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.”Matthew 3:13-15
Children sure do grow up fast, don’t they? We just celebrating Jesus’ birth a couple of weeks ago. And now, suddenly, he is thirty years old and out on his own! I know that children grow up fast, but this seems like a sudden jump, doesn’t it? It is. But it is the gospels themselves that make this jump. They have almost no details about Jesus’ childhood. The gospels just aren’t interested in Jesus as a child. And so, neither is our church year.
But there is another, more compelling, reason for us to jump straight from Christmas to the celebration of Jesus’ baptism as an adult in the River Jordan. And the reason is simple. Both of these stories are really answering the same questions: What does it mean that God became human for us? Why did God choose to do this? And what does it teach us about God, and about our place in the world, and about our place in God’s kingdom?
Fulfilling All Righteousness
The Christmas story begins to teach us this. God became human to save us from our sins. That is what his name, Jesus, means. The shepherds show us that he became human not just for the rich and powerful, and not just for the religious leaders, but for everybody. The magi, or the wise men from the east, show us that Jesus’ birth is somehow even for those who are not Jewish.
And now, this week, we learn one more important aspect of what Jesus came to do. Because in today’s gospel reading, Jesus does something that only a sinful human being would do: He goes to John at the Jordan River to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. No one, of course, is more surprised by this than John, who can’t understand why Jesus would want to be baptized. We should be surprised, too. Because Jesus is the only person who has ever lived who doesn’t need to be baptized. He is the only person who has ever lived without sin. And yet, there he is, at the Jordan River, to be baptized by John.
When John questions all of this, Jesus answers with what are his first recorded words in Matthew’s gospel. Words that are the key to understanding why Jesus became human, and why he was baptized. Words that you can even think of as essential to understanding Matthew’s gospel, which is the gospel we are focusing on this year.Jesus answers John’s question by saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
This is why Jesus wanted to be baptized. It is why he was born. It is the purpose of his life, and of his death. It is his mission on earth: To fulfill all righteousness. And this baptism by John is an essential part of this mission.
An Unrighteous World
The world, it turns out – to the surprise of none of us here – is not a very righteous place. It is not a very just place. It is a sinful, unfair, broken, divided place.
This was brought home to me when I visited the River Jordan two years ago. The river where Jesus was baptized is also the border that divides the countries of Israel and Jordan, two countries that have a rather tense relationship. And so, when I was there, I couldn’t help but notice that on one side of this river where Jesus was baptized stood Israeli soldiers, armed and alert, and on the other side stood Jordanian soldiers, similarly armed and alert.
The day I was there, a young man decided to swim in the river, not just wade in it, and immediately the soldiers had their weapons pointed at him, and were shouting at him. It was a tense moment for everyone. And a reminder that the world, even the holy places of our world, continues to be divided and tense.
There will always be wars and rumors of war. And it doesn’t matter what country we live in, or what time period we live in. And it doesn’t matter who our leaders are. Because part of the problem with the world, it turns out, is us.All of us. None of us is righteous, not one, as Scripture teaches us. We ourselves are part of the problem.
There is a story told of the Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton, that really makes this point. A newspaper that he was familiar with posed a simple question, which felt compelled to answer. They asked this simple question: “What’s Wrong with the World?” It’s a good question, and we might all answer it in different ways. But Chesterton’s response was short and to the point. “Dear Sirs:” He wrote in response. “I am. Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton.”
What’s wrong with the world? I am. You are. We all are. None of us is without sin. We are all to blame. And that is the world that Jesus came into. He came into this broken world not to judge it – not to judge us – but to save this world, and to save us.
He came into the world to make it right. That is what it means when he says to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Or, to put it differently, imagine if G.K. Chesterton’s newspaper were to follow up by asking the opposite question, “What is right with the world?” Only Jesus could offer the analogous answer: “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, Jesus.” Jesus is what is right with the world. He is the only thing, really and truly, that is right with the world. And it is why he came into this world: to make the world right;to make us right – with God and with one another.
The First Real Human Being
Jesus became one of us, in other words, so that we could be who we were supposed to be in the first place. I like how the theologian Herbert McCabe puts it. He says that Jesus is actually the first real human being. Not Adam and Eve, but Jesus. And the reason, he explains, is that
[Jesus is] the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love –for that is what human beings are for.Herbert McCabe
Jesus is the first human being doing what human beings were created to do – to love God and to love one another. And being baptized into Jesus makes it possible for us to do and to be the human beings that God created us to be. Jesus is baptized to fulfill all righteousness. And we are baptized to become righteous.
By being baptized, we are made righteous by grace through faith. But this is not the end of our journey with Jesus. It is really just the beginning. In baptism, we become followers of Jesus. We start trying to live our lives in the same way. By being obedient to the Father’s will and purpose for us. By loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. By loving our neighbor as our self. Being baptized into Jesus starts us on the road to becoming the human beings that God created us to be.
What We Are and What We Will Be
It makes me think of Connor, a young man that I baptized when he was in first grade. His parents told me that the next day, after school, he came home and told his parents that being baptized helped him to behave better in school. Yes. Being baptized starts us on that journey. We want, I hope, to behave better. But we still fall short. But that’s okay. Because we are baptized. And we are on the way.
That is why I love the verse in First John, when he writes: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Baptism makes us God’s children now. It places us back into that relationship with God that God wants for us all. But baptism also begins us on a journey toward becoming something, or someone, that has not yet been revealed.
Think about how we see something similar happen with Jesus. When he was baptized, he was immediately revealed to the world as God’s beloved Son. A voice came from heaven and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Everyone who was there knew right away who Jesus really was. But, on the other hand, what Jesus would be was not yet fully revealed. Everyone who was there who followed him would learn, little by little, over the next three years, what it means that Jesus is God’s son, the beloved. And they would learn why it is that God was so pleased with Jesus.
It is the same with us. Who we are is known right away when we are baptized. Like Jesus, and because of Jesus, we are God’s sons and daughters, God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased. We are that at the moment we are baptized, because we are baptized into the one who came to fulfill all righteousness. But it will take the rest of our lives to reveal who we truly are.
We learn throughout our lives what it means that we are followers of Jesus. We come here, and learn from God’s Word; we go out there, and try to live it. We make mistakes. We get lost on the way. We forget why we are here. And then we remember. And we forget again. We journey through the wilderness of our lives and this world, learning to trust God and learning to love our neighbor. We are works in progress.
We have already been made children of God, but we are still learning what that means. And it takes a lifetime, doesn’t it? And at the end of our lives, we will look back and realize that anything good we did – for our neighbor, our church, our family, or our world – we did because Jesus was right there helping us. He came to fulfill all righteousness. He came to help us become righteous. And he came to wash away our sin and forgive us when we mess up.
The first thing Jesus did when he grew up and started his public ministry was to become baptized for us. Not because he needed it. But because we needed it. And when he did, as we learn in this reading, he opened heaven’s door to us all. And he brought us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he taught us that all who are baptized into Christ are God’s beloved sons and daughters, with whom God is well pleased. This is why he was baptized. To fulfill all righteousness. And to make us righteous. That is, thanks to Jesus, what we are now. But what we will be? I suspect that Jesus can’t wait to find out. Amen