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?