Filled to the Brim
January 9, 2011
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter
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 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.”
It’s a brief little story, but don’t think for a minute that it’s not important.
It is the story of a baptism. Every baptism is important. Through the splashing of water and a promise from the Lord, baptism is the moment when God claims a human life. It’s when God says “You belong to me.”
Each one of us has to live in the world, but baptism declares we are citizens of heaven. Anybody who is baptized is not free to pretend that God does not matter. From the moment the water is wet on our brow, we listen for the Voice, we receive the blessing, we discover the new relationships which are chosen for us.
This is a baptism story. It is important.
And it’s a John the Baptist story. That means it is significant. John appeared in the right moment in time. He began to preach with urgency. “Get ready,” he said. “Repent, for God’s Kingdom is right here!” The casual observer would see only the sandstone and scorpions of the desert. But John the Baptist saw God’s possibilities. God would come to rule right then, right there, in the bleakest of times and circumstances. “Get ready,” John said. “Straighten out the highway so God can come to you.”
This is a John the Baptist story. It is significant.
And this is a Jesus story, which is what really catches our attention. Jesus comes to be baptized by John, and John says, “That’s backwards!” John was ready for God, so ready that he was prepared to trade the water of the Jordan for the fire of heaven. He would have his doubts later, but somehow right then, he knew that Jesus is the One. Certainly the signs were there: the heavens opened to him, the Spirit came down on him, the Voice spoke all about him: “This is my Son.”
And in the thick of it all, Jesus speaks his first recorded words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Those are the first words that Matthew reveals. It’s not a teaching – oh, Jesus will do plenty of teaching. It’s not a sermon – actually for his first sermon, Matthew says Jesus borrowed the sermon of John: “Repent, for God’s Kingdom is right here!” Jesus doesn’t begin by preaching or teaching. He makes an announcement: “Let it be so now, right now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
This is a Jesus story, and he speaks so curiously. For one thing, his words sound rather formal: “Let it be so now” and “It is proper for us.” It sounds so official, so stiff, when Jesus could simply say, “Get out of the way. Let this happen. Don’t block what must take place.” But even then, Jesus is not merely referring to his desire to be baptized. No, something more is afoot: Jesus wants John to join him in “fulfilling all righteousness.” So what in the world is he talking about?
Righteousness? That is one of the most important words in the entire Gospel of Matthew. I will bet good money that’s why Jesus says the word in his very first spoken sentence. “Righteousness” is a word that he will speak over and over again in his teaching.
Now what do you think “righteousness” is? It is a ten-cent word. If somebody is “righteous,” what does that look like? Maybe it means they show up in church whenever the door is open, or that they are always praying and giving away their money, or that they don’t drink, curse, or chew – or kiss the women who do. Somewhere along the way, we get the notion that “righteousness” is mostly about behavior. That it’s about doing the right thing. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody did the right thing? Wouldn’t it be even better if we knew what the right thing was? John the Baptist thought he knew: the right thing was for him and Jesus to switch roles, and Jesus could baptize him… To do the right thing!
But when Jesus speaks of righteousness, it often sounds more like a relationship. In a few chapters, Jesus will teach us, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” To put it more simply: live for God. Live completely for God. Let God’s values become your values. Let God’s character shape your character. God doesn’t worry, so don’t you worry. When God sends the rain, God doesn’t discriminate between the just and the unjust, so don’t discriminate in your generosity. God is swift in mercy and doesn’t keep score, so let go of all your grudges. Your love must be complete, just like the love of our heavenly parent.
This is “righteousness” for God’s children. It’s living completely for God, living for others as God lives for us. It is so much higher than merely following the official rules.
I told the group that was here yesterday about the day Roberta Spann knocked on my door. “Do you have a minute? Or longer?” she asked. She came in, sat with her purse and blurted it out: “I’m concerned about racism.” It was about the time of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles. Her reading of world and local events troubled her deeply, and she declared, “I want to do something about it.” What she proposed was to knock on the door of the pastors of one of Scranton’s African-American churches, introduce herself, and see what she could do to bring our flock together with his. “Do you want me to come along?” I asked, and she said no. “I want to start the dialogue and simply need to know that you support it,” which I did.
Next thing I knew, we worked together in a soup kitchen, visited one another’s congregations in worship, and had one evening that I can only call a “hootenanny” when everybody was dancing in the aisles to Gospel music. Roberta didn’t have to start any of that. She could have played it safe, stayed up here on the mountain. Instead she went the extra mile – which is exactly how Jesus described God’s “higher righteousness.”
Righteousness is an important word. It has to do with living entirely for God and with God. Remember old Noah? The Bible says Noah was righteous, for he walked with God. Joseph did not divorce Mary which the Bible’s rules said he could do, because he was a righteous person. On the day of his baptism, Jesus says it is time to “fulfill all righteousness.”
But what about that word “fulfill”? It turns out that is also a favorite word of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is always talking about how things are “fulfilled.” At least seventeen times he uses that word! We have already heard in the Christmas story. Before Jesus is born, he is named by an angel. And Matthew adds, “This took place to fulfill what God said through the prophet.” Matthew just loves that word “fulfill.”
Matthew tells how Joseph and Mary hid the child in Egypt. King Herod was looking to destroy the baby, and after he died, after the coast was clear, Joseph brought the family home. And Matthew says, “This was to fulfill the old Bible verse about Israel in slavery, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’”
Now, you could take that as a prediction. A lot of people do. They have this idea that Bible verses are part of some secret code, and God is just waiting to fulfill these hidden predictions. And it seems, the wilder the text, say for instance the Book of Revelation, and the crazier the predictions.
But that’s not how Matthew talks. His favorite word “fulfill” is not a spooky word. It is not a fortune-telling word, as if some strange mystic is going to predict a famine, flood, or the end of the world. No, the word is “fulfill.” Or to give you one of the nuances, to “fill full.” That is, to fill something up, to top it off so that it spills over. It is to make something astounding happen, something extraordinary, something generous.
Like in Matthew’s book, chapter eight. Jesus is visiting Simon Peter’s house, and discovers that Peter’s mother-in-law lies in bed with a fever. So he touches her hand – the fever immediately left her, and she got right up. Word spread immediately, and by nightfall, that little house was jammed with people who needed a healing. Some of them were sick, others had some mysterious demon that made them ill. Jesus cured every single one of them, says Matthew. Every single one of them. And then he adds, “Remember what Isaiah said? ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ Jesus fulfilled this.” He filled up that verse, filled it up full, filled it up to the brim.
Just about every time Matthew says Jesus “fulfilled” something, there is a sense of generosity, a sense of overdoing it. That seems to be how the Gospel writer perceived God’s work in Jesus: it was so full, so abundant, so big and dramatic. Given the boredom and mediocrity of everyday life, we don’t expect much, we bide our time, we merely endure – and BAM! It’s Jesus!
So John the Baptism and Jesus have a brief conversation at the Jordan River. John says, “This is backwards; I want you to baptize me!” But Jesus declares, “No, you’ve got to do it. It’s time for righteousness, and we are going to fill it up full.”
It’s time to live in the grace of God’s presence. It’s time to love abundantly as God loves. It’s time to forgive and find alternatives to revenge and retaliation. It’s time to cancel violent anger, it’s time to stop demeaning people with words and lustful glances. It’s time to give generously to those who have nothing, it’s time to work for the welfare of those who hate you. This is the righteousness that fills us to the brim when we live with God, as we love as God loves.
I can’t think of better time. Especially today. The news comes from Tucson that a well-loved U.S. Representative was gunned down by a troubled soul. Some people have died, others were wounded, and we struggle to make sense of it. The news has been full of Tweets and Twitters, many people pointing fingers, accusing, others pointing back.
In the midst of the trauma, one of our most eloquent Christian leaders has pointed instead to Jesus. Her name is Diana Butler Bass, and last night she challenged the preachers and the church members to pursue his higher righteousness. Let me share what she has written:
At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.
Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “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.’” Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence… must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?
American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.
There is a higher righteousness, a better way to live. And it is to live as completely as we can with God. It is to pursue peace even when others hate us, for this is what God pursues with us. It is to stand up for new life, to offer forgiveness, to refuse to be dragged down by the baser tendencies of fear and cruelty that tangle around our ankles. It is to live the life of love – and to point to its Living Source.
This is the righteousness that Jesus comes to fill to the brim, and the righteousness that he offers to every single one of us. It is the invitation to live with God, even in a world that seems to be knocked off its foundations. It is the refusal to live as one more of the devil’s thugs.
Here is one more word, from the prophet and poet Madeline L'Engle. She said, "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it." (Walking on Water)
We live for the light, and we let it shine brightly. When we do, the heavens open, the Spirit comes upon us, and the Big Voice says, “With you, I am well pleased.”
(c) William G. Carter
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