Despite still feeling under the weather, I went to my home parish, St. P's, and preached for the first time. Here it is:
It’s good to be here with you, but I must admit it is rather odd standing up here, preaching. The preaching itself isn’t new: I’ve been preaching at least once a month at my field education site, Saint Middle School, since I started there in the fall. But this is the first time I’ve preached for YOU, and it is a very different thing preaching for my church family than it is to preach there. When I began to attend Saint P’s in 1995, I couldn’t have imagined standing here, and preaching the Gospel.
So this is a beginning of sorts, coming back here to preach. It is a redefining of our relationship, you and I. I am no longer Mibi who sings in choir, or Mibi who was Senior Warden, or Mibi who likes to cook. Now I am Mibi, on the road to becoming a priest. A beginning.
Beginnings are wonderful and frightening things, fraught with possibilities. When I began seminary, I had ideas about what it might be like, the work, the opportunity to pray in community so often throughout the day, the chance to study Scripture in depth. My ideas were uniformly wrong. The work was more intense than I expected. I needed to change my style of writing to an academic style I hadn’t used in thirty years. There wasn’t enough time to read everything that was assigned. There wasn’t enough time to truly digest all that I was given in my Scripture classes.
There were many joys, though. And in the midst of it all, I found a deeper, more spiritually mature relationship with God.
But make no mistake about it, beginnings are scary, even as they are exciting.
Our Gospel today is another beginning story, full of things that don’t turn out as expected. Just as I couldn’t have imagined preaching here a dozen years ago, neither did John the Baptist imagine that the Messiah would come to him and ask to be baptized. Think about this passage, and where it is in Matthew’s story: just before this, John has been telling off the Pharisees and Sadducees who came down to the Jordan to see what he was up to: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Harsh words. So John sets up a vision of the coming Messiah as someone powerful and even frightening. But now John is standing with this man, his own cousin, and he knows somehow who he is. Jesus quietly asks him for baptism in the River Jordan. John protests: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus is firm, saying it is necessary, “proper to fulfill all righteousness.” So John goes ahead as Jesus has asked.
And an unexpected thing happens, not the thing that normally happens when John baptizes people. The skies open, the spirit descends like a dove, the voice of God speaks. God, confirming who this is: His SON, in whom God is well-pleased. John may perform the act of baptism, but it is the spirit who anoints Jesus and God Himself who proclaims Jesus’ identity. “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” A Son of God, sent from God, beloved of God, made man.
This is not the baptism that John expected. It is something entirely different, a new kind of washing and anointing, the beginning of a new relationship between God and humanity, because God has sent his Son to be one of us.
It might be useful to take a moment to think about baptism at that time. Remember that ritual baths for cleansing – the mikvah - were a common part of the religion of the Jews. Very Orthodox Jews still use the mikvah as a melding of spiritual and physical cleansing. And in that time, when Gentiles were converted to Judaism, such a ritual bath would be part of the rite to affirm their new faith. So washing one’s body and one’s soul in the waters was a familiar image to them, and John’s act of baptizing would be seen as such a cleansing. Remember John’s words “I baptize with water for repentance.”
Think too about where this is happening: It’s the river Jordan. It’s the very water that Joshua led the Israelites through to the Promised Land. You may recall that when the feet of the priests touched the river waters, God parted those waters so the Israelites could cross, much as God parted the Red Sea when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. It was a beginning when the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, a fulfillment of God’s covenant to deliver them from the Egyptians. This River Jordan is a marker of new beginnings for the Jews. And it is a marker of new beginnings for Jesus, too, for this act of baptism is the first act of Christ’s active ministry, it is the first step on a long journey to Jerusalem, and to the cross.
If you were a Jew who was listening to this Gospel in the time that Matthew wrote it, you would have been give enough information to know exactly what was going on here. The location at the River Jordan, the reiteration of the quote from Isaiah, even the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, all would have established that Jesus was the Messiah. That would have been the central question to those listeners at that time.
But what of us? We are twenty-first century Christians. How do we hear it? When we hear this story, our likely question is the same as John’s. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Isn’t he without sin? He doesn’t need cleansing.
Jesus says he should be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” These are words that aren’t common parlance for us. What does righteousness mean? Nowadays we’d say it means virtue, morality, justice, honesty. All those are good synonyms for righteousness in our time, in our culture. But perhaps we need to hear it as those first century Jews did. It is a word heard over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, and in that context, it means honoring the covenant. It means keeping one’s part of the contract, in this case the contract between God and his people.
All those prophecies of one who is to come, all those words about God keeping His promise: these are fulfilled in Jesus. He is the covenant. He is God keeping his promise that he will not forsake his people who believe in him. And this act, this anointing, this washing, is not only the act that identifies Jesus as God’s fulfillment of the covenant, it is the sanctification of that act itself, of that water, for us, too, to be blessed, to be one with the Son of God who was himself the fulfillment of the promise. Jesus Christ became man to save us, and in solidarity with humanity, he too stepped into the water of new beginnings, sanctifying it forevermore so that we might have a new beginning, washed clean in that holy water.
And here is the wonderful tension between the old and the new in this great story. This is a new beginning, a new story, a new covenant. But it is also a fulfillment of the original covenant between God and his people. Just as our baptism is a new story, a new contract, it also fulfills the original covenant. Think of the words of the Thanksgiving over the Water in our Service of Baptism: “We thank you for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of Creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the Land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” It is a reiteration of the old promise even as it is a covenant of the new promise. And as my relationship with you all is an affirmation of all that has gone before, it, too is transformed into something new, a road that you all put me on.
We have put away the Christmas decorations, vacuumed up the pine needles, started our New Year’s diet, and begun a new year. But the calendar and the clock are not the only markers of new beginnings. The water is, too. In our baptism in that sanctified water, we have the opportunity to rewrite our own story, in faithfulness to our baptismal covenant, with God’s help. We can make the choices that reflect God’s priorities, not our own. We can reflect on our relationship with God, and what it might be, if we are willing to fulfill all righteousness. Christ has done it first. We need only make a new beginning, to step in His footsteps.