January 13, 2008 - Baptism of the Lord
She was so eager. She handed over all her papers and watched with anticipation as the clerk looked through them, checking them off. Then she looked at my Joanna and said, “Well, we’ve got your test and you passed. And I can take your application, but I can’t give you your learner’s permit today.” I saw my daughter’s face fall. The moment she had been waiting for hadn’t quite arrived. She had met all the requirements except one.
Our lives are bounded by requirements. One more form to fill out. A couple more classes to take. A test to pass. An inspection on a house. A fee to pay. A skill that must be learned. A few more laps to run. A couple more points to earn. A license to obtain before you can be married. An age to reach before you can retire. Requirements, requirements, everywhere you turn.
God places His own set of requirements on us. In Confirmation we’ve been learning ten of the most basic ones, the righteous requirements of the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached even more stringent requirements. Not just “Do not kill,” but do not hate. Not merely “Do not commit adultery,” but do not lust. Not only “Do not steal,” but give to those who are stealing from you.
God’s righteous requirements are huge. You can sum them up as “Love God and love your neighbor,” but to say those words is only to touch the tip of an iceberg. Jesus told various would-be followers to sell all their possessions, to leave their families behind, to get ready to suffer, to get ready to die. Trying to meet the requirements of God is a monumental task. If you truly and honestly reflect on what God expects of you, it feels hopeless and impossible.
Many Christians have found hope and peace in the little conversation between Jesus and the John the Baptist in our text for today. All the Gospels mention Jesus’ baptism in one way or another, but only Matthew remembers and writes down for us what John and Jesus said to each other on that occasion.
Jesus came to be baptized, but John backed up when he saw Him coming. “I need to be baptized by you!” he says in verse 14, “And do you come to me?” John knows he’s as much a sinner as anyone he’s been baptizing. But not this Man. Let John get dunked, but Jesus doesn’t need it, doesn’t need to repent, doesn’t need to change His ways. He’s already everything He should be. It’s like Peyton Manning asking the high school quarterback for some tips or Tom Hanks signing up for an acting class. Jesus doesn’t need it, but He seems to think it’s required.
“Let it be so now;” Jesus replied in verse 15, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” One way to see it is that Jesus has set out on a course to meet all God’s requirements, all God’s commands. Since baptism is commanded, by Jesus Himself in Matthew 28:19, He has to do it. Another popular interpretation is to make the connection Paul makes between baptism and dying. Romans 6:4 says “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death.” It’s by His death on the Cross that Jesus fulfills the righteousness of God, atoning for our sins. His baptism is a necessary sign that He’s going to die so God can forgive us.
In other words, by “fulfilling all righteousness,” Jesus gets us off the hook for the fact that you and I have not fulfilled it. We haven’t kept the Ten Commandments, but Jesus has. We haven’t truly loved God and loved our neighbor, but Jesus has. We’ve hated and lusted and failed to love our enemies, failed even to love our families and friends, but Jesus hasn’t. He’s done it for us, met all the requirements, kept God’s laws. He’s done what’s required and so it doesn’t matter that we haven’t. Hallelujah, you and I are home free! Or are we?
Yes, I know there’s a lot of theology out there that boils down to something like the idea that I’m not perfect, but I don’t need to worry about it because Jesus is. He didn’t do all the wrong stuff I’ve done and He did all the good stuff I failed to do. And because I believe and trust in Jesus, when God pulls up my record in the cosmic data base He doesn’t see all the minuses on my spreadsheet, He just sees the plus marks of Jesus. Jesus met the requirements, so I don’t have to.
Is that what Jesus really meant when He said “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness”? Was His “us” actually a “royal we,” meaning that He was the only one fulfilling God’s righteous requirements? Or was John included? Were you and I included? Should you and I be worrying about fulfilling all righteousness?
What good is it for someone else to do what’s required of you? As a graduating high school senior, would it genuinely help you for someone else to take the SAT in your name and pull down a perfect score? If you need your appendix removed, is it going to make you better to have someone else take your place on the operating table? If you’ve got a drinking problem, does it make any difference that a friend of yours stays perfectly sober? And if your problem is sin, how does it help to know that Jesus doesn’t have that problem? It still leaves you a sinner.
No, the picture we see here in the baptism of our Lord is that Jesus Christ entered into our human life in every way, including baptism. It was not just so He could meet the requirements for us, but so that He could turn us into people who discover how to meet God’s requirements ourselves. As we read just before Christmas, Jesus came to “save His people from their sins.” From their sins, not just from their punishment. Jesus asked John to help Him “fulfill all righteousness,” because that’s just what He meant to do, fulfill all God’s righteousness in everyone.
I said that all four Gospels refer to this event. John’s Gospel doesn’t recount the baptism at all, but it still picks up one key detail they all four mention. John 1:32 says, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” In verse 16, Matthew tells us Jesus saw, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” That dove is the crucial image here. It’s by God’s Holy Spirit coming down, that Jesus intended “all righteousness” to be fulfilled.
Turn over to our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 42, verse 1. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight…” Turn back to Matthew 3:17 and we read “…my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” Continue in Isaiah “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” You can see the connection. The loved, pleasing Servant Son of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit. But then Isaiah talks about justice, justice for the nations, “till he establishes justice on earth,” says verse 4.
Isaiah and Matthew are talking about exactly the same thing. The Holy Spirit brings justice. The Holy Spirit brings righteousness. Justice and righteousness are the same idea, in fact the same word in the Bible. Translators almost have to flip a coin when they come to that word in the New Testament, dikaiosune in Greek. Is it righteousness or justice, righteousness or justice? For the Bible, for God, righteousness is not just personal morality. It includes public morality. You can’t just be righteous. You have to do righteousness, do justice in the world and to the people around you. Righteousness is not merely about private goodness. It’s about living rightly toward everyone else. You can’t have it without doing it.
If Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness for us, it means He came to fulfill all justice as well. He came to make this world, to make us just. He didn’t come to be the one and only perfect dude who ever lived, so God could be happy and just wink at the rest of us and pretend we’re as good as Jesus. No, Jesus came, got baptized just like everyone else, and identified Himself with all the rest of us, so that we slowly, painfully, with great difficulty, could be made like Him: righteous, just.
In theological terms, the righteousness Jesus fulfilled is not just imputed to us. God doesn’t just say we’re righteous even though we’re not. It’s not just imputed; it’s imparted. Salvation in Jesus is not a holy charade by which God acts as if we’re righteous; it’s a holy change by which He gives us righteousness. Not imputed, but imparted.
The same Holy Spirit who came down on Jesus at His baptism comes to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. That’s the promise at the end of the Gospel of John and in the second chapter of Acts. Through Jesus we receive His Spirit and receive power to live new, changed, righteous lives.
You may not believe that can be true. It’s certainly easier to believe in imputed righteousness, to think, “I’m a sinner and that’s all I’ll ever be. But Jesus made the grade, so I’ve got it made in the shade. I can go on being a sinner, and slide into heaven on Jesus’ record.” But that’s not what the Bible teaches, no matter what anyone ever told you. Yes, Jesus atoned for your sin. But he did it to get rid of your sin, to take it away. He did it to make you into something besides a sinner.
You still may wonder if it can really happen. You may be looking for change in your own life, but it’s hard to find. Worse, you may be expecting or hoping for someone else to change but seeing no signs of it at all. Yet it really happens. Paul the apostle met Jesus on the road and changed from a cruel murderer of Christians into God’s greatest missionary. Not by his own efforts, but by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
I want so much for you to believe that you also can be made righteous. I want to tell you about other people who’ve experienced the transforming power of Jesus through the Spirit. When I planned this sermon I started out to share about an amazing transformation in the life of someone in my previous church. But that was a long time ago. You don’t know that man. His story won’t mean much to you.
So I’m going to do something much riskier. I’m going to name names of people here today, people you know. I’m so sorry if I embarrass someone, but I can’t think of any better way to make this change to righteousness real for you.
Let me start with someone who’s not actually here, but has been. Many of you watched Arezoo’s conversion from Muslim to Christian last year. You saw her life changed from hopeless suffering to hopeful endurance. You may have heard her seek so hard to give, to love, to be the person Jesus wants to make her. The Holy Spirit came down on her in baptism and she changed.
Arezoo may be the most dramatic story, but there’s also Annan right here. I saw the change that’s happened in him. I knew Annan as a squirrely little boy in my Confirmation class, who together with another boy almost burned down the old church house playing with matches. And now I see him sitting there transformed into a young man who loves Jesus and serves people for Jesus. He’s the leader of Dirty Hands. He’s bringing friends to church with him. He’s changed. Sure, he grew up. Every kid grows up. But the difference is that Annan grew up in Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Carrie Sue is here. She moved away from us for a few years and went through some truly hard things. But she went through them in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Now she’s back here, and dare I say it, changed, with a fresh passion for the Lord, a passion for her church and a passion for caring for others. She was a good Christian before, but now she’s even more the person God wants her to be.
Stan’s here too. You probably haven’t noticed the transformation in him, because ever since I’ve known him, for fifteen years, he’s been steady, constant, faithful in Christ. But as I reflect I know I’ve seen him grow. Stronger in faith, deeper in the Word, gentler in speech, more sacrificial in service. The Holy Spirit has been changing Stan through what’s known as a “long obedience in the same direction.”
You heard me speak about Jane just before Christmas. I talked about her despair after a fall, how she’s losing her mind, how her desperation to go home made her say cruel things to her husband Don. But I want you to know that faith in Jesus can change someone with Alzheimer’s. She got to go home. When I saw her this past Thursday she was as confused as ever, kept asking me which church I was from. But she was smiling, she was happy, she knew God loved her. The gentle Dove descended and touched even Jane’s troubled mind and changed her.
Before I get into anymore trouble, let me share one last, very personal story. Some of you know I watched the Lord’s righteous change in my mother. She hadn’t attended church regularly in fifteen years, she had almost lost her faith, but I had the privilege and blessing to watch her become an active, caring, contributing member of our church for the last four years of her life. I got to see her die trusting Jesus completely. It wasn’t at all easy for her, but the Holy Spirit came down, and He gave her new righteousness when she was 75 years old.
Jesus fulfills all righteousness. He fulfills it not just in Himself, but in everyone who will believe and submit to the life-changing power of the Spirit. I’m sorry for all those I haven’t been able to talk about. I hope you haven’t felt left out, because I know he’s changed many of you here, and I know He will continue to do so.
My hope and prayer is that no one here will be left out of the life-changing, righteous-making gift of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Jesus went down into the waters of baptism and when those waters pour over you He meets you there. The Holy Spirit comes down and pours new life into you, wanting to fill you up with righteousness, with justice. All righteousness is still being fulfilled, fulfilled in you.
I’d like to give you an opportunity to seek once again, or perhaps for the first time, the righteousness God wants you to have, the righteousness Jesus fulfilled so that He could give it to you. In your bulletin, you will find a brief service of renewal of your baptismal covenant. It’s a way to speak again the words that you spoke when you were baptized, or that your parents spoke for you. It’s a way to once again repent and call upon the Lord to make you new, make you righteous. It’s a way to seek again the descent of that heavenly Dove and His life-changing power in your life.
If you choose to say these words with me this morning, my prayer is that you will find Jesus meeting you here through your baptism, that you will feel His Spirit come down upon you fresh and powerful, and that you will hear the voice of God saying gently, yet powerfully, saying about you, “this is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj