Updated: Jan 14, 2020
Sermon #167 St. James the Less #74 1/12/20
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.” Mathew 3:13-17
Cecelia & “Them”
There is a novel called, The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett, who by the way lives in Nashville. The story is about a mother and daughter who have found a home in a rather unlikely place.
The two of them live in what is called St. Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers. The nuns at St. Elizabeth take in young pregnant women, and rather than leave when her daughter was born like all the other young women, Rose decided to stay.
The story follows the lives of Rose and her daughter Cecilia.
At one point in the book Cecilia, now 15-years-old, is out in the waiting room where new ladies who have just arrived at St. Elizabeth’s anxiously wait to be interviewed by the head nun to see if they will be able to stay or not. Putting down her book, Cecilia begins talking to one of the girls who seem extremely nervous, her name is Lorraine.
Cecelia tries to calm Lorraine’s nerves, and gives her a few tips about what to say and what not to say to the head nun. She advises her not to tell the head nun that the guy who got her pregnant is dead, because everyone says that to her.
Lorraine then sits on her hands and is quiet for a moment. “I was going to say that,” she says.
Cecelia looks at her with a smile and replies, “See?”
“So what do I tell her?”
“I don’t know,” Cecilia says, “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t remember.”
And then Lorraine looks at her and asks, “What did you tell her?” and Cecelia is speechless.
Later reflecting on that moment Cecelia says, “I sat there absolutely frozen…I felt like I had just been mistaken for some escaped mass murderer. I felt like I was going to be sick, but that would only have proven her assumption [that I was pregnant]. No one had ever, ever mistaken me for one of them, not even as a joke. The lobby felt small and airless. I thought I was going to pass out.”
And all of this happened to Cecelia because she was mistaken as “one of them.” In her mind she had been mistaken as someone who had messed up, who had made a bad decision, or had been sent away from their family in disgrace…I mean that’s why the other women had gone to there.
Cecelia was offended for being grouped in that category. Couldn’t Lorraine just tell from looking at Cecelia that she wasn’t like the rest of them?
That’s like going to work in the soup kitchen and one of the volunteers handing you a bowl of soup. Don’t they know who I am?
The uncomfortable feeling that Cecelia experiences in that interaction comes down to mistaken identity. She was mistaken as something she thought she was not.
There is a case of mistaken identity in our gospel lesson this morning as well. Jesus has come to the banks of the Jordan River seeking to be baptized by his fiery cousin John.
John has been preaching in the wilderness, and the masses have come flocking to him, not only to hear what he has to say, but also to be baptized by him. He has made it clear that his baptism is a baptism of repentance, and the people are being washed in this way because One greater than John is coming.
You can then imagine John’s face as he sees Jesus in the crowd walking towards him. You can almost see John waving his arms trying to prevent him from coming into the river saying, “No, no, no, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
John seems pretty sure that he’s been doing all of this preparation for Jesus. All the sermons and baptisms have been trying to introduce to the people what God is going to do in Jesus.
The last person who needs to have a baptism of repentance in preparation for the Anointed One is…the Anointed One!
There is no logic, no purpose for Jesus to do this, especially if he’s sinless.
And what may be worse, is that being seen in this place might ruin his reputation. The great Savior of Israel should not be caught in a place where so many sinners have gathered. He should be in the Temple praying or teaching the faithful in Jerusalem.
If people see him in the crowd, they might think he’s just like them. They may assume that he is just as much of a sinner as they are.
John knew this, he knew that things may come into people’s minds, and though he is waving his arms at Jesus saying “No, no, no.” By walking into the river and rubbing shoulders with the rest of the people, Jesus is saying “Yes, yes, yes.”
Unlike Cecelia in the waiting room, Jesus didn’t mind being associated as “one of them.”
It is odd to think about why Jesus was baptized. It is a question that was running through John’s head on that fateful day, but it is also one that theologians have wrestled with for centuries.
It is interesting that this is the first recorded action we have of Jesus as an adult here in the Gospel of Matthew. He kick-starts his ministry in a very unusual way.
But the further we journey into this gospel, the more we will realize this is just who Jesus is. He is fine with crossing cultural lines, breaking unspoken rules, and interacting with a motley crew of people at the disdain of the religious elite.
If God is going to do this whole incarnation thing, and live among his people, then he’s going to do it all the way.
This all plays into Jesus’ own answer of why he needs to be baptized. What he says is both specific and yet ambiguous. He says it’s to “fulfill all righteousness.” And that answer seems to be good enough for John. He doesn’t question Jesus anymore.
But this answer is multifaceted. Jesus’ baptism that fulfills all righteousness has an ethical and sacramental component to it, and I believe it will help us think about our own baptism.
It is ethical in nature because it shows Jesus is obedient to the will of God. He begins his public ministry with a physical action that says to everyone watching, and to the entire world, “I want to do the will of God more than anything else.” And in so doing, Jesus is telling his disciples how they should approach baptism. “Baptism is a pledge to live a life of righteousness” (Bruner 103). Thus because of Jesus, baptism is forever linked to obedience-of submitting our will to God’s.
But it is also sacramental in nature. When Jesus enters those waters, he transforms John’s water baptism into what will become the Christian Spirit-baptism. It is no longer just a baptism washing us of our sins, but one where we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Our gospel says that the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove.
It is the Spirit that empowers and equips the baptized to be doers of righteousness.
And so, Jesus was willing to be mistaken for a sinner, of being seen among the masses in order to give us this path towards a life in him and a chance for a life of righteousness-of right relation with God.
Though he didn’t need John’s baptism he was baptized to be more like us, and we are now baptized in order to be more like him. He was willing to be mistaken as a sinner to be among sinners.
Looking more closely at Jesus’ baptism is a good time to think about our own baptism as well.
Maybe you remember the day of your baptism, and maybe you don’t, but either way we come out of those baptismal waters different. Something happens and we are forever changed. It is in those waters that we submit ourselves to God’s reign and rule over our lives, that’s the ethical part of baptism. We sign up to be obedient to God.
But it is also deeply sacramental. It is where we are given the Spirit of God to live out our call to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus; to be transformed by his life-giving Spirit and empowered to live a life of righteousness.
And lastly, it has a communal element as well. It is the doorway into Christ’s family, the church, and it is through baptism that we are then able to partake in the family feast of the Eucharist. We are transformed individually and communally every single time there is a baptism.
And all this is possible because Jesus was willing to cross every boundary, break any rule so that we might come within the grasp of his saving embrace. This is just who Jesus is. From his first public act in ministry to his dying breath he was doing it all for us.
In the same way that he was willing to end his ministry on a cross between thieves, he begins his ministry in a river among sinners (Bruner 101).
And so, we are called to be more like him. As those who have been baptized in his name we are called to live lives of righteousness. To be willing to risk something big for something good. To be identified as “one of them,” whatever that means in our certain contexts, so that we may live more like him.
And we can be confident in doing so, because we have been given the Spirit of the Living God to be the light of the world, a city on a hill, proclaiming the good news to anyone and everyone who have ears to hear it.
So, my friends, be bold as you live into the grace of your baptism!
1st Sunday after the Epiphany. Mt. 3:13-17. Story from Home by Another Way, B. Taylor. Commentary used: Frederick Bruner. Pic: here.