Click here to view the sermon, Righteousness.
One of the more challenging aspects of the Christian life for me is the language. I’m not talking about having to clean up my language. It’s always funny to me that people who know I’m a pastor feel they have to apologize if they swear in front of me, because I’m like, “You think that’s bad? Hold my beer.” No, that’s not the language I find so difficult. And it’s not the ancient languages either, biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek that we had to study in seminary to give us a better understanding of the Bible and its translation. Those are no picnic, but it’s not like we have to use them all the time. No, what I’m talking about is the language that lives almost exclusively in what I sometimes refer to as, “church world.” These are words that you hear pretty much nowhere else but around church-going folk, that may mean something to them but sound pretty foreign to anyone from outside such circles. For instance, we have a fellowship hall. And people in the church like to talk about fellowship. I’ve even heard this word used as a verb, as in, “we’re going to be fellowshipping.” What does that mean? While I’m sure many of you could explain it, it’s not immediately evident. To someone whose read Lord of the Rings they might think fellowship has something to do with an epic quest to destroy the one ring of power forged in the depths of Mount Doom.
In today’s reading, Jesus comes to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. Only, John isn’t so sure that’s how this is supposed to work. John’s reaction is one of those object lessons about how the God we’re looking for, the God whose arrival we may even be announcing, rarely comes to us in the way that we expect. John thought he was preparing the way for someone whose sandals he himself was unworthy to carry. How then is he supposed to baptize him? But Jesus assures him that, while it may not be unfolding the way John thought it would, this is absolutely the proper way to fulfill all righteousness. And there it is. What is Jesus talking about? What does that mean, “All righteousness?” Who do you know that talks like this? Excuse me, what non-religious person do you know that talks like this?
One of the reasons I ask is because we’ve been having a conversation about how to approach this Sunday. Every cycle of the church calendar, on the Sunday following our celebration of Epiphany - the visit of the Magi to the Christ child - we observe Baptism of the Lord Sunday. That’s today. Having celebrated the arrival of God with us in the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we fast forward to the inauguration of his earthly ministry as a full-grown adult who is anointed by the Holy Spirit as he comes out of the waters of his baptism. It’s our practice on the Sunday that we remember Jesus’ baptism that we remember and reaffirm our own baptism. But the question was raised this week about how that reaffirmation and call to remembrance might sound to someone who has not been baptized. If what it means to remember our baptism is remembering how we are claimed by the love of God in those waters and sealed as Christ’s own forever, what does that say about someone who has no baptism to remember? Are we treating them like unclaimed luggage at the baggage carousel? Suggesting that Christ, and by extension we as Christ’s body, have nothing to do with them?
I think we can all agree that that’s no good. That’s not what we want to be about. It goes back to insider language - these things we talk about in knowing ways that perhaps unintentionally, but nevertheless implicitly exclude a whole lot of people. And what’s problematic about that goes back to our reading and what Jesus has to say to John about what’s happening there on the banks of the Jordan. This is to fulfill all righteousness. Meaning, this is to fulfill, or bring to completion, God’s desire to make things right. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about righteousness. We’re talking about what God would make right, or what God thinks is right. By contrast, the use of that word that we are familiar with is, “self-righteousness.” When someone thinks that they’re always right and that what they do is always right, we say they are self-righteous. This is pretty much the exact opposite of God’s righteousness and the essence of what we call sin. Self-righteousness relies upon our own judgments as the standard for what is right. True righteousness relies upon the judgment of God as the standard for what is right. And to bring that program to completeness, to fulfill what it is that God would have put right in this world, the judgement of God is a decision to become one of us in order to save us. God determines to make things right not from “on high,” but by coming down to our level and making things right from the inside out. In being baptized by John, Jesus signals that God has entered into the shared experience of being human in order redeem our humanity for all of humanity. Not just the ones who get wet.
Several years ago, I was invited to participate in a service at a neighboring church in the town where we lived. Afterward, we were invited to - you guessed it - the fellowship hall for a soup lunch. I was seated at a table with a mother who was explaining to me that her thirteen-year-old daughter had just gone through confirmation at their church. The girl hadn’t been baptized as a baby, so she was baptized as a part of her confirmation. After her baptism, the girl asked her mom, “Do you think God sees me differently now?” The mother wanted to know what I thought. I can’t remember what I said. I can only think about what I wished I had said. The question was so earnest, and the mother so eager to know what I thought that I wonder now if I could have answered the way I wished I had. Because I wished I had said, “Of course not!” But I think this is where we get tripped up. We repeatedly forget that what we do doesn’t change God. Baptism certainly doesn’t change what God thinks of us, or how God sees us. We just aren’t that powerful. But that doesn’t mean that baptism doesn’t make a difference. That doesn’t mean that nothing happens in those waters.
If anything, the Waters of Baptism are perhaps the place where we begin to see God differently, and where we begin to see ourselves differently. Maybe that’s what God is trying to set right, the thing that, once corrected, begins to transform everything else we do, say, or think. The archetypal story in Genesis gives an account of humans who eat from the tree of judgment - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; what is right and what is wrong. Having taken the determination of what is right into our own hands, entering into our own kind of self-righteousness, the humans decide their own nakedness to be shameful. They hide themselves from each other. And then they hide from God. They make the mistaken determination that, despite having been made good in God’s image, they are somehow bad. Likewise, all evidence to the contrary - given that they live in a garden in which their every need is met - they judge God as a frightening presence that they should hide from.
If last week’s celebration of Epiphany was about how God is made visible to the unlikeliest people; people who follow another religion and come from a foreign place. This week’s celebration is about how God is made visible to us, and how we come to see ourselves differently through the waters of baptism.
In those waters Jesus comes to be in solidarity with us, so when God says this is the one in whom God is well-pleased, those words apply to us too. God is well-pleased with us. God is well-pleased with you. Far from some punitive overlord from whom we should hide, God is revealed to us in those waters as the one who never stops seeing who we were made to be all along, the one with whom God is well-pleased. And when God calls Jesus beloved, the word applies to us as well. We are beloved. And here’s the thing. People tell us that they love us all the time. Or at least, I hope they do. The problem isn’t so much that there isn’t enough love in the world. The problem is that we aren’t sure that we deserve it. We aren’t convinced that we are lovable. We’re not certain such love can be trusted.
Far from being a mark of who belongs and who does not, baptism is the beginning of a life lived according to the story God tells about us and not the one we tell about ourselves, or the one that others would tell about us. Whether we are baptized before we can even know that story as infants, or when we’re older, our lives are set right by the promise that we can be the people we were always meant to be. Our lives are set right when shame and fear are set aside in favor of acceptance and joy. To trust that it is so is what it means to remember our baptism. And for those who have not yet been baptized, it is an invitation to see yourself and God in a whole new light.