First words are significant, not only for babies but for adults as well. First words create first impressions, which set the tone for new relationships. When learning a new language one of the first things you’re taught is how to introduce yourself correctly — because we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
In today’s gospel reading we hear the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus comes to be baptized by John, who is scandalized by the idea that the one to whom he has been deferring in his ministry comes to the river and would defer to him. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replies, his first words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15).
Jesus speaks for the first time, and he speaks about righteousness. Righteousness will be a major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout this gospel, so it makes sense that Matthew’s gospel uses his first statement to establish this idea. Right from the start, a question is introduced: what is righteousness? On face value the word means “carrying out the revealed will of God, acting in accordance with moral or divine law.” We see that definition operating here, as Jesus will be revealed throughout his life as the one who carries out the will of God, and who reveals God’s will for all of creation.
It’s hard to use phrases like “God’s will” however, without introducing all sorts of other questions. Questions like, “What is God’s will for all of creation?” and “What does it mean to act against or outside of God’s will?” and “What happens to those who act against God’s will?” which in turn often leads to, “Who are you to tell me what God’s will is?” Discussions of God’s will get scary because they are so often paired with people claiming to speak for God, placing God on their side. That kind of moralism can be terrifying. Preaching in the wilderness about the righteousness of God, John the Baptist drew people to the River Jordan to be baptized after they’d confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6). Baptism became for them a sign of being washed clean of their various failures. And, having been made clean, they felt more comfortable looking around at all the “dirty” people of the world and calling them to righteousness.
One of my best friends from childhood is now married with three children. Shortly after the birth of her first son, she confessed to me over a couple of beers that she didn’t plan to have him baptized. “When I think of baptizing him, all I can think is that these people are judging my child. That they think he’s tainted with some invisible stain. That he’s already somehow a sinner, and that he needs to be baptized to be saved. But I gave birth to him, and I look at him – even when he’s crying or making me miserable — and I don’t see a sinner. I see my child and I’m filled with love.”
I have to admit that this made me sad. Less so that her child wasn’t being baptized and more that, to her, baptism was evidence of the church’s judgment of her child. That the church is a community of people who would only see her child the way she sees him, through the eyes of love, if he conformed to the church’s rites and rituals. To see the church this way is to see a community not so much made righteous by the gift of baptism but made self-righteous by the assumption that they possessed something everyone else needed to come to them for. Sad, because baptism isn’t something that the church owns and dispenses at our own discretion. It’s not our righteousness being shared with the unrighteous. It’s the righteousness of God being shared freely with the whole world.
In this morning’s reading from Acts we hear Peter preaching one of his great sermons as the meaning of his baptism becomes clearer to him. In the chapters preceding this one Peter has come in contact with a Gentile named Cornelius and his family – people that Peter would not have eaten with, much less baptized, as a matter of religious law. But Peter receives a vision from heaven along with the command, “what God has called clean, you must not call profane.” In response, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his entire family and forever changes the church’s understanding of baptism. No longer for the people of Israel only, for the ritually pure, for the insiders, Paul explains his actions beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”
This is the gift God offers to the world — and to you. Despite our preoccupation with who has more and who has less, baptism is the sign that God shows no partiality. The same rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:25) fills the lakes and streams that feed the fonts from which we baptize. When we bring our children to these fonts, we are offering them up as living sacrifices to a vision for the future in which we all belong to each other the way we already belong to God. When we come as adults to this font, we are making a public statement about our deep longings to participate in the reign of God, to live lives of righteousness and holiness that make us family with those the world denies and rejects.
The righteousness of God, which sounds like fire and brimstone to some of our ears, which sounds like judgment is, in fact, God’s mercy made tangible, given to us in ordinary things we can see and touch and eat and drink. The righteousness of God is love and mercy opened wide for all to experience. The righteousness of God brings an end to fears of not measuring up to other people’s expectations of what it means to be a good Christian, or a good parent, or a good spouse, or a good child. The righteousness of God means setting all that aside and being made new – a new body that is all of us together, a new family that is the whole world.
Jesus enters the waters of baptism and receives the gifts of God, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, just like so many of us have — at the hands of imperfect people, people like John the Baptist (or even me !) — and that is, as Jesus says, proper. It is proper that we receive the gifts of God from the hands of ordinary people, made holy by God. That is the meaning of Jesus’ first words about righteousness. He is saying something to us about how we are to see each other, the way God sees us, the way my friend sees her baby boy, like parents who are falling in love with their children. With hearts that tender.
Jesus uses his first words to declare and describe the righteousness of God. God rushes to the waters to hear these first words of the child, bursting with pride that the child has heard rightly, that the child understands the righteousness God has sent this child to give away. God says to this child, and to you, and to me, “this is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Two short months from now it will already be Lent and we, along with churches throughout the world, will walk with those preparing to be baptized at Easter. Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, it is my duty and my delight to offer this invitation to all who have not yet received the gift of baptism: May we baptize you? Not because you are any more dirty or fallen or prone to failure than the rest of us, but because you — like every human being — are beautiful and good and God’s. May we baptize you?