Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
We are a nation of rules and laws; everyone knows this and many would point to the Ten Commandments to verify this stand. The fact of the mater is that our nation’s legal system has more in common to the Greeks or Roman cultures than that of the Hebrews. We often think of the Jewish people as being people of the Law. They follow the Torah, or the books of the law, so it is easy to think that, but after the exile to Babylon and the subsequent rule of Persia the Hebrew people were in a state of transition. Their faith was in a sort of evolution. They became people of teaching instead of people of the law. They became a people of various rabbinical teaching or interpretations of what the meaning behind the law was. These teachings or yokes as they were commonly called in the first century were more than just a religious expression but an entire way of life. It was incorporated not only on the day of worship but saturated every facet of the disciple’s existence.
The first century expression of faith among the Jewish people was in a state of transition. It had to change in many ways because the people of Israel were scattered across the known world, to the east they reached into across the Persian Empire and into what we now call Russia, they moved throughout Western Europe into Spain and north into Scandinavian areas. Their settlements are old and their influence in those areas are great. This vast distance posed an interesting dilemma for the faithful, how do we worship without going to the temple? As distance increased it became impossible for the faithful to travel to Jerusalem for the feasts so they developed a proxy type system that eventually morphed into what is seen today.
This is the culture in which Jesus began his ministry. But to really understand the ministry of Jesus we must begin with John the Baptist. Every Gospel speaks of the ministry of John. There are very few things that every Gospel mentions, but each one mentions the ministry of one man John. John is not the only teacher in Israel at that time, but there is something about the ministry of John that uniquely corresponds with the ministry of Jesus. That place they meet is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Both Jesus and John teach this Gospel. And that is the Gospel message. As our own Christian faith has evolved over the years we have focused on different aspects, many would say that the Gospel message is the Cross, but the cross is only a portion of the good news it is not the whole Gospel. The cross is a sign that points to the fulfillment of the gospel and proves that the kingdom is truly at hand. But the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is near, the rule of God is all around us, and God wants us to participate in it. The kingdom of God is beyond the walls of a building, beyond even the sacred wall of the most holy of holy area of the Temple. The kingdom of God is at Hand, that is good news.
This is a teaching that is emerging in the culture around Jesus. It is something new yet linked to the traditions of ancient days. This message has people curious and is why people are leaving the cities and seeking out a radical teacher out in the wilderness. The Kingdom of God is at hand. If that is true, the people then asked, “What must we do to enter into that kingdom?”
John stood on the banks of the Jordan crying out to the people all around, “Repent and be baptized.” This literally means turn around and wash. This message says a great deal about the evolution of faith in the first century. John’s baptism was more than just the ceremonial cleansing promoted by other rabbinical teachers; those washings needed to be continuously repeated because people were constantly getting themselves dirty again. Meaning sin was all around, the interpretation of the law showed this in great detail, and so to worship one would need to wash to be acceptable. To eat with unclean hands would deem you unfit to worship, so you would wash in a particular way to be clean. John’s teaching was slightly different. Yes there is a glimmer of similarity but there is something deeper. John’s baptism was literally teaching that to enter into the kingdom you must turn from the other interpretations and wash yourselves of their influence. Turn from a life of sin and walk a different path, cleansed from all unrighteousness.
This is where the foundations of the Christian church are laid. They begin with the teaching of John, the Gospel of the kingdom. The news that God’s rule is all around us and to gain access we must first wash ourselves of the old ways and turn to Him. John did not teach that the law was bad, but that it was not enough. The teaching of John was a lifestyle of sacrifice, putting others before yourself and living in a community of blessing. John’s teachings were just the begin, because John himself said “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John in his own words is saying that the Gospel message that he is teaching is yet incomplete, that the water of repentance he is promoting, is just a symbol, a shadow of the true power yet to come. It is here that Jesus comes in. Jesus meets John in the Jordan and John says to his cousin, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
What is John saying? First off he is saying that Jesus is greater, that Jesus is the more powerful one John was speaking about that would bring the Holy Spirit and fire. But secondly he was saying that the next stage of the evolution of faith was upon them. John the Baptizer was about to step back and allow the new day dawn. Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Let it be so now. I want us to contemplate this phrase, really the word now. When we consider the word now, we have certain thoughts that immediately come to mind. This one word could be translated as: at once, for now on, still, again, at last, immediately, in the future, just, just now, this moment, and this very day. Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. At once, for now on, still, again, at last, immediately, in the future, just now, this moment, and this very day all righteousness is fulfilled. With that one act Jesus took on the mantel of all humanity turning them around and began to show us the Kingdom of God. That one act connected the traditions and teaching of the past with the emerging teachings and life that Jesus was to show his disciples. With that one phrase and action every theological expression of the Church is covered: Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Quaker. Because in this one exchange the focus shifts from what man can do to what Christ does for us. As Jesus stepped out of the water, He became the way.
Matthew’s Gospel more than any other Gospel builds connections with the teachings of the Old Testament with Jesus, he shows how Jesus fulfills all righteousness, and he shows the path or the way to the Kingdom. Matthew teaches us the way of the disciple.
The word baptize, is to immerse as to clean. It has roots in the hygienic laws of the Old Testament but is deeper. I have recently began to read a book describing one woman’s quest to live a life of biblical womanhood, why a guy is reading it who knows, but it is very interesting. In this book there is a discussion of the Mikvah, or the ritual bath, and describes how it is to be used. It is to remove all foreign substances from the body and then immerse completely. One is to breath out all the air from your lungs and let the water soak into the pores, allowing the water to carry away all filth, so you emerge from the water clean. This is a great picture; I fully understand why many believe that full immersion baptism is an important sacrament. But I want us to remember that John said the one to come would baptize or wash us with the Holy Spirit and fire.
It is when we immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit that we entered into the Kingdom. It is when we allow the Spirit of God to soak deep within our being and to carry away the things unclean in our lives that we enter into the kingdom and begin that walk with Jesus. This comes through worship, prayer, and service. Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with others. We immerse and are baptized by the Spirit when we turn from the old ways and put ourselves into a place where we can converse with the Spirit.
I speak a lot about a life of prayer, and I have a feeling that I will be speaking about this more deeply throughout the year, because prayer is where the immersion begins. When I speak of prayer, I am speaking of something that incorporates the entirety of our mind and body. It involves the reading and deep study of scripture, the meditation and contemplation on scripture, the interaction and conversation between oneself and God with scripture. I speak of the use of our imagination and our wisdom as we with the Spirit examine our lives and envision the future. To me prayer is more than just lifting words of intercession on behalf of others, or telling God our needs, it is an intense intimate conversation with God. Prayer and a lifestyle of pray builds into worship and service to others. Without that immersion with the Spirit in prayer, worship is just noise, and ministry empty. But with an immersed life of prayer everything changes all things are made new.
When I read this passage. I see the conversation, and I hear the words. I see the bubbles emerging from the nose and mouth of Jesus as John pushes Jesus beneath the water and insures every hair is soaked. As I read I see the passing of a mantel, not ritual. I see John laying down the old guard, and Jesus rising up out of the water to carry on something new. Emerging from the water as the droplets fall to the ground, splashing in the dust I see all righteousness fulfilled in Christ. And he walks out into the wilderness. I see the closing of ritual and the emergence of a new lifestyle a lifestyle focused on God ruling every aspect of our being, immersed.
Repent and be baptized. Let it be so now. Fulfill all righteousness. God is calling us to the Kingdom; the Kingdom is already around us. It has always been, because God has always been working in the lives of mankind. Jesus is calling us to turn from the old and see with new eyes, to listen with new ears, to gain a different perspective, to be immersed in Him. Let each one of us this year strive to be immersed in Him. Let each of us strive to examine every aspect of our lives with Him, to envision a brighter future. Let each of us strive and walk with Christ out in the wilderness of our community, not with answers to the problems of the world but instead going out with teaching and encouragement to everyone we meet. Showing encouragement that they too will want to immerse their lives in the grace, hope, and love of Christ.