Promises to keep

Matthew 3:13-17

We’ve been hearing quite a lot about John the Baptist lately, haven’t we? Think of it: in the last five weeks, beginning with the second Sunday in Advent, we’ve read about John the messenger… “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!’” About the John the Baptizer offering a ritual immersion of repentance in the Jordan River for the forgiveness of sins… and of the crowds who came to be washed clean by him… and of his prophecy about a new baptizer and a new sort of Baptism… one not of water, but of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:1-12). And about John the witness… one who came to testify to the light… the true light that was coming into the world (John 1:1-14). We read that bit twice—must have been pretty important, I’m thinking.

And here we are again today hearing about John dunking folks in the river. But this time, there’s a bit more to the story… a new thing: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” (v. 3:13). Wait… what? Jesus came to John for a baptism of repentance? How could that be? What did Jesus have to repent of? He was the Son of God, after all, God’s Messiah… without any taint of sin. He was the perfect man! And so, John balks at Jesus’ request to be baptized saying, “Whoa, buddy! You’re the one who should be baptizing me!” To which Jesus responded, “Work with me here, John. We have to do it this way ‘to fulfill all righteousness.’” So, John gave in, and did what Jesus wanted him to do (vv.14-15). 

So, what are we to make of this? This passage has made a lot of really smart folks scratch their heads for a lot of years. And I’m not that smart, and I certainly don’t want to put words in Jesus’ mouth. But there are a couple of things we know about the nature of John’s baptism, and about the Hebrew concept of righteousness, that might inform our understanding of today’s Gospel story. First, ritual immersion (Heb. mikvah) from around the first century BCE to the present, not only serves to restore the faithful to ritual purity… so that they may properly come before the presence of God to celebrate Jewish holy days and read from the Torah, but also symbolizes a radical change of heart on the part of a Jewish convert… the total commitment to a new life of faith in YHWH. And “to fulfill all righteousness,” the words Jesus used to explain to John why he was doing what he was doing, in this context, means “doing the revealed will of God.” So, Jesus seems to confirm on one hand that he is, indeed, the Messiah, and on the other, that it was God’s will that he undergo this cleansing ritual. “Work with me here, John.”

Which makes me wonder if this might have been the very first life-lesson—or eternal life-lesson—of Jesus’ earthly ministry… the foundation upon which the balance of his teachings would be predicated: which is that the key to salvation is “getting right with God…” or atonement (or, better yet, at-one-ment) with the Father. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, who became incarnate as the perfect human in order to show us the Father who created us (cf. John 14:8)… and to teach us how we can be fully-human… how we can prepare ourselves to stand in the presence of God, warts and all, without shame… or fear of failure. Not because of our righteousness, or our faithfulness, but because of God’s righteousness, and God’s faithfulness. The Son of God didn’t come to earth for himself… he did it for us… because he loves us… because God loves us. God’s Christ didn’t undergo ritual purification for himself… he did it for us… to help us prepare ourselves for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit… Baptism with a capital “B…” which is being sealed against sin, the world and the devil, and adopted into the (perfect) Body of Christ forever and ever.

But we must be purified before we can be sealed. And being purified means confessing to things done and left undone… owning up to following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts… (c.f. BCP [1928], 6)and admitting that we, each of us, is mired in the original sin of selfishness that has dogged the steps of humanity since Adam and Eve in the Garden. So, when we step out in faith and follow Jesus’ example of giving himself over to the waters of purification… of humbling himself before the Almighty, we take our first steps towards becoming at-one with God, which is the only path to eternal life. We’ll never be saved on our own merits—because we are righteous—only because God is righteous. And there are promises we must make. Promises that are at the heart of our Christian vocation. Promises that, once made, we would do well to keep.

I invite you to turn to page 292 in the Book of Common Prayer so that we may renew our Baptismal promises together:

Dear People of God: In Holy Baptism we follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he came up from the water he was anointed by the Spirit of God and designated as God’s Son. So too are we anointed by that same Spirit in baptism; we are reborn and adopted as sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased. Let us now, therefore, renew our own baptismal covenant.

Celebrant:     Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? 

People:         I do.

Celebrant:     Do you believe in God the Father? 

People:         I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant:     Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

People:         I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spiritand born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate,was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven,and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant:     Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

People:         I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,the resurrection of the body,and the life everlasting.

Celebrant:     Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 

People:         I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant:     Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People:         I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant:     Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People:         I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant:     Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

People:         I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant:     Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 

People:         I will, with God’s help.

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whohas given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, andbestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternallife by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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