Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
So soon after Christmas and Epiphany, it’s startling to have Jesus grown up and starting his ministry. Here he is at the Jordan, being baptized. From here, he will head to the wilderness to be tested. But we won’t read that story until the first Sunday in Lent.
One of the most frequently asked questions about this passage is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” Jesus explains it is to fulfill all righteousness. That doesn’t really tell us a lot, though.
It doesn’t until we think in terms of the first century Jewish context. Righteousness is about being right with God. In Jesus’ time, it meant making oneself right with God by doing the right things in the right way.
Our study group on Monday talked about the connection between baptism and mikvahs, which are rather like hot tubs for ritual cleansing. I found a description of a new mikvah at a New York synagogue, with a long list of things to do to prepare for immersing oneself in the mikvah. They included showering and washing the hair, removing earrings and washing the earring holes, removing fuzz from navels, blowing and cleaning the nose, and removing eye glasses and false teeth.
Since the mikvah is intended to render the user clean, this cleanliness is important. There are a set of prayers that accompany the mikvah. One of them reads: “Blessed are you, God, Majestic Spirit of the Universe, who makes us holy by embracing us in living waters.”
While I believe this is a modern interpretation of an ancient prayer, the intent is obvious. One becomes holy through prayerful immersion in the mikvah. Some Jews use the mikvah once a year, at the time of the high holy days, and others use it weekly, before the Sabbath. The intent of the mikvah is to offer a path to new life. One can’t breathe under water, so each time one immerses oneself in the waters of the mikvah, one rises from the waters clean and holy. This ritual is about fulfilling all righteousness.
The Christian belief in new life after immersion is directly connected to the cleansing of the mikvah. We have changed it, however, believing that we only need it once to be cleansed of our sins – made righteous – once in a lifetime.
When Jesus shows up to be baptized, he demonstrates how much God wants people to understand that all people are righteous in God’s eyes. Righteousness should not be limited to those with power, but available to all of God’s children, at no cost. With Jesus, all righteousness is fulfilled.
Even more, God the Father is proud of Jesus. You are my son, my beloved, and I’m proud of you. God’s Holy Spirit shows up in the form of a dove, and reinforces this message.
When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit shows up in our lives too. We can imagine the Holy Spirit saying to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved, and I’m proud of you!” We are made holy, righteous in the waters of our baptism, and we do well to remind ourselves of that often – daily, as we shower, weekly as we dip our fingers in the water in the font and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads or bodies.
Jesus’ baptism is a sort of initiation rite – we might say an ordination -- into the rest of his life, which will be one of selfless ministry. The purpose is to fulfill all righteousness by demonstrating without a doubt the extent of God’s love for us.
Each one of us has a calling, a purpose to fulfill. For most of us, dying at the hands of the designated leaders is not in the job description, but we are still called to give our whole lives in following Jesus. We are called to use our money, our skills and talents, our interests and passions, in service to the one who gave his life for us – Jesus the Messiah. It looks different for each of us. Here is how it looks for one person:
As a youth, Doctor Patrick Angelo thought he might be a priest. Instead, he became an oral surgeon. About 12 years ago he was sitting in his Jacuzzi at home in the Chicago area, reflecting on how blessed he was and how hard life was for some people. He began by looking at the reality that surrounded him each day as he left work by way of Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.
Lower Wacker Drive is an underground street with service doors to all the buildings on Upper Wacker. It’s a main thoroughfare, but its original purpose was as an underground alley. This is where the businesses above get their deliveries, and where they dump their trash. The homeless have made their own community in the nooks and crannies and sheltered doorways of Lower Wacker.
Each day, after rush hour ends, Doc stops at a McDonalds and buys $200 worth of burgers and coffee. He heads underground and distributes the food to each individual. They have grown to trust him. He doesn’t try to change them – they have chosen their lifestyle, even with all the challenges and risks of being homeless in such a place.
Doc uses his own funds to feed the 100 or so homeless who live in Lower Wacker. He tells his children that he is not saving for retirement. They are OK with that; the children know that the homeless need it more than they do. Doc says, “What could be better than giving people hope?”
Doc Angelo was hesitant to give any interviews, because he didn’t want the public praise. He finally gave in, with the hope that others will be similarly inspired. Isn’t this a great example of fulfilling all righteousness – of living out one’s calling to follow Jesus with your whole life?
What examples of self-giving love have you heard of? In what ways do you seek to fulfill all righteousness in your own life? Could you do more? How often are you reminded that you are a baptized child of God, and Jesus is proud of you? Has the Holy Spirit ever whispered or shouted at you, while you sat in your pool or hot tub or your easy chair? What are you doing about it? I hope this week you will pray about how God is calling you, and how you are responding.
Please pray with me: Life-giving God, grant us your blessings and lead us daily into the new life you have called us to. Amen