Fulfill All Righteousness
Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
My wife and I have two closets in our apartment. One that my wife uses and one that I use. In my closet, there is about 50% clothes, coats, shoes, school supplies and like 50% Christmas decorations. Okay, some of them are Halloween or Easter decorations, but honestly, most of them are Christmas. I have a 6 foot tree, a massive trunk, two big bins…and it’s because I loveeeee Christmas. I really do. As your seminarian, I loved spending Christmas Eve with you…
Last year, I “Marie Kondo’d” our apartment. Anyone here ever watched Marie Kondo’s show? When you are ready to do a deep clean of your belongings, Marie recommends that you take one item at a time and ask yourself, does this spark joy? If it doesn’t, you thank it and then donate or toss it. I did that with all my belongings and then my wife was like, do you want to do this with the Christmas decorations? I can see a flicker of hope in her eyes. Because you see my wife has the smaller of the two closets. And I said, oh that’s not necessary. Everything in those bins spark joy.
After our beautiful Christmas Eve service, we observed the 12 days of Christmas. Another quick story, I recall sitting in the office after the Christmas eve service. And one of us said, “we made it!” and then either Kent or Amy said, “actually, we have 12 more days!” And I thought they were kidding. And then a few days later, I received a text from Kent that included, happy 4th day of Christmas. I was like ohhhh, this is a thing! It’s not just a song.
Honestly, I was ecstatic. In my past experiences, it feels like you celebrate Christmas on the 25th and then *snaps*, nothing. You can listen to Christmas music on the radio the day after Halloween, but the day after Christmas, it’s all gone. On a more theological note, I feel observing the 12 days is important. We spend all this time sitting and waiting together during Advent, and so it feels almost necessary that we have 12 days where we can really embody (feel it in our hearts and bodies) what it means that Jesus was born. What it meant 2,000 years ago and what it means for us right now in this moment.
And then here we are. I must confess, the season of Epiphany is new to me, too. As many of you may know, Epiphany begins after the 12 days of Christmas, and it is my understanding that during Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of God coming to earth through Jesus. God revealing themselves to us.
And so today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we remember the baptism of Jesus Christ. Jesus traveled from Galilee to John to be baptized. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism, John proclaimed that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus disagreed and said that John needs to baptize him so that they can “fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew is the only Gospel that includes this dialogue between John and Jesus…
This dialogue exchange is what I chose to focus on today. My first question is why did Jesus need to be baptized? After all, he is the son of God. Some biblical commentators suggests that Baptisms mark the beginning of new life of discipleship with Christ (no matter what age).
Culturally, we tend to associate new beginnings with the New Year, but our experiences here at church, remind us that those new beginnings can happen all throughout the year. At minimum, they can happen once a week when we state the prayer of confession together. We remember the times we stepped out of rhythm with God, and the times when we were in rhythm with God, and then we ask God to help us, to re-center us.
To me, this is such great news. The fact that we can always start over, we can re-start multiple times a day. I have had days where the minute I wake up, I let circumstances get the best of me – parking ticket, I’m running late, there’s no half & half for my coffee (which trust me, that is a disaster), I am absurdly grumpy, and sometimes it helps me to just lay back in bed, close my eyes, open them and say okay, let’s try this again.
I thought about focusing my sermon on this idea of renewal, but I found myself continuously going back to Jesus’s and John’s conversation.
And when I ask myself, Jesus, why were you baptized? Jesus answered: “to fulfill all righteousness” That’s a typical Jesus’s response, isn’t it? Thanks, Jesus, but I have noooooo idea what you are talking about.
And after days of thinking about this, this is what I came up with. In the act of baptism, Jesus humbled himself. Here, the son of God, bows his head, to John the Baptist. As you may recall, John is the forerunner of Jesus, he spoke about him in public and began baptisms that would prepare people for Jesus’s ministry.
John and Jesus are also cousins. I can imagine that it is not just each of their callings that bring them together, but their desire to support and love one another. We see a similar supportive and loving relationship between their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, when Mary finds out she is pregnant with Jesus and visits Elizabeth.
Whether Jesus needed to be baptized or not, no longer feels important to me, but what is important to me is -what impact did his baptism have on us? Well, first, in the act of baptism, Jesus identifies with us, as imperfect beings, who sometimes follow the ways of God and who sometimes do not...he is not separating himself from us.
As I thought more about Jesus’s response, I looked up the word, “righteousness” in Greek. Here are just a few definitions: integrity, rightness, and correctness of thinking, feeling and acting. What does it mean to live in a “right” way with God? What does correctness of thinking, feeling and acting look like?
I think we are given a visual of what righteousness looks like immediately after Jesus’s baptism. After Jesus was baptized, 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.”
Here, we see Jesus and God model a righteous relationship. God declares, “this is my son, the Beloved,” but as we know, Jesus’s baptism is not just about him and God, it is about all of us. Jesus identifies with us so that we may know that God declares this same truth for each and every one of us - we are their children, the beloved. We are worthy and deserving of love.
This is what I think it looks like to live a life of integrity with God. To live right with God. To know that we are all children of God and that no matter who we are, what we have done – we are imperfect, but we are worthy.
This truth is so simple, yet is can be so easy to forget. We can be so hard on ourselves and the world can be hard on us, too.
Some days we will be able to believe that we are worthy, that we are deserving of love, that God loves us just the way that we are in this exact moment, and some days that will be harder, and some days we will just want to believe it. And there also may be some of us who just never feel like we are enough. You are not alone.
It is really hard. Especially when we feel like our value is based on how much we can do. Jobs may push us to constantly exceed expectations (families, too, perhaps from a well-meaning place of wanting something better for us), and even when we do not receive those pressures, we can place those pressures on ourselves because it has become so ingrained in us.
In those moments that feel really hard, I invite you to remember Jesus’s baptism, and to say in your heart or out loud, I am imperfect, but I am worthy. I am deserving of love. Even if it feels unnatural. And if you are not able to, just knowing that God knows you are worthy and deserving of love can be enough.
Of course, we may want to try to improve ourselves and I do not think there is anything wrong with that, in fact, I think it can be valuable, but it can be very dangerous if we measure our self-worth on whether or not we obtain that goal, especially whether or not we obtain that goal “perfectly.” Because it makes our self-worth fragile.
So for me, today, righteousness, fulfilling all righteousness is about knowing what we are worth. And for us, that may be a lifelong project. But those moments when we are able to embody what it means to be worthy and deserving of love (even just for a little bit), we can see that the heavens open up and we can witness God’s voice calling “this is my child.”
When I was in my early twenties, I church-hopped and in each one I questioned if I deserved to be there, especially after so many years being away from church. During the passing of the peace, this woman, who I did not know, came right up to me and gave me this big hug, this big warm hug. I immediately felt at home. Like I was supposed to be there in that moment. She did not have to say anything, her hug made all the difference in the world to me. I can still feel it. For me, it was like God breaking through, telling me that I am worthy.
The point of me sharing this is that I believe we all need a little help from each other. And so this is why I will also say that I believe that fulfilling all righteousness requires us to act. Sharing a smile, taking the time to not just hear someone, but really listen to them, pray, whatever feels most genuine to you…
As we go about our week and weeks to come and feel a desire to better ourselves, this community, the world, I urge us to do what I heard a pastor once say, "strive for faithfulness, not perfection."
Because it is in faithfulness where we will find God. After all, Jesus’s baptism was not about perfection, but about his faith. And so as we strive to live in rhythm with God, to live our lives as God intended, and inevitably fall out of rhythm sometimes as human begins do, we are nudged to not just love the parts of ourselves that we are proud of, the parts that are easy to love, but also the parts that we are not so proud of.
Today, our closing hymn is Joy to the World, one of my favorites, and I heard it is one of Betty Gray’s. As we sing, “The glories of his righteousness and wonders of His love, and wonders of His love…” may we open our hearts so that we can also fulfill all righteousness and hear God say, “These are my children, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” They are worthy and deserving of love. Amen.