Let us pray: O God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you; for you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“As [Jesus] 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.” Such a description of Jesus’ baptism causes us to lift an eyebrow in wonderment. We are smacked with a near endless list of questions beginning with: “Why would Jesus need to be baptized? Did Jesus need to be cleansed of sin? and what significance does Jesus baptism have for us today?”
Patricia Calahan tells of a formerly homeless person, named Mario who lived in a church shelter. Mario had lived on the streets of New York City for almost half of his life. On his 60th birthday, gathered around friends at a church dinner at the shelter, several commented that Mario did not look 60 years old. So, Mario reached into his coat pocket pulled out his birth certificate, which revealed that he was indeed 60. Mario offered to show his friends his baptismal certificate as well. His baptismal certificate indicted that he was baptized as a baby at an Episcopal church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Of all the things, Mario would need to carry, we might wonder why he carried his baptismal certificate for all those years as wandered the streets of New York City?
Matthew provides an answer to our question why Mario may have carried his baptismal certificate. Folded into a few verses in Matthew’s own pocket we read, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” For the record, the account of Jesus’ baptism has long caused the church to blush, not because the waters of the Jordan are muddy, or Jesus was about thirty years of age at his baptism. The church’s face turns various shades of red because we are somewhat embarrassed that Jesus, whom the Scripture and the teachings of the church proclaim is sinless, apparently needed John’s baptism of repentance. John recognizes the reversal of roles and the church’s deep discomfort when he tries to right the theological ship by preventing Jesus’ baptism saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
However, Jesus is resolute commanding John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew in three often overlooked words writes, “Then [John] consented.” And the rest has become sacred history. Before I return to the reason why Mario carried his baptismal certificate. I want to suggest that there are two main ways to interpret Jesus’ phrase in v. 16 “to fulfill all righteousness.” Both ways of interpreting Jesus words depends upon the different application of the word “righteous.”
The first possibility is that “righteousness” refers to human righteousness: to the possibility that people can live in right relationship with God and others. So, when Jesus indicates that his baptism will “fulfill righteousness,” it very well could mean that it is the will of God for Jesus to save the world: to make righteousness a reality for humanity by joining himself to sinners, and Jesus’ baptism is a sign of his total involvement in our shared human condition, that through his own baptism Jesus embraces the fullness of human experience, so that ultimately humanity may be forgiven, saved, and made righteous.
The second possibility is that when Jesus talks “fulfilling all righteousness” is that he is not primarily thinking of human righteousness but, to the righteousness of God, that is, to the way God works in the world to set all things right. We might confer with the words of the prophet Isaiah who cries to the LORD for Israel’s redemption and salvation saying, “Look down from heaven and see from our lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might?” Again, Isaiah utters a passionate plea to the LORD, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…to make your name known.” In Jesus’ baptism Isaiah’s call for righteousness is being fulfilled. Matthew is light on the details of Jesus’ baptism, but he does manage to include the following, “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.” In other words, the LORD is making good on that ancient promise to tear open the skies and to act to save humanity through the life of Jesus.
The key to understanding Jesus’ baptism involves not only what our eyes may see, but what our ears hear. Matthew writes, “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In the gospels of Mark and Luke, the voice from heaven seems to speak directly and personally to Jesus claiming, “You are my Son.” However, in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus is coming out of the waters of his baptism the voice from heaven serves as public announcement of Jesus’ identity, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The curtain is pulled back and Jesus’ true identity is revealed to the whole of creation.
I wondered if Mario pulled out his baptismal certificate because his baptism claimed his true identity as a child of the living God? The Christmas prayer entitled, Sweet Little Jesus Boy contains the following lines: “This world treats You mean Lord! Treats me mean too/ But that’s how things are done down here/ We didn’t know it was You.” Just imagine what the hecklers may have called Mario, “a drunk, lazy, good for nothing, dishonest, a problem, unwanted.”
We know what it is was like to receive a report card only for it to affirm we are not smart enough. We know what it was like to be on the receiving end of a teenager’s cruelty that confirm once again we are not cool enough. We know what it is like today when our peers point out that we are not successful enough or we don’t have enough money. We know what it is to hear through various media sources and unkind people that our bodies are not attractive enough. But Mario holds in his hand an alternative claim—a claim that he shares with Jesus on the day of his baptism that he is a beloved child of God.
As Jesus presents himself to John for baptism, we find ourselves on this abnormally warm January morning before the waters of our own Baptism. Long ago, the reformer Martin Luther encouraged us to “remember our baptism.” Many of us were baptized unknowingly as infants others of us have been baptized with our own consent. Yet while our baptismal vows are often unreliable, may we remember that God’s promise to us through baptism is steadfast. In a world quick to offer put downs, insults, and disparaging comments, this community of faith offers the waters of Holy Baptism. We do not merely baptize because Jesus was baptized, we baptize to openly declare our adoption as beloved sons daughters of the living and Holy God.
This morning, my hope is that like Mario we would be quick to pull out our baptismal certificates to reveal our true identity. My prayer is that the voice from heaven that spoke at Jesus’ baptism, would be heard speaking publicly over our lives, and known personally in our hearts. This morning, God claims us as beloved sons and daughters. Before we leave this sacred place, we are invited to ponder and to reflect on our own baptisms as we worship, celebrate, and remember the Baptism of our Lord. Amen.