NRSV ISAIAH 42:1-9
42 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
NRSV MATTHEW 3:13-17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I don’t know who exactly did it, but someone in the church hierarchy years ago came up with the idea that the stories of the baptism of Jesus should be read early in the church year. It makes a lot of sense; the Sunday we now mark as Baptism of our Lord Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, so it is guaranteed to be the second Sunday of the year. A good time for folks to look over their New Years’ resolutions and make sure at least some of them have a faith component.
It’s not that Jesus woke up one day and looked at the calendar and said, “Okay, time to be baptized.” But it is good for us to look at this story, and early in the year. Mostly because this story appears early in each of the first three Gospels. And also because these stories are important. You know they are important because along with the crucifixion and the resurrection, the transfiguration and the feeding of the multitudes, this is one of those rare stories which is found in all four Gospels.
It’s kind of a passing story in John (which is a different kind of gospel anyway), in which the Baptist hardly recognizes that he knew Jesus at all when he baptized him. The Synoptic Gospels – so named because they, as the Greek word puts it, look alike – all have this story and all acknowledge that not only did John the Baptist know Jesus but they tipped off the reader earlier that Jesus and John were cousins.
Whenever the Gospels have the same story, I think it’s kind of neat to look at how each of the Gospels tell the story and see what matches and what doesn’t. In Matthew, everything lines up with Mark and Luke, except for one thing: In Matthew’s account, John does what we probably would have done if Jesus came to us and asked us to baptize him.
He resisted. He said “Are you kidding me?” Or words to that effect. Technically, he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Believe it or not, that only appears in Matthew, even though, as I said, we all would have said the same thing. Jesus, are you kidding me? You want me to do what?
Yes, I know, I’m playing fast and loose with the Biblical text. But think about it: what better way to describe John’s understandable response, using language we use all the time? For instance, we use that phrase to describe all kinds of news that we find disturbing or dangerous. Like when we hear something bad that has happened to our loved ones, or to our neighbors. Or when we get a piece of bad financial news. Or when we get hit with the headlines, such as the apocalyptic scenes in Australia from those massive fires that have caused the deaths of many people and the destruction of so much precious wildlife. Or when we hear of the death of an Iranian general by American drones and worry about what that is going to do to the situation not just in the Middle East but in our own country. Or when we hear of the latest terrorist attack, or the most recent mass shooting. It’s a response we have when there is nothing else you can say. We use those words to replace the breath that has escaped us, that has been forced out of us because the news is so bad or so dreadful or so devoid of hope that we do not know what to say. It’s the only thing we can say, and sometimes we use it as a way of giving ourselves time to process all of this.
But it is not just an expression we use when bad news assaults us. It is also our response when good news, great news, unbelievable news, blesses us. Are you kidding – that our children or grandchildren would finally find the special person they want to spend their lives with; that a child or person we are close to, who never thought they could have a child, finally gets a pregnancy report they could celebrate; or that someone got into their dream school or their dream program, or had their dream idea accepted and blessed with grant money; or when things line up in such a way that we are breathless that all of the pieces would fall into place, not just like they were supposed to be, but like they were meant to be. Are you kidding me?
Maybe it is like that when we come to this service. God, are you kidding me that the last year went along so well; or that I am so glad to have that year behind me, and I want to hit the reset button and start all over again. God, are you kidding me that you would not only let me do that, but invite me to do that? Or that we would be surprised to see someone coming forward to receive a blessing, even if it is ourselves. Are you kidding me, us, God, that you would bless us so much that you would not only take on flesh, but go through the whole human experience that we do; that you would be present with me, with us, through the best and the worst and bring us out of it as people who have been strengthened by what we endured, even if it was a mess up on our part that got us there?
It could be either bad or good, but I really want to think it was really good news that took John the Baptist’s breath away as he saw his cousin Jesus coming toward him and asked to be baptized. Jesus, are you kidding? I should be baptized by you.
But then Jesus tells him something kind of strange. “Let it be so now, for in doing this we will fulfill all righteousness.” What did he mean by that? From what I’ve been able to tell, this is the height of Jesus being the obedient Son to the Divine Father, obeying God’s commands to take on the fullness of the human experience, including baptism, just like all those penitent sinners. Jesus – God – being in solidarity with all of us broken and sinful humans.
When we think of righteousness, we often think of doing the right thing. Fulfilling all that we are commanded to do. But another way of looking at righteousness, one that works for me, is to think of this as right-relatedness. Righteousness is how we are supposed to relate to each other. With love. With acceptance. With respect. With a desire to seek the best for each other. Righteousness is shown when we come into contact with someone who has lost a special loved one in their lives – as so many people I know have recently – and avoiding words like, “It was God’s will,” or “I guess they needed an extra angel in heaven.” Words like that don’t help. It is better to say nothing at all, or to hold someone’s hands, or to cry with them. Something that communicates that you are truly present with them; walking with them through this tough journey of grief, one that comes up so often in life.
That’s what fulfilling all righteousness means. Jesus walking with us, with all of us, through every part of life. Jesus becoming part of the story of the people of Israel, and becoming the centerpiece of your history, my history, everyone’s story, all those who let the waters of grace touch them and hear God call them by name.
There is also that wonderful part about how, when Jesus came up out of the water, he heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is Jesus, yes, but this is more than Jesus. This is God incarnate, God in the flesh, taking on the whole human experience with us and calling each of us beloved, saying to all of us, “with you I am well pleased.”
Are you kidding me?
No. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this story again, and check out the one that we read earlier – Isaiah 42:1-9. Words given to people who felt that they were about as far away from God as they could possibly be. People who had lived in the agony of exile for as long as most of them could remember. People who felt distant from God, people whose ancestors had sinned, had turned away, had neglected listening to God. But even with all of that God comes and tells them, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…”
We are called by name by God to be a blessing to others. The voice from heaven that calls us beloved is not one for us to parade and be boastful about. It is our call, our summons to communicate God’s blessings to the world. To show and tell others of God’s right-relatedness with us all, no matter who we are. And God does this by calling our name, and showering waters of grace on our whole being.
You have this sheet in your bulletins. I have shared this with our church officers during retreats in the past, but on this Sunday, this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, I wanted you all to get this. Not just to get this in terms of getting a piece of paper. But to get this that God loves you, and God calls you by name. You are special to God, unique to God, called by God to share God’s blessings with others. As we reaffirm our baptismal vows, I hope you will look this over today, tomorrow, sometime. Look it over and let these words soak into your soul: That God calls you by name, and God calls you to walk with others who need to know that God calls them in love by name, too.
Are you kidding? Amen.