Engaging Faith: Gratitude
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Psalm 138; Philippians 1:1-11
It was not a regular topic of conversation but occasionally my three brothers and I would debate which one of us was our parents’ favorite. In the end we could never come to a consensus, each of us choosing one or another of our siblings. I think this speaks highly of our parents who never seemed to let on which, if any of us, were favored over the others. The same could not be said for the Apostle Paul, however, because if you read his letters, it is clear which of the churches he founded was his favorite. And that church is the church at Philippi. We are not exactly sure why that favored status belonged to them, but that being the case, I want to use his words to the Philippian believers as my words to you on this, my final Sunday with you.
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” I want to thank you for allowing me to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word with you week after week and year after year. You have allowed me to share it in worship on Sunday mornings, in Rejoicing Spirits services, in Bible studies, in articles, in the Walk Through the Bible for children and adults, as well as in Vacation Bible Camp. I am grateful for your sharing in the Good News with me. You have allowed me to share with you in the Good News of Jesus in deed as well. You allowed us to share in your amazing work outside of the walls of this building from Alcott in Pontiac to rural villages in Kenya. I am grateful.
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Cindy and I believe that there are great things to come for Everybody’s Church. This is not to minimize what we have done together over the past fourteen years. Together, in the power of the Spirit, we have created a unique, wonderful, and growing community. We have created a community in which all persons are welcomed, embraced, and encouraged to use their gifts to create a better community and world. This welcome is regardless of a person’s gender identity, skin color, language, sexual orientation, occupation, wealth, abilities, or any other way we might categorize ourselves. It is so because we profess that all human beings are beloved children of the loving and living God. What I hope we will remember is that this work did not begin with me, nor will it end with me. This work began decades ago with the hard work of individuals in this community. These foremothers and forefathers are no longer with us, yet they plowed and planted this vision for us to reap the harvest of the love it offers. They were abolitionists and advocates of women’s suffrage and ordination. They were advocates for the full inclusion of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. They were advocates for the full inclusion of persons of all abilities. We are the inheritors of a great history and tradition. And I believe that God is not done with this community yet and has great things in store for you in the days, weeks, and years ahead. I believe you will continue to be a light to the world. I am grateful.
“…it is right for me to think this way about all of you because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.” I want to thank you for sharing God’s grace with me and Cindy. I want to thank you for sharing the best and the most difficult of times with us. You gave us the great privilege of sharing in moments of great joy: moments of birth and baptism, moments of confirmation and graduation, moments of promotions and business success, and moments of anniversaries and successful surgeries. You also gave us the honor of sharing the most difficult of times: moments of difficult diagnoses and deaths, moments of loss and struggle, and moments of wrestling with mental and physical illnesses. There were also moments of Gospel and grace in which we know that you kept us in your prayers, through our own struggles and surgeries, and our own joys and celebrations. There were other ways that you shared as well. You shared your resources to provide for us over the past fourteen years. We pray in joy for you because of your sharing so much with us. I am grateful.
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full of insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” I want to thank you, the congregation and the session, all the sessions, since I arrived, for being permission giving and not permission withholding. One of the truisms about most churches and organizations is that they are loath to change and transform. There are people constantly saying, “We’ve never done it that way. Here is what we have always done and we need to keep doing exactly the same.” Though I may have heard some of this, what I discovered was that First Presbyterian was a place that was willing to experiment; experiment with worship, mission, fellowship, and virtually any other aspect of the life of this church. I believe you have been this kind of church because you desire to discover all knowledge and insight in order to determine what is best so that you can be the church Jesus Christ desires you to be, so that your love may overflow into the world. You have no idea how many other pastors when they hear this about our church, have said to me and to Rev. Amy and Rev. Bethany, “I wish I could serve at a place like that.” And each time that they say this, it is a reminder to me just how amazing you are…for you are the church. You are the living body of Christ. I am grateful.
Before I offer you my challenge, there are three more thank yous I want to offer. First it is to you, the folks who come here week after week, praying for Cindy and me, the world, and one another. I am grateful to you for your faithfulness.
Second, I want to thank the people I have worked with past and present on staff here. They are one of the many reasons why we are the church we are, why we are becoming the church we are becoming. These folks are faithful, talented, committed, hardworking, and just fabulous individuals. Please pray for them during this time of transition and give them all the love and support you can.
Finally, I want to thank Cindy, my rock and my informal parish associate. I could not have done this without her. She was my biggest supporter and fiercest defender. And a great editor.
My friends, we live in a hurting world. We live in a world that is looking for hope. You are that place where people can come and find love and hope, where people can find healing and grace, where people can find purpose and community. My challenge for you is to be Everybody’s Church in which life and love can continue to flourish and change the world.
Embracing Faith: Blessings
by Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 29, 2023
Genesis 26:1-5; Matthew 5:1-12
Many of you know that I grew up in a home with four boys, of which I am the number two child. As with many homes, my parents were big on chores. There were essentially personal chores such as making our beds and picking up our toys, or later in life, putting away our tools after we had been working on cars. There were also shared chores. These were the ones in which we were less interested. These included mowing the lawn, clearing the dishes, and loading and unloading the dishwasher. None of us were particularly enamored of any of these chores, especially mowing the lawn in Houston’s hot and humid summers. There was however, one chore none of us minded doing. That was setting the table. We didn’t mind setting the table because we knew it was a precursor to what was to follow, a wonderful, delicious dinner and dessert from our mother. It was only later in life that I realized that setting the table was often used as a metaphor, describing some event, or moment, that was intended to whet the appetite for what was to follow. And it was only this week, after almost forty years of ministry, that I realized why the Beatitudes are where they are, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and that was to whet the appetite of Jesus’ hearers for what was to follow.
To understand this, we need to understand two things. First, we need to understand what the Sermon on the Mount is. The sermon on the Mount is Jesus doing his impression of Moses giving the Law to the Hebrews at Sinai. As a reminder, Moses is given the Law, or Torah, at Sinai and then he teaches it to the people so that the people might be faithful to God; and in being faithful find a full life. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not making up new laws. Instead, what he is doing is telling the people about faithfulness. Just as Moses did, Jesus is going to tell the people how they ought to live to find a full life. And in so doing he begins where Moses begins by telling the people that the God to whom they are to be faithful is a God who has been faithful to them. The Ten Commandments begins with this table setting wording, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”. God is faithful, so God’s people are called to be faithful in return. The Beatitudes serve the same function of setting the table for Jesus’ teaching on faithfulness. This leads us to our second understanding, which is what Jesus means by blessed, or blessing. A blessing, or to be blessed consists of two parts: a problem and a promise. This is what we have in Exodus, a problem (slavery) and a promise (freedom).
The same is true of each of the Beatitudes. Each beatitude contains a problem and they each contain a promise. I realize that at first glance this might not appear to be so, but over the next few minutes we will discover how Jesus is setting the table for people to desire to be faithful to God because God has been and is promising to be faithful to them. And though we won’t take the time this morning, I would argue that given more time we could link the Beatitudes with the teachings that follow. But for this morning we are going to take a quick tour of the Beatitudes and see how each contains a problem and a promise for dealing with that promise, and are thus blessings, even when they might not appear to be. And I hope that in doing so, you will find a beatitude, a blessing, that offers you hope as well. So, let’s begin.
Jesus opens with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The problem is that there are moments when life overwhelms us, and we want to give up all hope. We simply sit in despair. This is what it means to be poor in spirit. The promise God offers is the Kingdom of Heaven. This does not mean we will only find new life in heaven, but instead the Kingdom of Heaven, for Jesus, is the community of believers who are supposed to demonstrate what heaven looks like on earth. In other words, when we are ready to give up, we have this community in which to turn to find support, love, and care. We are not alone.
Next, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The problem is guilt. Mourning here does not mean mourning the loss of someone we love. Mourning here, is a specific word that describes the guilt we feel when we have said, thought, or done something that we know is wrong; that we know has harmed others. The Promise God offers is comfort, or forgiveness. God does not want us to spend our lives feeling guilty, but desires that we be set free for new life.
Third, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The problem is that the humble often find themselves left out of all the good the world seems to offer. I say “the humble” because meek here does not mean “mousy” and “afraid,” instead it means living with true humility. The promise God makes is that the goodness of life, of the earth, will come to those who are humble even when it seems that they will be left out of all the good stuff that God has to offer.
In the fourth Beatitude Jesus teaches, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The problem is that it is difficult to live righteously, which as I have said before does not mean to be perfect, but to live in right relationship with God and others. As most of us are probably aware, living with the people around us is not always easy. We know how we are to treat them, and we often don’t. We also know how we are to live in relationship with God, and we can find that difficult as well. The Promise is that God will make these right relationships possible. We will find what we need to live rightly with God and others.
Fifth, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The problem is that no good deed goes unpunished. In other words, showing mercy can be taken by the world as weakness and thus no mercy is shown to the weak. The promise is that in return for our showing mercy, God will take mercy on us. God will come into our lives in such a way that full life becomes possible even in the face of an often merciless world.
Sixth, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The problem is that focusing on being faithful to God as our priority can cause us to become outsiders. The world wants us to focus on their priorities: wealth, power, fame, and more. God desires us to focus on God, for in God there is true life. The promise is that if we focus on God, which is what being pure in heart means, we will indeed encounter God in such a way that our lives are given full meaning and purpose.
Seventh, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The problem is that bridge building, which is what peacemaking is, can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. People want to be confrontational rather than conciliatory. The result is that people seldom seek to be bridgebuilders. The promise though is that those who promote peace will have a special relationship with God because they are imitating the peacemaking that Jesus came to offer; peacemaking that offers a fullness of life for all persons.
Though there are two more beatitudes, I will combine them into one because they both have to do with “blessed are you when people persecute you, revile you, and speak evil against you because you are doing what God would have you to do.” The problem is that living one’s life as a Jesus follower doesn’t make one win many popularity contests. It can often lead to making one an outlier in many social circles. Honesty can get you fired. Forgiving rather than condemning may put you at risk. Placing God before all else can cause one to be considered strange. But the promise is that we do not do this alone. The promise is that we are part of a counter-cultural community that works to be those who offer life to all.
Being faithful to God through the teachings of Jesus is not always an easy road. It can, in fact, be difficult. Yet the Beatitudes tell us that we can be faithful to God because God is always faithful to us. My challenge for you this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I consciously being faithful to Jesus, even as God is being faithful to me?
Embracing Faith: Adventure
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 22, 2023
Print PDF of Sermon
Genesis 12:1-9; Matthew 4:12-23
Once upon a time, as all good fairytales begin, there was a kingdom surrounded by a forest. Every day hunters would venture into the forest and return with game to feed the people. But one day a hunter went in and never came back. Later more and more hunters went into the same part of the forest, and they did not return. Soon the people did not go into that part of the forest anymore. One day a hunter, whom no one knew, arrived in the city and asked, “Is there anything dangerous to do around here?” The king said to him, “Well I could tell you about the part the part of the forest into which we don’t go because no one ever returns. There’s not much return on going in there.” Upon hearing this, the unknown hunter decided that is where he should go. Taking only his trusty dog with him, he headed into the forest. He and the dog walked for several days, and then they happened upon a pond. As they approached the pond, a great red, hairy arm reached out, grabbed the dog, and dragged it under. Rather than running away in fear, the hunter said, “This must be the place.” This fairy tale is called “Iron John” or “Iron Hans”, or any other name, but it is about the heart of adventure; going into the unknown and dealing with whatever is encountered.
In my mind, we use the term adventure perhaps too often to describe too many things that are trips rather than adventures. I say this because Cindy and I get multiple catalogues every week from cruise companies trying to get us to go on their “adventures.” The catalogues then go on to describe how luxurious the accommodations on the ships are, how fabulous the food is, the amazing sights you will see, and how the cruise line takes care of everything from when you leave home to when you return, and more. This my friends, is a trip. This is not an adventure. An adventure, as I described a moment ago, is going into the unknown and dealing with whatever is encountered. This is the kind of adventure we find in all great stories stretching from Gilgamesh to Star Trek. These are the kind of stories that draw us to movie theatres and streaming services because there is something about watching adventures from the safety of comfortable chairs that stirs something deep within us.
These are also the kind of stories we read in the Bible about God’s people. This is the story of Abram and Sarai. Abram and Sarai were comfortably well-off in Heron. They had everything they needed. God, however, had other plans for them. God asks them to pick up, leave behind family and friends, and travel to an unknown land; a journey that would cause them to encounter untold dangers. This is the story of God’s people fleeing Egypt. Though they are free they must travel across wastelands with little food or water. They must travel to places that are inhabited by fearsome peoples who have fortified cities. This is the story of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus has begun his ministry as a wondering apocalyptic preacher, teacher, and exorcist. Along the way he calls disciples to come on the journey with him. Those who follow have no idea how they will feed themselves, where they will stay, or what will happen to them, but they are willing to go on an adventure. This is one reason I believe that the Biblical stories have staying power with generations of human beings; they stir something deep inside us. The question becomes though, why does God continually call people to adventure? Why perhaps, might God be calling us to adventure?
I would argue that there are two reasons that God calls God’s people to adventure. The first is that adventure leads people to trust God. Over the past several weeks we have been talking about faith; about faith as faithfulness born in humility and nurtured in focusing on God. But the question the Bible always poses is, what kind of God are we placing our faith in? What kind of God are we being faithful to? Is this God trustworthy enough to follow? If we think about it for a moment, these are the kinds of questions that, sooner or later, we ask about every relationship. Can I trust this person? Is this person someone I can spend time with? Is this a person I ought to follow? In some ways only time will tell as we measure their trustworthiness. This is what happens in adventures. In adventures the true measure of a person, or of God is revealed. In both our stories we watch as people discover that God can be trusted. Abram and Sarai find themselves in multiple difficult situations, and yet God rescues and protects them every time. In those moments, they learn to trust God. The same is true for the people of God in the wilderness. God provided them with food, water, clothing, and protection. The same is true with the disciples. When the disciples believed they would perish in a storm at sea, Jesus saved them. When people were hungry, Jesus fed them. When Jesus said he would be raised on the third day, he was. The longer the disciples are with Jesus the more they realize that they can trust in him and trust God.
The second reason I believe that God calls God’s people on adventures is that it is during adventures that people are transformed; transformed more and more into the image of Christ such that we can be more and more faithful along our life’s paths. Think about adventure as resistance training for faith. In resistance training one uses one’s own weight, or resistance bands, big rubber bands, or weights, to in essence, push back against. As one pushes back against the resistance, muscle is transformed. It is strengthened and improved. This is what adventure does for our faith and faithfulness. Abram and Sarai are not the same at the end of their journey as they are at the beginning. They are so different in fact, that they are given new names. They become Abraham and Sarah as their faith and faithfulness increase. The people of God in the wilderness need forty years of adventure training to become ready for their next adventure of going into the land of Promise. The disciples need three years of adventure training and a resurrection for them to be ready to carry out their mission of proclaiming God’s love in Jesus to the world.
Adventure is what God’s people are always called to, and I believe that we at Everybody’s Church have been and continue to be on an adventure for God, especially over the past seven years. I say this because the last seven years have sent the church into new and uncharted territories. We have traveled through four election cycles that stretched and broke friendships, families, and churches. We have traveled through a time of racial reckoning that divided our nation and churches. We have traveled through a pandemic that had not been experienced in more than a hundred years, and simply will not go away; a pandemic that forced churches, schools, and businesses to close and adapt. And this pandemic was enough to not only cause many businesses but churches as well to go out of business. All these events tested the faith and faithfulness of our church and all of you. Yet what we discovered was that we could trust God through it all. We realized that God’s presence and power, love, and compassion never left us, but lifted us up even in the most difficult of times. We were transformed. We are not the same church now that we were seven, or ten, or fifteen years ago. The resistance training of adventure has caused us to be a more compassionate, inclusive, welcoming, and serving community. It is not that we were not these things before, but it is that we have discovered more and more what it means to be Everybody’s Church.
I wish I could say that the adventure was over and that we are going on a trip instead. However, the adventure is going to continue. It will continue as you welcome an interim pastor who will help to lead you on this adventure over the short term. Then you will call a new pastor who will lead you in the next stage of your adventure. It will be an adventure because the world continues to change, and challenges will continue to be present. But the gift of God is that God is always with us, showing us how we are to continue to be the church if Jesus Christ, shining light into the world as Everybody’s Church. My challenge to you then on this Sunday is to say “yes” to the adventure and then week after week, come to this sanctuary and say, “This must be the place” where I will adventure with Jesus and this community as together, we seek to be God’s inclusive family.
Embracing Faith: Focus
Rev. Dr. John Judson
2 Kings 21:1-9; Matthew 4:1-11
It was our daughter’s first time to drive without either her mother or I in the car, though her older brother was with her. Andy was with her because in Texas they have graduated driver’s licenses which state that for the first six months for a driver under 18, they cannot have anyone under 18 as their only passenger and must have someone over 18 in the car. Katie wanted to go to a friend’s house and neither Cindy nor I were available. Fortunately, Andy was home from college and agreed to ride along, bring the car home, and then go to get her. As they were almost to their destination Katie decided to change the station on the radio. Glancing down, all she heard was Andy yelling, “Katie, watch out!” but it was too late. The parked car came out of nowhere and Katie ran right into the rear, left quarter fender. She was devastated and burst into tears. Andy, being the good older brother, went to the house where the car was parked, spoke with the owner, exchanged insurance information, and then drove Katie home. The good news was that there was little damage, and no one was hurt. But for Katie, it was a valuable lesson in the need to stay focused.
Staying focused is something that we are not always good at. I say this because as human beings we are easily distracted … squirrels … and those distractions are what often cause us to crash, literally, figuratively, and spiritually. Every year more than 3,000 people are killed in accidents involving distracted drivers. We all know the distracted drill when our minds wander: our phones ring, we think of a text we need to return, we reach to tune the radio, we think about work, kids, home, the shopping list rather than the road ahead. And it is not just in the car. It happens at work, at home, stepping off a curb. I would argue that this happens because our brains have not evolved to filter all the information that is coming at us through all our senses. And this is true regarding our faith as well. I say this because faith is not a thing, or a doctrine, or an affirmation of particular beliefs, though those are all part of faith. I have said this probably too many times, but it bears repeating, and that is that faith is faithfulness. Faith is a journey of faithfulness. Faith is about living a particular type of life as followers of Jesus. And that kind of faith takes focus.
This concept of staying focused is what is at the heart of both our stories this morning. The story from 2 Kings, is about a king named Manasseh. Manasseh was the son of king Hezekiah, who had tried his best to stay focused on being faithful to YHWY, the God of his ancestors. After his father’s death, Manasseh was faced with the difficult task of trying to be faithful to YHWY while also being a client state of the Assyrian Empire. While difficult, it would have been possible. Yet Manasseh allowed himself to be distracted by the pomp, and power of the Assyrians. So rather than focus on faithfulness to YHWY he focused on being faithful to the gods of Assyria. This led him off the path of YHWY and into a dangerous and destructive path, where he not only set up altars to other gods in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he sacrificed his own sons to please the gods. And evidently the people followed him in these practices. This is what can happen when God’s people lose focus. We end up embracing practices that are antithetical to God’s desire for God’s people.
Focus is also at the heart of the story out of Matthew. In this story, each of the temptations is an attempt to get Jesus to stop focusing on his mission and to focus instead on himself. I say this because Jesus’ antagonist is attempting to get Jesus to lose focus on his mission and focus on himself. The first distraction is hunger. “Hey Jesus,” the devil says, “You look famished. You know that you don’t have to fast. You are worth using your powers to cook up something good. Forget focusing on God’s plans for you. Think about yourself. Look in the vanity mirror and say, ‘I’m worth it.’” The second has to do with fame. Again, the devil says, “Look Jesus, no one knows who you are. And if no one knows who you are then how can they follow you? What you need is a good Instagram moment that will get you on Galilee’s Got Talent. All you need to do is go to the top of the Temple, jump off, angels will catch you and you’ll be famous. Look in the vanity mirror and say, ‘I’m worth it.’” The last temptation is about power. The devil says, “Jesus, if you are going to change the world, you are going to need power. I have all the power you want. In fact, I run this place. All you need to do is focus on me, and you will have all the power you need. Just look in the vanity mirror and say, ‘I’m worth it.’”
Lest we think Jesus had an easy time dealing with these temptations, we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t because the language used in the Gospel is that he was tempted, or tested, which meant that the outcome of invitations to distraction was not preordained. Jesus had to work at staying focused. And he does so by returning to the Spiritual GPS, the story of God’s people. He does so because the story offers us a path to faithfulness. Each of these responses is a reminder to Jesus of what is at the heart of faith and faithfulness. Jesus first refers to the Words of God, or the TANAK, meaning the entire word of God because it shows what faithfulness looks like. In the second temptation he focuses on a single faithful response, we don’t test God, meaning faithfulness is following God, not testing God. Finally, Jesus returns to the Shema, which says we are to worship the Lord alone. His responses are, I will not look into the vanity mirror, but I will look to the story. I will look to the words and ways of God.
You and I can stay focused in the same way if we are willing to allow God’s story to speak to us in a regular and intentional way. I realize that for many of us, the thought of somehow keeping the entire scripture in front of us is not practical. The scriptures are sometimes complex and difficult to wrap our heads around. This is why we, at Everybody’s Church, created the Five Part Story. The Five Part Story is our way of allowing people to remember and focus on the critical pieces of God’s story. They go like this: Part 1 is, God loves the world. We focus on the fact that God’s love for us and all other people is real and alive. Part 2 is, We Wander Far from God. We focus on the fact that we are not perfect, lose focus, and so need to return our focus to God’s story. Part 3 is, God Chooses a Family. We focus on the fact that God has initiated a relationship with us as a part of God’s larger rescue plan for the world; that we have a responsibility to bless the world. Part 4 is, Jesus is the Way to God. We focus on Jesus as the one who shows us the way to be faithful. Part 5 is, the Spirit Helps us Live God’s Love. We focus on the presence of the Spirit who is with us to empower our faithfulness; that when we wonder if we can be faithful, the Spirit is there to help us.
My challenge for all of us this week is this, to ask ourselves, “How am I practicing focusing on Christ, by remembering the story of our faith?”
E-Faith: Embracing Humility
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 8, 2023
Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 42:1-19
As I have grown older, I have forgotten the power of imagination. I rediscovered it this past week when spending time with my two-year-old grandson. I did so as our grandson took an empty cup, watched me fill it with imaginary ice cream and toppings, and then proceeded to eat it to the last drop. And he didn’t do this just once, but over and over. This morning I want us all to begin with our imaginations. I want you to imagine the shop floor of a modern GM assembly plant. On the floor are all the union members going about their tasks. Then, a door opens, and in walks Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. Quickly the shop steward introduces himself and asks if he can help her. Her response surprises him. She makes it clear that she wants to join the UAW and begin by cleaning the floors. The shop steward tells her that this is not possible because she is management, and that management and union are two different organisms. Nonetheless she insists and finally, because she is the boss, he gives in, calls the UAW, hands her a broom, and gets her new career underway. Can you see that event in your imagination? How does it strike you? If it seems out of the realm of possibility you are probably right. But this is exactly what is transpiring in our morning’s story.
John the Baptist has been baptizing people to prepare them for the coming of God’s Kingdom in and through Jesus of Nazareth. John asks those he baptizes to turn their lives around and live as God intended them to live. So far so good. But then something completely out of the ordinary occurs. Jesus, the one who had been designated by God to be the Messiah, the chosen one, arrives and asks John to baptize him. John is chagrined. John is shocked. He is shocked because in the Jewish tradition it is always the greater that baptizes the lesser. In other words, Jesus was management and John was union. Jesus was the one who ought to be baptizing John and not the other way around. So, John refuses. He refuses to baptize Jesus and insists that it would be inappropriate for John to take on such a task. In that moment something curious happens. Jesus says the following. “Let it be so now. It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” With those words John relents and baptizes Jesus. The problem with this moment, and with Jesus’ statement, is that people have never agreed on what Jesus meant by “all righteousness.”
Traditionally the word righteousness has referred to moral perfection. Those who are righteous are those who are morally perfect. This is where we get the idea of someone who is “self-righteous” because they believe that they are morally perfect and so they can therefore judge all other persons. The problem with seeing righteousness in this context is that it would appear that Jesus was saying he was not righteous before his baptism and somehow the baptism would make him righteous. I would argue that that is how John understood baptism, baptism took unrighteousness people and redirected them toward righteousness. But again, John knows that Jesus does not need to be redirected toward moral perfection; toward the way of God and God’s Kingdom because it was Jesus who was fulfilling this redirecting work. So again, what could Jesus possibly have meant by “fulfilling all righteousness”? I would offer this morning that what Jesus was referring to was righteousness as right-relationships. In other words, to say someone is righteous is not to comment on their moral perfection, but on the fact that they live in right relationship with God and neighbor. It is in this relational context that I believe we can understand what Matthew is trying to teach us.
It first explains why John changed his mind and baptized Jesus. John did so because he understood Jesus to be saying that God the Father had commanded him, Jesus to be baptized. This is the sense of Jesus living in right relationship with God by being obedient to God’s instructions. Though I would argue John could not have explained why God wanted Jesus to be baptized, it was enough that it was so. John was willing to be humble enough not to argue with the will of the Father and the obedience of the Son.
Second, this relational view of righteousness also explains why Jesus needed to be baptized. It was because Jesus had to demonstrate what humility looked like. He needed to demonstrate humility because it was only in humility that the world would be saved. I say this because if we listen to the words of Isaiah in this morning’s reading, we read that it is a servant who will save God’s people and save the world. It is a servant who will bring justice. It is a servant who has been sent in righteousness. Therefore, Jesus could not come as a conquering military hero, but that he needed to come as a humble servant. I realize that humility is not thought of as much a virtue in our world, but it is necessary because the great sin of humanity is pride. Not pride in the sense of I am proud of something I have made, but pride that says, I am always right. Pride that says, I know better than God. Pride that says, I don’t need God. Pride that says, I am the smartest person in the world. Pride that says. Don’t tell me I am wrong.” And it is this kind of pride that has left our world looking like it does, full of broken people, relationships, and nations. Humility on the other hand makes a person teachable, guidable. Humility is a willingness to let God teach me, the community teach me, the scriptures teach me, and thus live in right relationship with God and neighbor. This is the humility that Jesus embodies in baptism. He demonstrates a complete humility of allowing an imperfect human being to baptize him, the perfect one. And it is this humility that Jesus wants us to model.
Jesus wants us to see that humility is at the heart of righteousness. It allows us not only to be teachable and guidable, but it allows us to be open to the voices and lives of others. My challenge to you all this morning is this, take into your hands the bread and cup you have been given for communion this morning. Look at it, turn it around. Then use your imaginations to see in these elements, humility. See in these elements, the humility of Jesus that was and is offered to restore our relationship to God and neighbors. See in these elements, the humility of Jesus becoming one of us to save us. Then remember this moment and throughout the week, ask yourselves, how am I living in this humility in order to help heal the world?
Rev. Dr. John Judson