The Sunday’s Sermon: Mission Impossible

January 8, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Carol Worthing

Today we celebrate The Baptism of Our Lord Sunday – and we will also celebrate our baptizand, Benjamin, in his baptism – so, in a sense, this message is for him – it’s really for all of us, though, and so I just want Benjamin to knowwe’re all in this, together!

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?’  Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way, to fulfill all righteous-ness.’”  Matthew’s Gospel, alone, tells the story of Jesus’ baptism with this struggle for understanding on the part of John, of why it should be done this way, rather than the other way around. At the heart of it, it’s about “fulfilling all righteousness,” Jesus says.

Righteousness… That’s a word we 21st Century people may not understand in the same way that Jesus and John, 1st Century Judean men on a mission, understood it.  John came preaching a Baptism of Repentance, we’re told.  In the Greek text, the word for repen-tance is metanoia – to change – to bring your life into harmony with the Will of God!

Repentance means to turn your heart and your mind away from self-interest, and toward the wellbeing of everyone in this diverse world, that God created, and that God so loves!

And Jesus, as his cousin John knows, Jesus doesn’t need to repent of anything – so, while John does have a need for repentance – it is to John that Jesus offers up this pathway to righteousness. We know that John has been on his mission for a while, now, and he has become a draw for the common people – they’re flocking out from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, to listen to John’s cries for repentance…  And the people respond by going down into the water as a sign of turning their lives around – toward the Will and Work of God.  And when they come up out of the water, it is with the intention of straightening whatever is bent out of shape in their lives; to realign their lives with what God commands; by trying truly to live by the Law of Moses…

Meanwhile, Jesus has been working as a tekton – a builder in wood and stone – working daily for a day’s wages, along with his brothers and their father, Joseph… quite likely in Sepphoris, a fast-growing, beautiful city; known as the “Jewel of Galilee,” that serves as its capitol city, with a population of wealthy Romans, Judeans and Greeks residing there.  And, being built on a hilltop just six and ½ miles to the NNW, Sepphoris is a familiar destination – within walking distance of Nazareth…  Jesus is familiar with John’s mission, as well – it’s likely he even became one of John’s disciples at least for a time – learning what he could, even when his own mission was stirring in his own heart and mind – up until this moment, when Jesus knows that he needs to accept John’s baptism even though it doesn’t fit perfectly, with his own vision of God’s coming realm.

This baptism is something new that God is doing – through John – that God has never done before!  Something that Jesus knows he needs to accept; if for nothing else, then to fulfill all righteousness!  So – the subject is righteousness – and it’s important for us to get a grasp of what that word means to Jesus, as a 1st Century Judean man with a mission.  For that, and because everything is connected – we have to go all the way back to Gene-sis 14 v. 18, where the word Zedekrighteousness – first occurs in the Hebrew Scrip-tures.  So let’s wade in…  You remember Abraham’s story – he hears the voice of God telling him to leave his home and his father Terah, to set out from Ur of the Chaldeans for an undisclosed, “promised land.”  And, still called Abram, as Dean Penny reminded us last Sunday, he set out – at great risk to himself and to those he brought with him – with no guarantees and no road map to follow – with nothing but his faith to lead him.

After some years of wandering, with many adventures as well as conflicts along the way, Abram met Melchizedek – the King of Righteousness.  The Melek part of his name means King, and the Zedek part means Righteousness.  This King of Salem {later to be called Jerusalem}, This King Melchizedek served as priest to the Most High God.  And so it’s important to notice that Melchizedek brought out sacramental bread and wine, to bless Abram, and to bless and thank God, for Abram’s victories, won over his unrighteous adversaries, along the way.  And, later on, we’re told that Abram believed God when God said that he and Sarai will have a child, even though they are advanced in years – they will have a child, who will inherit all the wealth they accumulate, along the way.  They will have descendants as many as the stars in the heavens, and they will bring many nations into being!  And as a sign of this promise, God gives them their new names.

As Abraham and Sarah, though, they try to take charge of things themselves, impatient as they are about how long it’s taking for God’s unlikely promise to be fulfilled by the eventual birth of a child, to them.  And so they complicate matters – by bringing Sarah’s hand-maid, Hagar, into the mix, and so Ishmael is born first, before Isaac – and that has consequences, lasting even to this day – even as it fulfills part of the promise!  As you may have noticed, righteousness often gets lost in the shuffle, whenever we, for lack of patience and trust in God – whenever we go off, each on our own path – making a mess of things for everyone.  Still, we read in Genesis 15 v. 6, that Abraham believed, and that God reckoned his faith to him, as righteousness.

So – what we learn from Abraham and Sarah’s Story is: that a righteous person is one who follows the God-ward path – even though there will be detours; personal and corporate demons to face; and other great difficulties, to challenge us along the way.  Still, a person can repent of wrong choices once made, whenever we come again to a fork in the road – and a person can choose to turn their life around again, to return to the right pathway… to the path that leads us, by faith, in the way that God would have us go – whatever that requires.  Jesus wants to start his mission on that right pathway, and so he accepts John’s Baptism of Repentance; and God lovingly blesses their action!

This is the moment when the voice from heaven announces who this person Jesus is: God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased!”  And, as if that isn’t astonishing enough, the heavens are torn open and the Christ-Spirit descends, gentle as a dove, to a-light on Jesus! This is the divine announcement that Jesus’own mission is about to begin!  God has blessed Jesus and John’s action together with this public announcement: “God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who for so long has been expected, and looked for over so many centuries – God’s Christ is now here, in our midst!” This is The Great Exchange, as Martin Luther called it – for Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate – born in human flesh by Mary’s acceptance of her mission, as Theotokos – Mother of God – so that Jesus came to us as Immanuel, that is: God-with-us – taking on all our human contingencies and con-sciousness, and yet he is without sin.

He is born to live in solidarity with us, so that we, who are born, paradoxically, as both sinners and saints – so that we can take up his divinity – and come to know what it is, to truly live toward God’s realm here and now, even as we live also toward the blessing of resurrection life, yet to come – in community with God and with all of humanity – for that is our promised inheritance – for all of humanity is created in God’s image – from the beginning!  And it is by way of our Baptism into Christ that we, too, publicly announce this sacramental action taken together with the Church, over all the centuries – it is by way of all this – that we, too, faithfully proclaim:  Salvation is Created!

For the sacrament of Holy Baptism is an objective and indelible reality!  It is by way of God’s living word spoken together with receiving the earthly element of water, that God’s loving grace is reckoned, even to us, as righteousnesseven as we are named and claimed as members of Christ’s Body, the Church on earth – as daughters and sons of the Most High God.  And so: our mission, should we choose to take it up, is that we, who are here baptized – we are now called and sent out to tell all the world – it is the righteous-ness of the risen Christ, who lived and died in solidarity with all of us, and with all that is broken, in God’s creation… it is Christ’s righteousness that regenerates, renews, and restores us, to right relationship with God, after the priestly Order of Melchizedek…

And it is Christ’s righteousness that transfigures us all with the once and future blessing of righteousness and harmony between God and everything that exists – And not for this life only – Salvation is Created!  For it is by Christ’s offering of forgiveness that Sin and Death is defeated, on the cross – so that All Creation will be raised to new life, like him – For Yes! We have God’s Word on it!  All will be raised – to the glory that God intended, “from the beginning,” by way of the Christ-Spirit that we all receive in our baptism!  Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!  Amen!

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