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Sunday January 10, 1999
Matthew 3:13-17


Focus Text: "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." [3:15]


He Came Down To Lift You Up !

My wife worked at a hospital where the medical and administrative departments threw a huge Christmas party for the staff every year. "It was kind of nice," she said, "To have the chief of medicine pouring your coffee and the president of the hospital serving desert." She also confessed that she felt some discomfort when her waiter (who happened to be the chief of neurosurgery) asked, "Ma'am, would you like the chicken or the steak?"

All of us have seen pictures of the mayor, the congresswoman, the senator or the governor standing behind the serving counter at a homeless shelter dishing up the potatoes and gravy. They show up to say, "I'm here for you.  I care.  I'm aware of your plight." (And for the more cynical of us -- "I need the publicity." -- Shame on me for even saying that!)

Our scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew shows a shocked John the Baptist in great discomfort over Jesus' request for baptism.   The story also carries the most profound, "I'm here for you!" "I care!"  "I'm aware of your plight!" -- in all of history.

From one end of the bible to the other, God has been trying to come to the aid of those who cry out for help, "The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them..." [Ex.3:7-8 - NIV]

Isn't that great?  How many times have you ever heard of people who "turned a deaf ear" to another's cry for help?   One of the essential truths about the Christian faith we encounter today is that God never turns a deaf ear to our difficulties. The prophet Isaiah is sent by God to tell King Hezekiah, "...I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life... [Isa.38:5] I can not imagine greater comfort than to know that God is keenly aware of my tears.  Have you ever read this verse in the Psalms? "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?" [Psalm 56:8 -NSRV]

And who would not be comforted by these words of Jesus? "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." [Matt. 10:29-31 NIV]  (This, by the way is why I grew a beard -- I figured that the Lord would pay a lot of attention to me if the hairs on my face were added to the hairs on my head. I must confess, however, that this makes me feel bad for my brother Michael who has hair neither on his head nor his face!)

***

So -- what does all of this have to do with Jesus coming for John's baptism?

Stay with me here and get hold of a truth which has the potential to energize your faith and change your life! Here is the point of Jesus' baptism. Here is the essential meaning of the whole Gospel of Matthew. And even more than that -- here is the meaning of the Good News of Jesus Christ period!

Mark it down!

He came down to lift you up!
He took your place so you could take his place!
He lost his life so you could find your life!
He came to be with you so you could be with him!

All of this is contained in the simple words of Matthew, "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him." [3:13]

A question immediately comes to mind?  Why would Jesus come to John to be baptized? Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of John the Baptist who preached what Mark and Luke call, "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."   Now since Jesus, according to Christian teaching did not sin -- why would he need to repent or be baptized? In fact, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John 1:29 - NRSV]

It will help us to walk through the story by looking at three things: There is 1) John's Objection,  2) Jesus' Correction and then   3) God's Affirmation.

1. John's Objection

John is shocked at the request of Jesus for baptism.  "I need to be baptized by you! No way you should be baptized by me!"

Some years ago, I was invited to attended a conference on world peace at the Wingspread Center in Racine, Wisconsin.  This center, which was the original home of Samuel Johnson [of Johnson's Wax], is one of the wonderful examples of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.   It is impressive to tour. It is even more impressive to be invited to attend a conference there.  Sam Johnson was well known for his dedication to the United Nations and to the issue of world peace.

I was embarrassed to arrived a bit late to the first session of the conference at which Henry Kissinger was speaking. As I tiptoed toward the back rows in the room where Dr. Kissinger was speaking, a shorter-then-me balding man got up from his chair and whispered, "Here, take my seat." I tried to decline, but he insisted and I took his place.

A colleague later said, "Wow.  Sam Johnson gave you his seat!"  It was the Samuel Johnson.   Samuel Johnson Jr. - son of the Samuel Johnson who had founded the company. Silly as it was, I felt uncomfortable for taking Sam Johnson's seat and during the break after Kissinger's speech, I went up to him and said, "Mr. Johnson, I didn't realize who you were when you offered me your seat."

He gave me the strangest look -- I felt like a nut case!  (When you hit those times, don't keep talking.) In trying to explain what I meant, every word that followed dug a hole deeper into nonsense. "Shut-up," I'm saying inside.

I can only imagine how John the Baptist struggled with the thought of baptizing Jesus. he must have felt something like Peter did when Jesus stooped before him with towel and basin in hand. (Peter goes from "You'll never wash me!" to "Then give me a bath!") John the Baptist had been hammering away at sin and hypocrisy while calling people to a baptism of repentance. He had blistered the religious leaders of the day with his scathing words -- "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

But now?  John the powerful, courageous, straight living guy who calls his whole nation to repentance can not help but feel unworthy in the presence of Jesus who stands before him asking to be baptized!  The Messiah taking the place of a sinner was more than John could bear. Had he not just said, "...one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals...?[3:11]  Of course he would resist Jesus' request for baptism.

2. Jesus' Correction

Jesus gains John's assent to baptize him by simply saying, "It's okay John, by doing this we're going to make all things right."  John gives in. He doesn't understand Jesus' words completely -- but he isn't going to argue with making things right because his whole ministry is based on preaching "rightness". (righteousness)

John does not grasp the full import of what Jesus is doing. Jesus' action is the most dramatic statement in all of scripture concerning the fact that the Almighty God of this universe cares about you and me! "I'm here for you and here with you," Jesus says by submitting to baptism.  This is a baptism which John offered to those who were willing to acknowledge they needed repentance for their sins.

Now the one who need no repentance comes to join the "sinners" for baptism. How is Jesus making all things right by doing this?

The answer to this question will not become fully evident until after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.  Only then does the picture finally become clear.  He came to join us at the point of our alienation from God.  To truly reconcile a human race that had turned away from God, Jesus had to get under the one who had fallen farthest.

It is as though Jesus came to a place where he by nature did not belong so that you and I could get to a place where we by nature could not go.  He makes all things right by taking the sinner's place.  The Apostle Paul expresses this truth with these amazing words: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." [II Cor. 5:21]

The baptism of Jesus is a most powerful declaration of the grace of God at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.  It contains the heart of the Good News which will finally be seen in its completeness with the angel's words at the end of Matthew's story, "He is not here, for he is risen..." [Matt.28:6]

3. God's Affirmation

Is this for real?  Can it be true that the grace of God is so expansive that the Son of God would stand with me and even take my place so that I could stand with him and have a place with him forever? The answer is in God's affirmation.  "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." [3:17]

Jesus in effect, gives us his seat.  And what a seat it is! It is the seat Colossians speaks of, "... seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [Col. 3:1]

When Jesus comes for baptism, John objects.   Jesus corrects John's initial reaction and God affirms the whole gospel message.

With this event, the drama of redemption is engaged!


Notes On The Text

Interestingly, the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (somewhere around 130A.D. in Greek speaking Christian circles -- likely Egypt) speaks to this issue by saying, "The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, 'John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.' But he said to them, 'In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him?' " [Quoted in Jerome: Against Pelagius III.2]  (Fr. Gospel Parallels)  The Gospel of the Ebionites and the Gospel of the Hebrews -- both from Jewish circles of the first half of the second century -- have a lot of material on Jesus' baptism, most of which points to the affirmation of God that this is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God.  In the Gospel of the Ebionites, John actually falls down before Jesus begging to be baptized by Jesus.   Nevertheless, Jesus refuses saying...  "Let it be so; for thus it is fitting that all things be fulfilled."

We've spoken in previous weeks about the movement of John the Baptist which was substantial -- persisting into the post-resurrection ministry of the apostles. The accounts of Jesus' baptism and particularly the non-canonical gospel accounts make it clear that the earliest Christian church wanted to make keep the record straight that John the Baptist was the herald of and subservient to Jesus who is declared to be Messiah.

John's hesitancy to baptize Jesus raises questions.  Two propositions are that: 1) He recognizes the Messianic character of Jesus (ala John 1:29), or 2) Through familial relationships, he has knowledge of the character of Jesus and in his own humility recognizes that "one greater than he" has come.

v.15 "to fulfill" = "pleroo" also related to "pleroma" = "the 'fulness' of God" In getting a handle on what Jesus is saying, it is helpful to look at the ways this word is translated.  It is to fulfill, or make complete or even to make perfect.  The idea is to bring to completion or perfect fulfillment to righteousness ("dikaiosune"). Jesus says to John that through submitting to baptism, he (Jesus) is bringing the righteousness God desires -- the righteousness John in his preaching says God demands -- to fulfillment.  This doesn't require the full understanding of John at all.  John simply obeys. The actual fulfillment of "all" righteousness will, as we suggest above, require the whole ministry of Christ coming to completion.  Jesus the servant takes the place of the sinner from his baptism to his crucifixion and finally the resurrection -- then -- all things are completed. "Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power." [I Cor. 15:24]

v.17 A comparison of the synoptic passages on the baptism of Jesus shows slight differences in perspective.   Marks account presents Jesus' subjective experience...  "He saw ... the Spirit descending...  and a voice came from heaven "You are my Son..."   Luke has the Spirit descending in "bodily form" as though objective and a voice comes from heaven.  Matthew has Jesus seeing the Spirit of God, but the voice says "This is my Son..."  rather than "You are my son."  The only real difference is in how Mathew portrays the voice from heaven.  His wording is meant to include John in the affirmation God makes -- probably because this confirms John's decision to go ahead and baptize Jesus.  Matthew alone has the more lengthy exchange between Jesus and John.

See Isaiah 42:1 "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him..." Matthew likely has also in mind, Ps. 2:7 "You are my son..." The baptism heralds the ministry of the suffering servant.

Not a few commentators have pointed out the "Trinitarian" nature of this passage in that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are participating in the baptismal event.


Alternate Sermon Ideas

God's True Servant ~ Isaiah 42:1-9

One of the key issues the earliest church and the gospel writers had to deal with was the fact that although Messiah was of royal lineage, he did not appear as the warrior king most Jews were looking for.  The cross was scandalous.  "Foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews."  One possible homiletic direction for today's lectionary readings is to focus on the Servant.

As difficult as it was for the first century Jew to understand the Servant role of Messiah -- we are no less vulnerable in our own time to turning away from the notion of servanthood.

In Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus, the servant role begins with Jesus' identification of - or even taking the place of the sinner who needs to come to repentance. Matthew likely has Is. 42:1 in mind when the Spirit descends upon Christ. As the servant of Isa. 42:1 brings justice tot he nations -- so Jesus comes for baptism to make all things right -- ie. just.

Isaiah speaks of the characteristics of God's Servant. These verses also provide a good way for us to check our own SQ (servant quotient)

The Servant is:
    1. Humble - verses 2-3
    2. Committed - verse 4 - The true servant does not give up
    3. Called and led by God - verse 6
    4. A bearer of light - verse 6-7 - light = knowledge
    5. A worker for good - verse 7


"Now I Get It!"  ~ Acts 10:34-43

If you are not doing a "Baptism of Jesus" sermon, the Acts passage affords a great opportunity to take a fresh look at the heart or core meaning of the Christian faith.  Read the  context in Acts 10 where Peter has a vision which compels him to re-examine the issue of the universal application of the gospel and Cornelius has a vision which compels him to call for Peter.

In other words it is God alone who sets the parameters of the gospel message.  It is easy to get "locked in" to our own understandings.  When Peter begins his message, he says, "I truly understand..." [NRSV] The [NIV] is closer with, "I now realize how true it is that God shows no partiality..."  The Gk. is "katalambano" -- which means to "take hold of" or grasp with the mind".  THIS message is for everyone -- not just for the Jewish people. It is a message that must go to everyone.  

There is the possibility of a two fold homiletic direction with this passage:

I.  Who do we exclude from the hearing of this message.
   In Peter's time it was Jew and Gentile.   What are the divisions you see? Race? Class? Culture? Economic situation?   What does it mean for us to say that God shows no    partiality?

II. What is the core of the message?
    * Christ is Lord
    * God was with Jesus in his ministry
    * Jesus was executed, but God raised him and we are witnesses
    * We have been commissioned to carry the message
    * The message is: "Sin is forgiven through the name of Christ!"

As Peter came to grips with the essential meaning of Christian faith, so we might also find a degree of renewal by re-examining the basic meaning of our faith.


Worship Helps

Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 29)

L: Let us worship the name of our wonderful God,
P: The Lord reigns over all creation!
L: The voice of God creates all things,
P: Nothing exists without the creative power of the Lord.
L: May God give strength to all who gather here today,
P: May the Lord bless us with peace!

Prayer of Dedication

We are amazed O God, at the wonder of your love for us.  You gave us the amazing gift of your Son Jesus Christ long before we considered you.  Now we come before you bearing gifts that come from your hand.   How could we not love you and offer the gifts we bring for the building of your kingdom of love?  Amen.