SJF • 1 Epiphany A • Tobias S Haller BSG
John would have prevented Jesus, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered, Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.
Some years ago I remember a bishop who was the guest preacher in a parish — not this one — say something that really bothered me. He said, “There are some people with whom God will not associate, and some places God will not go.” Perhaps you can see why I was bothered! I didn’t say anything, until a friend of mine who had been at the same service came up to me at coffee hour and said, “I am so tired of bishops coming to my church to preach their favorite heresy!” I wouldn’t go perhaps that far, but surely I believe the bishop who preached those words was wrong. For if the Gospel teaches us anything it is that there is no one and nowhere that is beyond the reach of God; that God will seek out the lost and find them no matter how far they have strayed. This is “the humility of God” and it is nowhere so clearly laid out as in the incident recorded in our Gospel this morning, Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus.
In this Gospel Jesus does something so startling it even surprises his cousin John the Baptist. John has been baptizing for some time, proclaiming baptism as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now, this was something new, not the same as the ordinary Jewish baptism, or ritual bath that people undertook whenever they became ceremonially unclean; that is, whenever they violated any of the purity laws of the Torah. The ordinary ritual baptism of Jewish law had nothing to do with sin in our sense of the word; it wasn’t a question of morality, but of impurity. Sin could only be wiped away by a sacrifice; sin could only be wiped away by blood. But impurity could be wiped away with water. And these were matters of ritual impurity: did you accidentally touch a dead body? are you finished having your period? have you been healed of a skin condition? did you just give birth, and have you waited the required number of days? These are all ritual matters going back to the years of desert wandering, and they had more to do with public health than the moral state of one’s soul.
So John the Baptist introduces something new, a new twist on this. He comes to see sin itself as something that needs to be washed away. He calls on people to be baptized not to wash away the outward impurities caused by touching something ritually unclean, or by coming into contact with bodily fluids; John calls on the people to be baptized in token of their inner transformation and cleansing release from sin.
So when the one person who can have no use for such a baptism approaches John one day, John understandably says, “What are you doing here? You should be baptizing me!” Like that Bishop with the odd opinions about where God would go and not go and who God would associate with or not, John the Baptist doesn’t see why Jesus, whom he recognizes as the sinless one, is lined up ready to be baptized as a token of the remission of sins. He doesn’t have any sins; he doesn’t need to be there. But Jesus will not hear John’s protest, and says, “Let it be for now; this will fulfill all righteousness.”
The question, of course, is, What does Jesus mean by that? What does righteousness mean in this regard. To answer the question I’d like to tell you a story I first heard told by a priest friend of ming, Fr. Gray Temple, Jr., whose father was a bishop who I believe always stayed on the right side of doctrine. And Gray told this story, a nice summer story for a cold, damp winter day. This story will take us back in our imaginations, to a warm summer day, about eighty years ago in Arkansas.
Imagine we’re in a small country town on a warm mid-afternoon. The name of the town isn’t important; thousands of little towns like this one dotted the Midwest in the 30s; maybe they had a few paved streets in the center of town, but the rest packed dirt. Picture that town square with its courthouse, the church, and the schoolhouse surrounding the little patch of green that could stand up to the summer’s heat; maybe there’s a bandstand in the center, like one of those little towns from an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” This is a town where people have worked hard, but they have suffered a lot. The effects of the Great Depression are visible, and many of the poorer folk from what the better-off call “the wrong side of the tracks” are just scraping by by the skin of their teeth. Well, to make matters worse, and to burden these poor folk even more, an outbreak of lice has struck their part of town, out on the wrong side of the tracks. The county health officials sweep in and go from house to house with a fumigator.
To add insult to injury, all of the people from the affected area have to come to the town square, to line up outside a big white tent they put up just for this purpose, right outside the courthouse, right across from the church and the school. There all the poor folk have to go through an inspection and delousing one by one, there for all to see. You can imagine the humiliation, especially for the children. To be seen in the louse-line means you are one of “them.” These are proud people, poor but proud, and to have to stand in line in the hot sun waiting for the medical examiner to pronounce you “clean” or worse, “infested,” is a terrible embarrassment and humiliation. Well, the local minister, opposite the tent in his white-shingled church on the side of the square, notes all this, as he sits fanning himself with a palm fan, trying to concentrate on next Sunday’s sermon. He sees the people lining up, feeling literally and figuratively lousy, and his heart goes out to them. He looks at the children hanging their heads in shame, as their parents try desperately to hold their heads high with a kind of “It doesn’t matter” sort of attitude — the closest thing this small town will ever see to a New York, “What are you looking at?”
The minister looks out and sees that miserable little line of people, and then he sets down his palm fan, gets up from his desk, puts on his coat and hat, walks out into the square, and joins the end of the line. A little boy, the last in the line up till then, looks sheepishly up at him, and his eyes grow large as he sees this dignified man in his neat suit, standing in a line in which everyone else is dressed in overalls or gingham. A couple of the local matrons out in front of the post office eyes grow as big as saucers, the ribbons of their hats quivering in astonishment, and through their good efforts, within twenty minutes the whole town has heard the news that the minister is in the louse line. Within another twenty minutes the line has grown by a few more people, among them the judge and the schoolmaster and the town doctor; and within the next hour the line extends all the way around the square, and even includes the matrons in their ribboned hats, looking a little uncomfortable, trying to make smiles in faces that look like they are going to shatter, but smiling and there, nonetheless.
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Jesus did not come to John to be baptized because he needed baptism, any more than the minister joined the louse-line because he had lice. Jesus joined the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness — for only righteousness that has submitted itself to judgment can be called truly righteous. Righteousness that stands apart, alone and by itself, is only self-righteousness; and Jesus, the man who above all lived for others, would not establish his righteousness apart from making all others righteous, too, by being with them.
Believe me, that Bishop was wrong. There is no place that God will not go, there are no people so fallen that God will refuse to be among them; such is the humility of God. Jesus, himself sinless, joins the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John because joining himself to sinful humanity is exactly what he came to do. Jesus did not come — the first time — to judge the world; that he will do when he comes again in glory! But at the first, Jesus came not to judge the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. And he saved it by becoming part of it, by joining himself to the suffering, the sinning, the weak, the helpless, the outcast; getting into the louse-line of our fallen human nature.
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Epiphany means “showing forth.” Over these next few weeks, as we travel through the season after Epiphany up towards Lent, our Scriptures will “show forth” different aspects of Christ and his relation to us. It is fitting that this first Sunday after Epiphany begin with Christ’s baptism, where, faced by an astonished John the Baptist, Jesus shows forth perhaps the most important thing about himself that he can show: his humility. He is one of us; he is Emmanuel, God-with-us; and he cares enough for us to leave his heavenly throne and join our assembly, thereby raising our hearts and our spirits to that place where he sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty, now and forever.+