“To Fulfill All Righteousness” January 12, 2020
“To Fulfill All Righteousness”
The young son of a Baptist minister was in church one morning when he saw, for the first time, baptism by full immersion. The ceremony fascinated him; so much so that the next morning he proceeded to baptize…wouldn’t you know it…his 3 cats in the bathtub. The youngest kitten tolerated the dunking pretty well, and so did the younger cat, but the old family tom cat wasn’t going to have anything to do with this nonsense. He struggled, he spit, he snarled, and the boy finally dropped him when the tom cat opened a gash on his arm. Salvation, however, was not to be denied and so with considerable effort the boy caught the old tom again and proceeded with the “ceremony.”
But the cat acted worse than ever, clawing and spitting and scratching the boy’s face. Finally, after barely getting the cat splattered with some water, he dropped him on the floor in disgust and said: “Fine, be a Methodist if you want to!”
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of a very special baptism: the baptism of Christ. It’s worth mentioning that this account is found in all four of the gospels. Now, that doesn’t happen very often, which tells us one thing for certain – this is important; this is a big deal. Baptism is a serious business. Wars have been fought and congregations have been split over the what and the how and the why of this holy sacrament. Like I said, baptism is serious business. So, today let’s celebrate this wonderful sacrament that we call baptism.
The easiest definition I know is that “Baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith.” (X2) It’s not the fancy baptismal font or the silver chalices that make a baptism; it’s the decision made in our hearts that we are ready to come clean. It’s a decision to tell the world of a God of grace who welcomes us in no matter what; it is telling the world that we want, that we choose to be smack dab in the middle of that. “An outward expression of an inward faith.”
(Matt 3:13) Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” I’ve got to say that for as long as I live, I will always get a chuckle out of that one. “And do you come to me?” I mean, here is John the Baptist, who preached day and night that we must repent of our sins; here is John who called the religious leaders who came to him a “brood of vipers”; here is John being asked by the one who is without sin to wash him clean. No wonder John resisted. What John didn’t understand, however, was that Jesus was not looking for absolution; he wasn’t looking to repent. And you know, we can’t help but agree with John a bit on this: Why? Why do you, of all people, need to take part in this ordinary thing called baptism? “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” it was his reply to John that convinces us that a baptism in Christ is far from ordinary.
When John tried to refuse Jesus a baptism, most bible translations tell us that he answered, Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness, or something to that effect. New King James, NIV, English Standard Version – all the same: “to fulfill all righteousness.” Now I admit this sounds very noble and biblical and all that, but to be honest, I was stumped. It wasn’t until I started looking through every translation I could find that I started to understand what John the Baptist recognized right away: this was not an ordinary baptism. It was commanded by God himself. Through this baptism the righteousness of God would be fulfilled. Through this baptism the power of the Spirit came to rest upon the Christ; and through this baptism the world was blessed beyond measure when (vs 17) a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” At the time that Christ began his ministry, baptisms were a common practice. But from the day in the Jordan River when Jesus began his ministry, that changed.
A few years back, NPR reported a story of a 71 year old Frenchman who wished to be de-baptized. Rene LeBouvier had been raised a good Catholic; his mother even had ideas of him becoming a priest. But in the 70’s he had drifted away from his faith. Now he wanted out, but after years of attempting to have his name removed from the church records and baptismal rolls, he learned that it was just not possible. Then he decided to take the church to court. A magistrate found in his favor but the church appealed. It was not possible to erase history, they argued, nor to deny that a sacred rite had taken place; that vows had been promised; that eternal declarations had been made. Now, I share this story with you because I feel that it speaks to our understanding of baptism in the body of Christ. Baptism is more than a rite of passage or a religious ceremony; it’s one of life’s defining moments. It’s a moment when, whether you choose it or not, you were declared God’s beloved. If we are to understand anything from the baptism of Christ, let it be that the moment we make “an outward expression of an inward faith” it changes things. It is Max Lucado that said “Baptism is the initial step of a faithful heart.” And the story of the baptism of Christ teaches us the awesome truth that when we take that step, our God will step up as well. And so, on this day I would ask that you remember your baptism, even if you don’t remember it. Rejoice in the fact that you have been offered up in love to the almighty love of God. Rejoice in the fact that your baptism can’t be undone because it was God’s doing in the first place. Rejoice in the fulfillment of our righteousness: that once we claim the love of God, by the power of the Spirit he will claim us forever and ever.
(Pray with me now) God of grace and glory,
In baptism you have become one with our world. You call us with your voice of flame to be your people, faithful and courageous. As your beloved Son embraced his mission in the waters of baptism, inspire us with the fire of your Spirit to join in his transforming work. We ask this in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen & Shalom