Sheepscott Community Church January 9, 2011
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17
To Fulfill All Righteousness
I was in Augusta shopping last week and took a short cut over to Barnes & Noble from Western Ave., over Sewall Street, across Winthrop to Winter Street, where the Unitarian Universalist Church is located on the corner. I had the happy surprise as I passed their side door of seeing a banner draped over the entrance that read: “We come down on the side of Love.” It made me smile to see that bold red banner there, and I thought, How could that ever be a bad thing?
Further down, on the corner of the next T intersection, I came across another surprise. In a less than––shall-we-say––nice neighborhood, there was a perfectly restored and landscaped early 19th-century house, breathtakingly beautiful, especially among the surroundings of unrestored and unlandscaped buildings and lots. Almost across the street is the now vacant lot where Pomerleau’s furniture warehouse used to be. The owner of the restored house was obviously not discouraged or brought down by the surroundings, but called forth something beautiful in the midst of them, and continues to maintain that something beautiful.
That image of the house, following on the message of the banner at the UU Church––We come down on the side of love–– struck me as a parallel to today’s readings. Not to leave you in the dark or guessing about this, I tell you straight out that the house on Winter Street in Augusta is like the life of Jesus lived out among ordinary people, people who were sinners, and the banner at the other end of the street at the UU church is how he managed to do it, viz., by coming down on the side of love.
If that seems a bit of a stretch, let’s look more closely at the gospel. A question that is rightly asked in relation to this gospel is why did Jesus, the so-called sinless one, came forward for John’s baptism, which is for repentance for sin? There are at least three possible answers for that. The first is that he was not coming forward out of guiltiness for sin, but in his coming forward, he was publicly and somewhat formally renouncing what his life had been up to that point. He was leaving behind home and family to go out on his own, to indeed become a homeless wandering preacher/teacher, and as it turned out healer and raiser-up from the dead as well. He said of himself, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
His itinerant preaching and teaching was not unusual for a person like him with a prophetic calling. Jesus was hardly the only teacher wandering that countryside at that time teaching. What was more unusual was him being recognized as taking on himself the common sin when he, the sinless One, stepped forward for John’s baptism. Although they were cousins, it’s possible that John and Jesus were meeting for the first time that day, largely because John lived in Judea, while Jesus lived in Galilee. Nevertheless, John recognized instinctively the holiness of Christ, which is why he said to him, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus neither flaunted his sinlessness nor stood apart from the world’s sin. Sinlessness can never become a negative scrupulousness; it must be a holy and an outgoing love because righteousness without love ceases to be righteous. Jesus at his baptism did not become a party to sin, but he did share the shame and blame of sin by identifying with human beings and thus absorbing their sin into his own love. That was a redemptive act.
He repented with human beings as a human being himself, in order to redeem human beings in God and for God. I repeat that sinlessness can’t change anything if it simply exists as a sterile idea. Sinlessness must be active as a holy and outgoing love, as it was with Jesus. Like that house on the corner of Winter Street in Augusta, Jesus’s love is so beautiful and awe-inspiring in our own very personal neighborhoods of shortcomings, vices, or sin, call it what you want. But see? He doesn’t remove himself to a nicer neighborhood. It is as if he is fixed on a granite foundation, like that house, there with us for the duration. And...and, he comes down on the side of love.
Love, as I have said to you over the last two weeks, is a gift freely given, and so does Jesus give the gift of his love, which is his life, fully and freely. There is no coercion. He does not impose his will or manner of life on others, unlike some who claim to speak for him. His way of love freely given, without coercion, or coming down on the side of love as the banner proclaims, appreciates the pathos of our existence as human beings. His approach is not censorious or punitive; it is sympathetic.
So, that’s two reasons why Jesus came forward for the baptism: first, to mark the dividing line between his life as it had been in Nazareth and as the new life he was taking on as itinerant preacher and teacher; and the second, to identify with the sinfulness of human beings and to be the love offering that could make them whole, could bring them to the One he called Father.
Now, a third reason he came forward for John’s baptism was that in a deepening sense of the call on his own life, he knew that God had some commission to lay upon him. Just as John with prophetic insight and humility instinctively recognized the holiness of Jesus, Jesus believed that the voice of God might come through the ministry of his brave cousin, who was so disciplined in righteousness. He trusted himself, his cousin John, and God enough to step up to the plate. As we heard in the gospel, because John did recognize who Jesus was, he tried to prevent Jesus from undergoing this baptism of repentance meant for sinners.
What Jesus wants, contradicts John’s fiery apocalyptic images of final judgment that are connected with his baptism. The One John was prophesying about––Jesus, who would baptize with fire and whose sandals John was not worthy to carry––this One turns out to be a fairly ordinary man who humbly and voluntarily associates himself with sinners. John objects to the reversal of the proper roles and order of salvation history as he has understood them, but he finally acquiesces to Jesus’s objection to his objection, accepting Jesus’s call to “fulfill all righteousness” and baptize him.
To expand on that third reason of Jesus’s growing sense of his own destiny, it is not irreverent to assume an ongoing clarification in Jesus’s own mind about who he was. During his years at Nazareth, his awareness that God had for him a task that would be the making of his destiny, that awareness deepened. Viewing Jesus’s growth in understanding is neither a false nor sacrilegious assumption. Rather, it is the reverent acknowledgment of Christ’s humanness. We can only guess at what Jesus’s growing understanding was like, knowing that he was to walk a dreadful path that was singular in human history. Perhaps as he stepped forward for baptism he was finally sure that the parting-of-the-waters moment was at hand.
When Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him, and a voice, mysterious yet personal, was heard to say, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” Now the seal is set on his forehead. Christ is ordained in that moment by the laying on of God’s own hands, as it were.
I would note that in Matthew’s account of the baptism, which I read today, there is a clear and significant contrast with Mark’s account. In the latter account, only Jesus hears the voice speaking to him, addressing him in the second person: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” It was a private experience. Matthew makes it a public experience by having the voice speak in the third person to those assembled there: “This is my Son whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.”
That Son of righteousness is among us still, standing beautiful, as does that house on a strong foundation, having chosen us by having chosen to come down on the side of love. Such a poet Jesus was, with his hardscrabble cousin John––truly a unique pairing in religious history. But they were both prophets and deeply understood the activity of God that undergirded and fashioned their lives for great purpose.
In rapid succession we have prepared for the feast of Christmas during Advent. We have celebrated Christmas with joy and been repelled by Herod’s slaughter of the innocent boys under two years of age in Bethlehem. We have come with the Three Wise Men to the crib on Epiphany and left our gifts there at the crib, and only we and God know what those gifts are. Now today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we are on the bank of the Jordan, where Jesus is baptized at the beginning of his more public life. That life will end three years later in a horrific death and a headline-making resurrection. For us those three years are telescoped into the next three months.
We can follow Christ’s example and submit to a prayerfully private repentance and re-baptism, and then follow him through the weeks learning from him, and being changed, converted by association with him and with those who acknowledge his way of suffering love. We can enter into that house, that beautiful, house on the corner of Winter Street in Augusta, and sit at supper with him who is both structure and foundation built of love. Let us as a congregation come down on the side of love. Amen.