January 11, 2015
Need It Or Not
I think it’s safe to say that if John the Baptist were to show up at one of our church potlucks, his covered dish would remain on the table untouched.
Most of us have been to potlucks where the choice of dishes was a bit unvaried—I even heard once of someone going to a potluck and finding that almost every dish anyone brought was some kind of baked beans. (That’s why they call it “potluck,” actually: you bring your covered dish, and you take your chances what others will bring. Most of us won’t suffer permanent harm if one meal out of the day, or the week, turns out to be all escalloped potatoes or all meatloaf, or all baked beans.) I think, though, that most of us would rather encounter a potluck table loaded down with twenty different kinds of meatloaf than even one pan of grasshoppers seasoned with honey.
John needs to vary his diet a bit.
Well, except that a varied, balanced, or delicious diet isn’t exactly what John’s about. John the Baptist is an ascetic—a person who chooses to deny himself the basic pleasures of life, with the hope that such denial will remove distractions and enable him to focus on his relationship with God. He ate bugs and honey. He lived in the desert. He wore a hair shirt.
Not every person of faith is called to asceticism. But some are, and John the Baptist was one of those.
And John said what he thought—and it wasn’t entirely pleasant. But yet people flocked to him.
To be fair, the upper-class folks and religious leaders may not have been out there for altogether positive reasons. But they were out there, among a group of pretty diverse folks from all kinds of backgrounds. Whether they got in the line to be baptized, it doesn’t really say. Maybe they were thoroughly offended by the scolding John gave them and went home in a huff. Or maybe a few of them truly heard John, and recognized their need to repent, and then to bear fruit that demonstrated their repentance meant something. We don’t really know, and actually the whole narration about John’s preaching, his lifestyle, his ministry of baptism in the Jordan, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of skins, is setting the scene for something else.
That “something else” is introduced by John himself. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he shows up, in the line for baptism.
This is one of those places where we remember how important it is not to read details from one Gospel into another. One of the commentaries I read this week said something about Jesus coming to the Jordan so his cousin John could baptize him. But Matthew does not say anything about John and Jesus being related. Only Luke does that. And when we get to Mark’s or Luke’s version of this event, we’ll notice that neither of them says anything about John objecting to Jesus coming to him for baptism. Only Matthew does that.
All four Gospels tell of the Spirit descending like a dove when Jesus was baptized, but the words from heaven that are reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are directed to a different audience in Matthew than in Mark and Luke. In Mark and Luke the bystanders overhear the heavenly voice (which we may assume is God’s) speaking to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But Matthew has the proclamation made not to Jesus but to the bystanders: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I don’t know if Matthew assumes Jesus already knows this, but everyone else needs to hear it, or what.
In either case, we’re meant to hear echoes of a couple of Old Testament texts in these words. First, from Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and sacrifice him on Mt. Moriah. Also, we’re meant to hear the start of the absolutely gut-wrenching 11th chapter of Hosea (another phrase from which Matthew has already quoted in his second chapter, “Out of Egypt I called my son”): “When Israel was a child, I loved him…” I suspect we’re supposed to remember, if we know that chapter, that Israel was a rebellious child, an unfaithful spouse, and God’s heart was broken by their sin. And we’re likely supposed to draw a contrast between Israel’s rebellion and Jesus’ obedience, even to the point of death, as Paul says in Philippians 2.
These details are interesting, but there’s another question that is more pressing. Christian theology, pretty much from the beginning, has said Jesus was without sin. He may have been tempted in every way that a human might be tempted, but he never gave in to sin. So why would he go to the Jordan River to submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin? He didn’t need it.
John seems to recognize this, and at first tries to stop Jesus from coming forward for baptism. But Jesus says, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” But what on earth does that mean?
It goes straight to the heart, as it turns out, of who Jesus was and why he came to live among us.
Remember that in the second chapter of Matthew, which we looked at last week, Persian astrologers showed up in Bethlehem to pay homage to a new King of the Jews. They offered the child Jesus gifts that indicated they recognized he was both a king and a priest. (The third gift, myrrh, was an embalming spice, and it symbolized the reality that Jesus was going to die—as, of course, we all do; but this gift being part of the offering from the Magi when Jesus was a child indicates that his death was as important for the early church as was his status as king and as mediator between God and God’s people.) As soon as they exit off the stage, atrocities ordered by Herod have forced the Holy Family to become refugees, while all the other babies and toddlers in and around Bethlehem are slaughtered.
Then here comes John the Baptist announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
The previous chapter certainly makes clear why we need for the Kingdom of God—which John and Jesus and their fellow Jews would have understood as the messianic age, the time when all of God’s commandments and God’s will would be fulfilled and all of creation would be redeemed and set free from the forces and consequences of sin. John urged his followers to repent—that is, to make a literal turn in their lives toward a path that would put them in the way of the Kingdom when it arrived. When Jesus finally begins his own ministry, he does so with the same message John had been preaching.
But why baptism? Why does Jesus say that his being baptized by John was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness”? Certainly he doesn’t need a baptism of repentance and forgiveness, for he has no sin and thus has nothing of which he needs to repent or for which he needs to be forgiven. Yet he is determined to get in that water, that water which has symbolically washed all the sins off so many people as John has poured it over them. Why? How does this fulfill all righteousness?
I guess first we need to consider what Jesus and his fellow first-century Jews would have understood righteousness to mean. Remember that in the first chapter of Matthew Jesus’ father Joseph is described as “a righteous man.” What was meant by that was that he diligently studied and obeyed all the commandments of his God. And in Joseph’s case there was also a higher righteousness, to which Jesus would later call his followers. Joseph went beyond the letter of the Law, and listened to the voice of God’s messenger even when that voice appeared to contradict what he understood the Law commanding him to do. This is part of what Jesus was seeking to do as he submitted himself to John’s baptism, even though he did not technically need it. But why?
For one thing, fulfilling all righteousness was a messianic act. Later in Matthew Jesus will say that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the law. The total fulfillment of every bit of Torah, especially in one person, was something Jesus’ contemporaries would have associated with the coming of the Messiah. Matthew wants us to know, both here and later in his Gospel, that Jesus is the Messiah for which his people had been waiting, and one bit of evidence for that is his fulfillment of all righteousness.
When Jesus comes to John for baptism, he is submitting himself in obedience to God’s will. That complete, perhaps even radical, obedience is what Jesus came here for, if we are to understand him as the Messiah.
But again, why is it God’s will that Jesus submit to a baptism he doesn’t actually need? The answer to this question cuts to the heart of both the Incarnation and the Atonement, two critical bits of our Christology, our understanding of who Jesus was and what he did in his life and his death.
My sister’s Christmas gifts to all of us this year indicated that for her this was the year of the snarky t-shirt. Mine has this message on it: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.” (Of course I don’t mean to disparage your intelligence by quoting it.)
I could stand up here and try to explain Incarnation and Atonement until I’m blue in the face, quoting Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and Karl Barth, but I honestly don’t think all the words I could string together could make any of it make sense as well as telling a story might. (An awful lot of theology is like that, it turns out; it’s better understood through art, story, poetry, and music than through lectures and dusty books full of propositions and Scripture citations.)
Once upon a time, and it really was this way for a very long time, even in this country up until relatively recently, people didn’t have running water in their homes, and long, hot, soaking baths were a luxury. I remember one of Garth Williams’ illustrations in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books being about this. Bathing in Laura’s home was a Saturday night ritual. Water would be carried in (in some cases, since they lived in the upper Midwest, it was ice or snow that was carried in) and heated on the stove. Then that water would be poured into a tub, and the family would, one by one, get in and wash. Pa took the first turn, then Ma, then the children, beginning with the oldest. You can imagine what the water looked like after the whole family had used it.
The proverb “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” comes from the notion that by the time the baby of a family was bathed, the water was so dirty that that baby might be missed completely in the tub. Whether that actually ever happened I don’t know, though. But a week’s worth of an entire family’s accumulated sweat and grime had to be taken out and dumped.
And once upon a time, so I’ve heard, a woman adopted a dog from the pound. The poor thing had been abused by his previous owner, and he was terrified of water. But if you have ever had a dog, you know that they get dirty, and they get smelly, and they have to be bathed. She would do her best not to bathe the dog until he really needed it, and when she did, he would squirm and whimper and shake.
One day he was particularly muddy and stinky, and he had to have a bath. She put him in the tub, and he was, as usual, very frightened. Then, suddenly, she knew what she had to do to get him over this fear, and get him clean.
She got right in the tub with him, sat right down in the muddy water, and held him in her arms, stroking him and gently talking to him. Eventually, the dog relaxed enough that she could wash him; but it only happened because she was willing to get into the dirty water with him.
When Jesus went to the Jordan and submitted to John’s baptism, he got into water that was, symbolically, polluted by the sin that water had washed away from all who’d been in it before him. When John poured that water over Jesus’ head, in a way he became covered with our sin…which he carried up out of the Jordan to the cross, and which was put to death with him.