it, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River one day. It was a nice service, and everyone went home happy.” By the time Matthew decided to retell the story (Matthew’s Gospel was written quite a number of years after Mark’s), it was a bigger problem.
You see, all the current evidence indicates that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew actually had access to the Gospel of Mark. After reading Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, Matthew said, “That’s not exactly the way it happened. Mark left out a couple of important details. Most importantly, he left out the words of protest by John the Baptist.”
John the Baptist didn’t think it was right for Jesus to be baptized by him, and I suppose one could assume from his protest that in fact he felt Jesus should not need to be baptized AT ALL. It was a problem from the very beginning. John the Baptist, who told EVERYBODY who would listen to him that they needed to repent and be baptized, did not understand any more than we do why Jesus needed to be baptized.
So, there I was – a preaching rookie with only one semester of seminary under my belt, who had read all the commentaries, searched the scriptures, touched all the right bases taught in Sermon Writing 101, and pestered the life out of several colleagues trying desperately to understand. It was Friday, and Sunday loomed large on the horizon and I still had a serious problem. Instead of asking, “What would Jesus do?” my question was “Why did Jesus do what he did?” Jesus being baptized now seemed to me the most unnatural thing in the world!
What could I do? It was too late to switch to another text and preach from the Old Testament or the Epistle reading for the day. There wasn’t time to do the research. And I really did not want to pick a fight with Matthew and Mark and Jesus about the appropriateness of baptizing someone who had not sinned. So, on that cold January Sunday morning in 1991, I stood before my seminary colleagues, listed the reasons I had gleaned from the commentaries, and talked about baptism in very general terms, all the while praying (as I do every Sunday) that the Holy Spirit would use my words to help someone gain a better understanding of the good and perfect will of God. To this day, I don’t know if that happened. If it did, as always, it was God’s doing and not mine.
But, by the grace of God, during my sojourn at seminary, I was assigned by one of my professors (although I didn’t consider it a blessing at the time) to read and report on a little book by a German theologian named Oscar Cullmann. The book was entitled Baptism in the New Testament. Now, the writings of German theologians quite often are difficult for me to understand. Not so in this circumstance. This little book was a Godsend. In it, Dr. Cullmann not only acknowledges the difficulty in understanding why Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance. He offers a simple explanation for it, one that had for some reason eluded me.
Cullmann says, “It was not a baptism of repentance for HIS sin; it was a baptism of repentance for our sins. Just as Jesus died on the cross, not for his own sin, but for yours and mine, so also was he baptized in solidarity with, and on behalf of, you and me.”
By this act of going to John to be baptized, by this act of joining people who were acknowledging that their lives were totally messed up and empty and uncertain and in need of a fresh start, Jesus publicly demonstrated the meaning of “God is with us;” of “God has come to us;” the meaning of “God has joined us in this world, in our human condition, in our human predicament.” God understands! God knows what life and death and mistakes and sin are really like for you and me!
I know that scholars have seen Jesus’ baptism through the ages as important to his mission and ministry in various ways. But for me, it finally begins to make sense when I remember that whatever else may or may not be involved, Jesus was baptized for me. And he did that not because he needed to, but out of obedience to God. Out of God’s charge to Jesus to truly be among us and to be one of us—in every way. And that is what it means to fulfill all righteousness. It means being obedient to God. It means listening for God’s call and seeking out God’s guidance. And finally, it means living in the way that we believe God calls us to live.
The call to baptism is an invitation to seek out God’s guidance throughout our life. Baptism is a one-time event that takes a lifetime to finish. Every day is a day of baptismal conversion, of dying and rising again with Christ, of taking new steps toward becoming more fully what, by the grace of God, we most truly are.
As this year of our Lord, 2020 begins, may we each learn to better live into the relationship that God has created with us in our baptism; may we each know and respond to the love that God has offered us; and in that love, may we each find healing and hope. AMEN.