Baptized Into The Fullness of Justice - Matt. 3:13-17

1st Sunday of Epiphany - January 8, 2017

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 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. 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. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

“Happy Anniversary.” This is my first Sunday with you in 2017, and 2017 is a very special anniversary year for the Lutheran Church. This is the year that we celebrate the 500th anniversary of God’s reformation work through Martin Luther and the other reformers.

The Reformation is much bigger than the start of the Lutheran Church, but this anniversary nevertheless gives us a chance to celebrate our Lutheran heritage. One of the things that I celebrate is the Lutheran way of embracing the paradoxes of the faith: the things that seem at first to contradict each other, but which – when we can hold them in balance – deeply enrich our understanding of how God works in our lives.

  • You have probably heard me talk before about how we are all simultaneously both sinners and saints; and

  • Luther also describes a paradox of Christian freedom and service: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” Both, at the same time.

These paradoxes help us to understand the richness of God’s promises to us through Christ, while protecting us from the misunderstandings that happen when we focus exclusively on one side of the balance.

We need to grapple with a similar paradox in the interpretation of today’s gospel story:

Jesus’s baptism is NOT our baptism

AND

Jesus’s baptism calls us to live out our baptism.

The first side of this interpretative paradox is important. If we just make the leap from this story to our own baptism – as though Jesus were somehow setting an example for us by getting baptized – we miss what we learn about Jesus in this story. And learning about Jesus is the key BOTH to this story, and to the other half of the paradox.

So, what do we learn about Jesus in this story?

Perhaps, it is first important to say what we DON’T Learn. We don’t learn that Jesus needed cleansing or forgiveness in the way we do. This is a major source of confusion about Jesus’s baptism, when we try to read it as a blueprint for Christian baptism.

  • We know that in OUR baptism, we die to our old, sin nature, and are raised to new life through God’s gift of grace.

  • But when we apply this understanding to Jesus, we get confused, because “how can a sinless Jesus need baptism?”

  • This confusion can lead down all kinds of rabbit holes that distract us from what actually happens in this story.

What happens in the story is that Jesus comes to be baptized by John – who has been proclaiming a baptism of repentance. But, as we heard during Advent, this repentance is not about moral reform, it is about metanoia: change of thinking, of perspective, an opening of the eyes to what God is doing in the world.

That openness to what God is doing in the world is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he explains to John that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Righteousness, in Matthew’s gospel, is translated at other times as justice. It is a reflection of God’s perfect will being lived out in the world. So, when Jesus talks about "fulfilling all righteousness," he is talking about the fullness of inhabiting God’s plan, about stepping into a transformed life that is all about doing the work of God.

Jesus’s baptism is the initiating moment of his public ministry – an initiation that identifies him as the Beloved Son of God, and empowers him with the Holy Spirit to do the work of God. In the dramatic scene of the heavens opening, and the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice speaking from above, we hear the echoes of our Isaiah text:

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.”[1]

Jesus’s anointing by the Holy Spirit is inseparable from his work of justice. His ministry, is about fulfilling all righteousness; it is about living out God’s perfect will in the world.

So, while Jesus’ baptism is not a model of our baptism, it does calls us to that same kind of living. The ministry that starts with this baptism is what we are baptized into, because we are baptized into Christ. And that means that we are baptized into Christ’s work of justice.

Here it is important, again to distinguish our baptism from that of Jesus, or we might start to question the gift we receive at the font, and worry that we have to earn God’s love.

As I told the children, in our baptism God claims us and there is nothing we can do, or fail to do, that will make God love us any less. Our identity as chosen children of God is secure.

But the gift we receive from God is new life, and we are called to participate in that life – not in order to earn God’s love, but to express it…. To experience the power of the Holy Spirit active in us.

A few weeks ago I asked everyone in worship to write down their big questions for and about God, and one of you asked “where is the Holy Spirit?” The answer in our texts today, is that the Holy Spirit is in the work of justice. It is in the work that Jesus did – proclaiming peace, and showing mercy, and reaching out to those on the margins.

And the Holy Spirit is in US, when we trust in the power of God to fix our broken world, and to use us in the fixing.

That is how we experience the fulfilling of all righteousness… by actively responding to the anointing of a Holy Spirit who comes to do God’s will on earth. A Holy Spirit whose anointing, as one commentator expresses, “amounts to a global demand for justice that leaps to life in the face of the offenses that make the demand necessary.”[2]

And those offenses are certainly evident in our world.

  • They are evident in the expressions and actions of hate that are increasingly exposing the racism, misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, and xenophonia that no longer lie under the boiling surface of America’s supposed melting pot.

  • They are evident in the mounting evidence that humanity’s abuse of the world’s resources are accelerating climate change, perhaps irrevocably.

  • They are evident in the violence that takes so many precious lives, whether through domestic abuse, or ambushes of police officers, or the broken minds of the men who opened fire in the Turkish nightclub on New Year’s and in the Ft. Lauderdale airport on Friday.

Our world is crying out. It desperately needs God’s righteousness – the restoration of God’s beautiful will for creation.

And the Holy Spirit that descended on Christ in his baptism is calling to us to be part of that restoration. That work is what we are baptized into – a baptism that is not just for us, but for the world.

This past Friday, the day of Epiphany, Living Lutheran posted a reflection that calls us to see the “light” of the Epiphany season as much more powerful than the twinkling star guiding the magi.

Rather, “in the light and darkness of Epiphany, we are called to be spiritual and political activists, to perpetuate the true revelation that Jesus is the light of the world – the light that not only illuminates but also reveals and uncovers those things done in the dark.”

Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers “you are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).

He is talking to us. We are the light of the world.

God’s Spirit is here, with us – and it comes to empower us to make our faith matter in this broken world.

In our baptism we receive a new identity as God’s beloved children, AND we receive new life. The life of the fullness of God’s justice.

So how can you be that light in the world?

How can you make your faith matter in the brokenness you see?

How can you live into the fullness of God’s justice?

During the Children’s sermon I gave each of the children a sea shell as a reminder to them of their baptism.

I want you each to take a shell as well, and to keep it as a reminder of your baptism, but also of the baptism of Jesus. A baptism that launched him into a radical life of world-changing ministry.

You are the light of the world. The Holy Spirit has come down from heaven and lives among us. God calls us into the fullness of Righteousness, of Justice.

In 2017, we celebrate Reformation. And the work of reformation is not yet done. We are part of that work.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 42:1

[2] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Pilgrim Press, 2007, p. 86.

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