Epiphany I Sermon by Fr Bob Landry

SERMON: “We Are Called to Righteousness”
By Rev. Robert W. Landry

As Baptized persons we are called to proclaim the message of the cross, we are called to speak of the cross and the resurrection; yet for many of us proclaiming this message is difficult. We know what the message is, but we find it difficult to express it to others, to get others to really feel and sense the importance of it, sometimes, even to get others to listen to us. So it is about how we get others to listen to us, that I want to speak of today. I want to do so by looking at one of the great mysteries of Jesus’ life, the mystery of his baptism. Theologians, scholars, and just plain folk like you and I are puzzled as to why Jesus was baptized. Jesus himself tells us that he was baptized to “fulfill all righteousness”, but that word righteousness is never explained by him, and there is nothing else in the passage to help us understand why Jesus, who was sinless, received by John’s hand, a baptism for the repentance of sins. But there is one thing that theologians and bible scholars all agree on, it is the fact that the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan marked the beginning of his ministry. It was his debut, his coming out ceremony, and at the end of it he received the approval of God, whose voice is heard from heaven, and says: “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is no question that the baptism of Jesus was a significant event, a turning point in his life and through him a turning point in our lives as well. So here is the question. What does the baptism of Jesus show us? How does understanding it led us to being more able to communicate the gospel to others and to be able to get others to listen to us? The answer is contained in the reason that Jesus gave for his baptism when John says to him in Matthews version of the baptism story in Matthew 3:14: John says “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” and Jesus responds “let it be so, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”So, the word “righteousness” does not refer only to someone who is living a good life, rather it refers to a state in which the way of redemption is actively offered and shown by someone. To be righteous is not just to be good, it is to be in a right relationship with God and with others and to be in a relationship which brings salvation, which brings wholeness, which brings the good news of God’s love, to others. It is important to understand that Righteousness is something active, not simply a description of one’s moral state.
In Proverbs 15:9; we hear that “God loves the one who pursues righteousness” and in Proverbs 21:3 we hear these words, “To do righteousness and justice, is more acceptable to God than sacrifice.” So, when Jesus says to John: “let it be so, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all Righteousness”. What he is saying is “do it, it is a good thing to do, because in this way we will go further in saving others, we will deliver them from death, we will make God’s loving purpose more evident, and more accessible to others.”
And indeed, the baptism of Jesus does help bring the healing word of God to others; and it shows us, as well, how the saving message of Jesus is best delivered.
There are three points I would like to make; these points are important for us to hear. The First point, the baptism of Jesus shows us that Jesus truly did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped to be held on to. His baptism, there in the muddy Jordan River, shows that he identifies with us and with our sins, and not only with God’s perfection. Jesus did not need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and I think most of us would agree about this, but he chose this path. He chose to be seen with us as one of us because in this, righteousness will be fulfilled. Think about this; Each one of us at our baptism have had pronounced upon us the forgiveness and acceptance of God, and because of this we do not need to think about ourselves as sinners anymore. In fact, according to the bible, we can think of ourselves as chosen by God, as being selected by him for glory. Yet, in our communication with others and with those who have not yet really listened to the word of God’s love, wouldn’t this be helpful? For when we can stand and say to someone, I know where you have been, let me help you. I know how difficult it is. In his baptism Jesus identifies with us. He shows us the way of righteousness, the way of saving others, is a way of empathy and understanding, of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Jesus does not “lord” his superior knowledge or virtues over them. Instead, he sits with them in their homes, he eats their food, he answers their questions, he laughs with them in their joy, and he cries with them in their grief. And with them, and with us, he descends to the Jordan and is washed for the forgiveness of sins just as many of them did. Do you want to proclaim the message and to be heard in it as Jesus was?
Then you need to identify with the people you are speaking to. You need to remember how you have “been there” before, and if you have not actually been there, well, you still need to try to put yourself in the other persons shoes and try to really understand what is going on in their hearts as well as in their heads. Real and loving communication cannot be done in an atmosphere of judgment. It requires understanding, acceptance, and the willingness to link hearts and minds together.
This is the Second point – Jesus shows us in his baptism that it is important to go beyond ourselves when seeking to do the work of God, he shows us that we should turn to God and seek God’s help when we are trying to point the way to God for others. Jesus seeks John out at the Jordan River. It is no accident that he is there. Jesus deliberately goes to a place where God’s power and love was being proclaimed and he asks for that power and that love to be poured out upon him in a special act, an act performed by a special man, a man who was filled with God’s spirit. It is then, and only then, after this has been done, that Jesus goes on to help others. We often forget this in our attempt to communicate to others the love of God. We want to tell the story of Jesus, we want to share the salvation of God, but we ignore, and negate the resources of our faith.
We speak to others, but we do not prepare ourselves to speak, we do not pray for God’s guidance, we don’t ask ourselves what Jesus would have said or done in this circumstance, we do not call upon God’s power to assist us in touching their hearts. It is often that when we speak with others we do not offer them anything special; we don’t show them anything different than they already have seen or been offered before. We offer common sense, intellectual knowledge, and often what we get from self-help books, instead of the way of God that is found in the bible and in our traditions.
The point I am Making here is that the gospel we seek to communicate, the saving message we want to share, the righteousness we are called to fulfill with Jesus, is not something that is based on a self-help model. Salvation is something that ultimately comes from beyond US. Righteousness is something that is given to us by God, given as a gift through Jesus whose baptism we are hearing of today. When Jesus wanted to make a beginning, he turned to a spiritual resource. When he wanted to fulfill all righteousness, he turned to a spiritual person speaking spiritual words. When he wanted to communicate a spiritual message, he was first baptized in a spiritual river, the very river that Israel’s people had passed to enter the Holy Land. Jesus turned to these things, and he also pointed them out to others, which leads me to the last point.
The third point- Jesus in his baptism reminds us that we need to set an example.
Jesus was, above all things, authentic in his communications. When he spoke of being able to help us carry our burdens, he had already experienced the same trials and tribulations that we do. When he spoke of how trusting in God could help us overcome anxiety, he had already trusted in God for his daily bread, his physical safety, and his spiritual power.
People listened to Jesus not just because they understood and identified with him, and not just because he pointed out the way to God but also because he lived his own message. He did not just tell others to turn to God, he himself sought out Gods blessings: at the Jordan and in lonely places away from others and regularly in places of worship, as the synagogues on the Sabbath and at the temple at Passover Time. He didn’t just tell others to pray for people, he himself prayed for them, as he did for the disciples before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not just tell others to forgive each other he himself forgave them, even from the cross when he was in the midst of his agony. He did not just tell others how important it was to heal others he himself did healing. He anointed the beggar’s eyes. He reached out and touched the lepers. He laid his hands upon the sick and anointed them with his prayers. Jesus did everything he asked others to do. And he was respected for this, and he was heard by many because of it. My friends, not everyone will listen to us. No matter how good we are, how righteous we are, there will be some who will take offense at us, as they did at Jesus. But the message of Jesus to us is that we ought to be trying as he did. When we do, when we humble ourselves, like Jesus and identify with others, when we tell others about the source of saving power, and go to it and accept it for ourselves, then God will be well pleased with us. And his Spirit will indeed be seen to rest upon us as it did upon Jesus. AMEN