October 25, 2020 Ephesians 3:14-21, Matthew 3:13-17
Fulfilling all righteousness
The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood are somber but honest stories. They are old stories but they are our stories as well. We all relate to a world that is beautiful, good, full of potential and harmonious. At the same time, we are familiar with how quickly a beautiful, good and harmonious oasis can turn into a cold and harsh desert.
We don’t have to be reminded that a sly voice of temptation is constantly enticing us to be on the wrong side of God’s vision for the creation.
Last week we paused at the story of Noah. We saw how wickedness spread and encompassed all of humankind.
So much so that it grieved God and God regretted that God created humankind. We were comforted by God’s choosing of Noah, a blameless, righteous man who walked with God. Noah would become the instrument of God’s salvation. God turned this terrible story into a hopeful one.
Now we may think that Noah, representing a new generation after the flood, and those who came after him would perhaps be wiser and more obedient and stronger to resist the sly voice of temptation. A quick turn through the pages of the Bible, reveals that humans did not learn from their past mistakes. It becomes clear that there was more involved than just human beings making wrong decisions: There was in fact a force, an evil force that was too strong for humans to resist.
So, we find on the pages of the Hebrew Bible a longing for a time when the power of evil would be broken. A time when God’s creation would be restored and people and all creatures would live in harmony, enjoying the beauty, goodness and abundance of the earth. This was the time the people of the OT were eagerly waiting for.
Which brings us to the Gospel of Matthew. It was originally written to Jewish Christians who was very familiar with the stories of old.
The Gospel starts with a genealogy. Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. It tells us about the fourteen generations between Abraham and David, fourteen generations between David and the Babylonian Exile and then fourteen generations between the Babylonian Exile and the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. And now it happened. Matthew is thus saying that the waiting is over. Jesus is the One who was promised, He is Emmanuel, God with us and it is He who would save his people from their sins. He is the One who would restore God’s plan for the world. He is the One that would break evil’s deadly grip on human beings.
As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, we see parallels between Jesus and another major figure from Jewish history: Moses.
Then John the Baptist enters the stage. He dresses and speaks like and OT prophet. The OT prophets point out what was wrong but they also reminded people of God’s promise that God would intervene and would break the power of evil. John preaches repentance and he baptizes people.
Jesus, the son of Abraham, son of David, the Messiah comes from Galilee to John to be baptized. John knows that Jesus is the Messiah and responds that he, John needs to be baptized by Jesus. Then Jesus responds: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” By the way, here we find that important word again – righteousness!
“It is proper for us” – it is important to point out that Jesus includes John in the way to fulfill all righteousness. Together Jesus and John stand at the beginning of the Messianic time. And together they will fulfill all righteousness.
There is an important theological point here: From the very beginning, Jesus includes people in his work. This can and never should be taken for granted. Jesus certainly could do it alone for He is after all the beloved Son of God, the One sent by God, the One with authority on whom the Spirit of God descends. Jesus is able to reign in and defeat the power of evil. He does not need help. For some reason though, in His, divine wisdom He chooses to include human beings! He includes John, His Disciples, and all of us to resist the power of evil and to find strength from the Source of everything good.
Jesus and John, together will fulfill all righteousness. For both of them, and therefore for us, it starts with an act of obedience to God. John is hesitant to baptized Jesus but “then he consented”. He acts in obedience.
Obedience to God is not always easy and when we look at the lives of both John and Jesus, we see that it involved suffering and sometimes even death. John was beheaded and Jesus died a violent death on the cross.
This does not mean that all of us will suffer physically. What it does mean though, is that there will be times when we have to give up on our desires and our preferences if we want to be obedient to God. There will be times when we have to be the least to be obedient.
As people of the book, the Bible, we find God’s will for our lives in the Bible. And as I have said, God’s will is not always easy to follow. Let me explain. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shows us what we need to do to be obedient to God. Praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, trusting God instead of worrying, do unto others as you would have them do to you, serving God and not wealth, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable, and taking up our cross, are not easy things to do.
Our natural instincts always take us in another direction. We want our will to be done! And yet, if we want to work with Jesus to fulfill all righteousness, we have to be obedient to God.
Did you notice that John the Baptist, before the baptism of Jesus, had focused on a message of judgment and repentance? There was an edge to his preaching: He calls for repentance and he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. He talks about the wrath of God and warns them that there is no benefit in their heritage, being the off-spring of Abraham. He ends his sermon with fire and judgement. For him being obedient to God was to preach God’s judgment!
Jesus however adds two important aspects to John’s message: Grace and compassion. Jesus being baptized, shows his solidarity with human beings. He chooses to walk the path of human beings. He not only shows us what obedience to God looks like; he also demonstrates what grace and compassion are. Above all he shows us why He does this – out of love of humankind.
I sometimes wonder if we still focus too much on God’s wrath and judgment? I wonder if we too easily invoke the name of Jesus to justify our viewpoints and to prove others wrong?
Instead of focusing on ourselves, seeking the will of God and doing what we can to be obedient to God, we point fingers to others expecting them to do what we ourselves find hard to do.
Instead of showing compassion and sharing God’s grace, we prefer to make it hard for people to accept that they too are embraced by God. In short, from a historical perspective, I believe the church has too often projected a God who is intolerant and without compassion. And while focusing on casting judgment and blame, the church herself has often lacked compassion and tolerance.
The interaction between Jesus and John reminds us that Jesus, the One sent by God to this sinful world, cooperates with people, people like us to work for righteousness with compassion and tolerance. It reminds us that the main reason Jesus became one of us, was because of God’s immense love of us.
The Apostle Paul speaks eloquently about God’s love in Jesus, and for good reasons. The Apostle Paul was shaped and formed by his own history. As a Pharisee he persecuted Christians, even condoning their killings. But then he met the resurrected Jesus. His life was transformed. We don’t always appreciate this transformation. He had considered himself a righteous man with a great pedigree. Very few people, in his view, had the same standing before God. Before he met Jesus, Paul was arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental.
And then things changed on the road to Damascus. This is the man who now writes: “I bow my knees before God….that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” He prays that people may … “comprehend the breadth, and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”
What can we learn from his words? The main message is that the Apostle Paul is convinced that God, in Jesus, now embraces human beings and not judge them. The strange fact is that the world, that turned its back on God, human beings who have been enticed to follow the sly voice of evil and temptation, now receive what they don’t deserve, namely redemption and acceptance by God. And in Christ, God, instead of responding in anger and judgment for the rebellion of humankind, welcomes us as beloved.
God’s response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Cain’s violence, humanity’s wickedness, and our own personal and collective sins, is to love us more deeply. To embrace us more firmly and to welcome us warmly.
In short, God surprising response to our wickedness and evil is to pour more love on us in Jesus. What God is requiring of us now is to cooperate by being obedient in righteousness, compassion and tolerance.
It is an old message. We all know the message very well, we grew up with it. The message of God’s grace and mercy was rediscovered when Martin Luther started the Reformation more than 500 years ago. This message is and remains a renewing message that has the power to transform people into beings who want to obedient, loving, compassionate and tolerant. Why? Because the love of Christ goes beyond our understanding, it fills us with the fulness of God and it moves us to share this deep and incomprehensible love of God with others! Amen.