A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 9, 2005.
Based on Matthew 3:13-17 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A).
The Baptist consents. Going against everything he understands about the proper order of things, John the Baptist consents to Jesus’ request and baptizes him. It’s an amazing thing. The one whose thong he is unworthy to untie asks John to baptize him. After boldly proclaiming the imminent arrival of the messiah and preparing his way by offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the river Jordan, he finally comes face-to-face with the one who is to come. John had probably imagined this moment, visualizing how he’d act, what he’d say, what he’d do. Fall down on his knees, perhaps. Ask for the Christ’s blessing, maybe. But he probably imagined Jesus baptizing him, the messiah blessing the forerunner. A passing of the torch, of sorts. A recognition that John’s ministry was accomplished and now Jesus would take it from here.
And so you can understand the confusion in this first encounter between these two men. You can hear it in Matthew’ account of this story: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'” In other words, ‘What are you talking about, me baptizing you? This isn’t how things are supposed to go.’
“But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” John submits to the will of Jesus. John consents and baptizes Jesus because he is obedient to the Messiah’s wish. He may not understand it, it may make absolutely no sense to him, but he consents. Which is, of course, the ultimate act of faith. “Thy will be done,” Jesus would later teach his disciples to pray. And in this dramatic moment of consent, John is living out this very command: Thy will be done.
And what we see unfolding before our very eyes in this morning’s celebration of our Lord’s baptism, is the very model of discipleship. There are times in our lives when we must consent to God’s will no matter how absurd it seems. No matter how much our inner-most thoughts seem to contradict what we are being asked to do.
In Matthew’s gospel, this is the first time we hear Jesus speak. And it’s no coincidence that his first utterance leads to a call to discipleship, for this is such an integral piece of his ministry. He calls his disciples to serve God and he calls them to serve others. And this often takes place in unexpected ways. The path of discipleship is not always clear, it is not without its challenges but it leads ultimately to, as Jesus puts it, “the fulfillment of all righteousness.” Which in this context simply means doing God’s will. When you and I genuinely do God’s will in our lives we are doing nothing less than fulfilling all righteousness. A powerful phrase, but it is within our God-given power to accomplish.
So we can understand John the Baptist’s confusion at this daunting request to baptize the Messiah. But at another level it makes perfect sense. While The Baptist is the Forerunner of the Christ, this request is a foreshadowing of what is to come in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s a great signal of what is to come: Jesus says “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” and later “I have come not to be served but to serve” and soon enough, “the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak.” There is a lot of reversal here – a reversal of roles, a reversal of fortunes. And so it makes sense that Jesus begins his ministry with a role reversal and asks John to baptize him.
Role reversal and discipleship. These two themes emerge with great clarity this morning. And if we look closer, there’s even more foreshadowing. Christ, like John, exemplifies discipleship in obedience to God. God desires his baptism and Jesus is obedient. And this obedience points ahead to the cross where Jesus says, “not my will, but yours be done.” Baptism and crucifixion are intimately linked — for it is in dying that we are born again. Or as our baptismal liturgy says about the water of baptism, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn of the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptist consents. Jesus consents. And both light the way for consent in our own lives that God’s will be done.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005