Into the shallow, muddy waters of the Jordan they have come. Sinners all.
There is Levi, that rascally tax collector, and Miriam the harlot. Simeon, who trades in camels and is known to illegally roll back the mileage on his older models, is there as well. So is Benjamin who sells kosher meats down at the market. He’s been caught putting his thumb on the scales a few times, let me tell you.
Sinners all, that’s what they are, sinners all. There isn’t an innocent one in the whole bunch.
But sometimes it’s the ones who know what they are who, more than anyone else, want to be something else. Sometimes, it’s the sinners who are truly willing to repent… and mean it. Jesus said it himself. Those who are righteous – or at least think they’re righteous – they’re the ones who see no need for change. But on this day, the Jordan is filled with enough sinners to make the baptism service go well past noon.
They’re just the kind of people John the Baptizer is looking for. He wants to change the face of Israel. In his thirty-something years he’s been a keen observer of the life of God’s people and he’s come to the definite conclusion that God’s chosen people don’t act like God’s people, nor are they coming across as very chosen. So he emerges from the wilderness, where he’s taken his private rabbinical training by keeping personal time with God, and he begins to proclaim… “Repent! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
That’s the first point of his sermon, and like most preachers, he’s got three… The first point is, repent. The second takes him in a slightly different direction. John believes the kingdom is near because the Messiah, the Coming One, is near. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John cries out, “Make his paths straight. Get ready, the day is coming soon.”
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The third point of John’s sermon – and while he may have three points he has only one sermon – is directed very personally at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders, the righteous folk who think they need no repentance. They’ve come to him for baptism just like all the others. But John’s response leads us to believe that not only is he not looking to pad his baptismal statistics, he questions their motives as to whether they are sincere about this whole thing.
Perhaps they have come out to be baptized by him because they want all the others to think they think they are like them. Or maybe it’s just the popular thing to do. But they’re not like the others. Their repentance is not genuine, and John sees right through their pious charade. And he will have none of it.
“You brood of vipers! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as your father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life.”1
And Levi the tax collector, Miriam the harlot, Simeon the camel dealer, and Benjamin the meat butcher… they’re all standing there drenched to the bone from their dousing in the Jordan and they’re thinking, “I thought I was a sinner and these guys were pretty righteous. John seems to have a different idea. If these guys aren’t worthy of baptism, how can I be?”
And it was right into this boiling cauldron of sin and hypocrisy – not to mention loud preaching, oratory, and a little bit of mudslinging – that Jesus comes for baptism. Everything stops and all eyes follow him as he enters the water. Slowly he makes his way to John’s side. In a quiet, yet confident, voice he whispers in John’s ear. And suddenly, the loud preacher who has just been castigating the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, is reduced to mumbling.
“You, you, you… you want me to baptize you?! No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I need to be baptized by you, not you by me.”
And Jesus responds, with his first recorded words in Matthew’s gospel, by saying, “I insist. It is proper, it is fitting, it is appropriate for you to do this… to fulfill all righteousness.”
And with trembling hands, still wondering if indeed this was the right thing to do, John lowers the Coming One of Israel into the shallow, muddy waters of the river.
Can you imagine what John is thinking at that very moment?
I confess that often, when I officiate a baptism, as I lower the candidate into the water, I have more practical thoughts on my mind than spiritual. Depending on the person’s size of course, I can’t help but be a bit concerned about my back, not to mention my grip. Don’t want to let him down too deep; I might lose him, not to mention get my shirt sleeves wet. Don’t want to take too long; she might get scared, not to mention pull me down with her.
What do you think is going through John’s mind as he baptizes the very Son of God?
All these religious folk have come out from Jerusalem thinking they are righteous, yet asking for baptism because it’s the in-thing to do, and he’s given them what-for over their hypocrisy. Now, here comes One who is righteous – righteous in a way that no other human ever has been or ever will be – who is the last person on earth in need of baptism, and demands that he, John, do this “to fulfill all righteousness.” It just doesn’t make sense.
And while John may deny baptism to the hypocritical religious leaders from Jerusalem, he’s not about to say no to Jesus. Not him. Not even if he thinks Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized.
When Jesus emerges from the Jordan, with water dripping off his beard, he wipes his face and gives Cousin John a big grin and a bear hug. And in that instant, all those standing around – including Levi and Miriam, Simeon and Benjamin… real sinners – know instinctively that being worthy of such a thing isn’t the point. Being willing is what matters.
Jesus has come to answer their question. If the religious leadership isn’t worthy of baptism, am I? And Jesus, by being baptized that day, lets them know that worthiness isn’t the issue. Grace is the issue. Obedience to God is the issue.
Nor is baptism some kind of rite of passage, that when you reach a certain age it’s something you need to do or mom and dad are going to go and get all nervous on you. “To fulfill all righteousness” is to submit yourself to life in God. Or, as it has been called, “living wet.”2
Ann Patchett has written a book called The Patron Saint of Liars. It is the story of a woman named Rose and her daughter Cecilia. They live at Saint Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Habit, Kentucky. Rose is the cook and Cecilia has become sort of the mascot of the place.
One day, when Cecilia is fifteen years old, she meets one of the new girls who has come to Saint Elizabeth’s. Her name is Lorraine, and she’s about to have a nervous breakdown while she waits to be interviewed by Mother Corinne, the nun in charge. Cecilia decides to give this newcomer some advice.
“The guy who got you pregnant,” she tells Lorraine. “Don’t say he’s dead. Everybody says that. It makes Mother Corinne crazy.”
Lorraine sits on her hands and is quiet for a minute. “I was going to say that,” she says.
“So what do I tell her?”
“I don’t know,” Cecilia says. “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t remember.”
“What did you tell her?” Lorraine asks.
And Cecilia is speechless. She’s never before been mistaken as one of them – one of the weak people whose bad decisions had derailed their lives, who had done something so shameful that their own families had packed them off to live with strangers until the evidence could be put up for adoption. Cecilia thought she was going to pass out because she had been mistaken for a sinner.3
If Jesus had done it Cecilia’s way – if Jesus had done it our way – he would never have gotten in that water. Oh, he might have declared himself a friend to sinners, but never would he have wanted to be mistaken for one of them. He could have stood on the banks of the Jordan and given a blessing to all those who emerged dripping wet. He might have even given the Baptist a hand in administering some of the baptisms. He could have said to the people, “I feel your pain.” He could have acted like one of them without being one of them.
“We spend a lot of time,” Barbara Brown Taylor says, “talking about God’s love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them.”4
But that wasn’t good enough for Jesus. It wasn’t enough for Jesus. He wanted to fully identify with sinners – “to fulfill all righteousness” – and he was willing to be taken for one if need be.
That’s why baptism isn’t a personal thing. In order for baptism to be baptism, it has to be done in public… with sinners gathered round. We all – those who watch and those go under the water, those who have never entered the water and those who did it a long time ago – are sinners redeemed by grace, all flailing away in the same boat of sin. And to come together in worship and baptism is to acknowledge our fault – every last one of us – and ask, all over again, for the forgiveness that fulfills all righteousness.
And it is here that each of us, observers and participants, recommit ourselves to our own personal baptism. When I meet with baptismal candidates, we talk about why and how this ritual came to be. I tell them that we do it because Jesus did it. I tell them we do it because Jesus told us to do it. And I tell them we do it as a witness of our faith. It’s that last one – the witness of our faith – that is so personal. I tell them that there might be someone viewing this baptism who has not done it for himself or herself, and that watching this particular baptismal service might just be the catalyst for encouraging them to do it as well. You never know. You just never know.
So in our hearts, may each of us be baptized again today. It is the only way to “fulfill all righteousness.” It is the only way to be like Jesus, the One who was so willing to be one of us.
Father, may not one person leave this place today without either making the commitment to be baptized, or to recommit to the baptism that has already taken place. It is important – it is vitally important – that we affirm what these waters are all about, for it is the only way that leads to righteousness. In Jesus’ saving name we pray, Amen.
1Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2002), p. 1748.
2(Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, The Third Readings (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001), p. 18).
3Cited from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 33.
4(Ibid., p. 34)
— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.