When I got back from vacation, one of the first things I noticed were the trees—dry, dead Christmas trees on the sidewalks. Some of them still smelled very good. And then yesterday, or maybe Friday, I saw the pine needles like carpet on the ground, fallen after the garbage collectors came to claim them. But everywhere, there were signs that Christmas was over. Our attention has turned to the New Year, and all that it promises, good and evil. There seems often to be this letdown after the holidays, something like the soft groan that comes when your regular notch on your belt has become too tight. Now what? Now that this effervescent season has winked out, now what? President’s Day?
There’s a lot that’s cryptic in this passage: what does Jesus mean when he says, “Fulfill all righteousness?” Why doesn’t he baptize John, when John objects to him? Why does the Spirit of God choose to descend only after the Baptism is accomplished—why not at some other time, some other moment in Jesus’ life?
Luther says that Jesus’ baptism is about an identification with sinners. His baptism is like an affirmation of what John says in his Gospel: the Word became flesh and lived among us. But not only among us, as distinct from us, but as one of us. Luther says it’s as if Christ wanted to say, “Although I am not myself a sinner, I nevertheless bring with me the sin of the whole world so that I am now not only a sinner, but the greatest sinner in the whole world.” As Paul puts it, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Or, as the church has put it historically, Jesus was baptized in order to share in our need for God. He took part in it. And, fulfilling righteousness, it seems, is identifying with sinners—with the ones separated from God, in order to bring those who do not know God’s love into love.
After this passage, Jesus is whisked away by the Holy Spirit to be tested in righteousness. Then, he begins to call his followers, asking them to repent and follow him. He heals, he cures, and he preaches—and his first sermon is to call the poor, the mourning, the ones that yearn for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the reviled blessed. His baptism marks Jesus’ ministry: to reach out to the sick and the suffering, make God’s identification with the lowly complete. His last sermon, which separates the sheep from the goats makes his expectations of his followers clear: the ones that care for the lowly are welcomed and the ones that don’t are not.
But in truth, Jesus baptism shows that God wants none to be excluded from his grace—because the Word of God becomes incarnate as a lowly day laborer, who takes on the mantle of a sinner. And God invites us—any of us, no matter how lowly, how estranged from righteousness, any of us—into the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.
So we who are Christians, now, in this season, when all the magic has worn off, when the last bit of holiday cheer has been drunk or thawed out from the freezer, when we walk along and see the trash of Christmas celebrations swallowed up by garbage trucks to be hauled away to a landfill, when all this is over, what are we left with? Everything. We are left with everything because we are left with the Spirit of God, the presence of Christ, the work of ministry, all of which are gifts of baptism.
God gives us so much in Baptism, more than we know. I tell my confirmation students that God has given them gifts in their baptism, some common to all Christians, and some just for them, like a vocation. As a Dean, I have to install new pastors in their calls. One of the things I say in the installation rite, after I question the Pastor, is, “May God, who has given you the will to do these things, also give you the power and the strength to do them.” I’ve always found that a little intimidating. That, however, is the promise of baptism—that we are made part of the living body of Christ, and the Spirit provides us the strength to do the things that God wants us to do.
Today we see Jesus humbling himself in obedience to God to identify with the lowly, to take sin on his shoulders, to fulfill all righteousness. God calls him his Son, and is pleased by this. Jesus’ Baptism also marks the beginning of his ministry of healing, and his path to the cross, and finally, beyond the tomb.
Our Baptisms mark the same thing. We are made children of God, we identify ourselves with the lowly, the oppressed, the sinner, the weak, and we are now to set about with our ministry, in whatever calling God has given us, in whatever time or place we find ourselves.
Reverend John Flack