January 10, 2021

“To Fulfill All Righteousness”

(Mark 1: 4-11 & Matthew 3: 13-17)

 Then 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 o 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.” (Mt. 3:13-17).

     This week, as I was imagining the heavens opening at the baptism of our Lord, Jesus, I recalled the greatest personal experience I have had of the heavens opening to reveal a beautiful scene.  I was on my way to Local Pastor’s School being held in a small rural town near Corning, New York. I was driving through winding roads in the rain, when suddenly the sun poked its way through the sky.  As I rounded a corner, ahead I was struck by the most beautiful, deeply colored and full double rainbow I had ever seen.  It was so stunning, I stopped the car so that I could get a better view of this breathtaking event.  Yet, this beauty could only be a small portion of the glory of God that was revealed at the baptism of Jesus.

     This morning, as a community of believers, we celebrate all of the Glory that was revealed at the baptism of our Lord Jesus by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River.  That Jesus, “the sinless one,” would come to John at the Jordan River to be baptized by him has been a source of questioning by many people of faith.  The Gospel of Matthew has John himself questioning Jesus about his desire to be baptized.  “I need to be baptized by you,” John protests, “and do you come to me?”  And what is Jesus reply?  Jesus tells John, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  So, just what does Jesus mean by saying that his baptism by John will “fulfill righteousness?”

     Jesus’ baptism, like so many other aspects of his earthly life and ministry, was a complex matter.  Several plausible and fitting reasons have been offered by biblical scholars for Jesus being baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”  I would like to share a few of them with you today.  The first reason has been well presented for us by Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith, an ordained minister and recognized biblical scholar.  Dr. Smith ties the baptism of Jesus as a means to fulfill righteousness to the Jewish ritual of animal sacrifice for human sin.  In this Jewish ritual, the priest would place his hands upon the sacrificial animal and transfer the sins of the people onto it.  The animal itself was not the sinner, but it took upon itself and carried the sin of others that was placed upon it by the priest.  In a like manner Jesus, who was without sin, took upon himself and carried once and for all the sin of the world that was placed upon him. Doing so, Jesus became the perfect and final sacrifice for our sin.  It is understandable that he would participate in this ritual of baptism signifying repentance for the forgiveness of sin.  In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist several times referred to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  This description of Jesus is consistent with Dr. Smith’s understanding of Jesus as God’s “sacrificial lamb” for human sin.  In this manner, Jesus fulfilled righteousness as the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world.

     A second understanding of Jesus’ baptism as fulfilling righteousness can be found in viewing it as Jesus’ act of identifying with the human condition of those around him being baptized for their sin.  Jesus would soon be ministering to them, caring for them in their state of sin and need.  John was preaching a new message of repentance for sin, for the coming of the kingdom of God was near. Jesus came to the Jordan River for baptism both to identify with and to affirm the dawning of this new day.  Jesus’ baptism was fulfilling the same positive act that John was asking of those whom he baptized—that of committing to a new life within God’s plan and purpose them.  Although Jesus did not need to be baptized for his sins, he did want and choose to be baptized to affirm publically his obedience to God’s plan at work in and through his life.  And so, finally, this act of baptism was also a means by which Jesus set an example for all those who would soon become his followers.  They would soon come to see that the one in whom they believed placed his full commitment upon the will and plan of God.  Jesus would invite his followers into this same committed relationship with God.

     The baptism of Jesus was affirmed both for John and for all of the onlookers to have fulfilled righteousness in three ways: 1) the skies opened to him, 2) the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descended and rested upon him, and 3) the voice of God could be heard to say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  There was now no doubt that Jesus’ act of baptism was pleasing to God, and that the time of his loving and compassionate ministry was now at hand—the kingdom of God was truly coming.  It began with the public baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, his act of obedience to fulfill all righteousness.

     Church, as the scriptures reveal to us, Jesus would go on to fulfill his role as the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of  the world—of all who believe in God’s work of salvation though his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  Even in our loneliest moments, our darkest hours, we are not alone, for Christ Jesus our Lord is with us.  The obedient Lamb of God who took on the sin of the world continues to bear with us and to care deeply for us.  As we have all experienced in the course of our lives, when there is only one set of footprints in our wake, the love, peace, comfort and strength of God in Christ are carrying us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ—no powers, no principalities, no pandemic illness, and no political or ideological differences like those we have experienced this week leading our nation to the brink of civil unrest. 

This is a new year, and as people of faith in this very time and place we are called to follow the example of Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and plan.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is good and right.  The one who fulfills all righteousness is our guiding light, and he calls us not only into his marvelous light, but to reflect his light out into our needy world. That is how we, as the present-day believers and followers of Jesus, will live into and fulfill the righteousness of our time.  Amen—and let it be so.

“When Jesus Came to Jordan” (words-Fred Pratt Green; music-attributed to William Walker) 

          When Jesus came to Jordan to be baptized by John, he did not come for pardon but as the sinless one.  He came to share repentance with all who mourn their sins, to speak the vital sentence with which good news begins.