January 22, 2023
Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Sacrament of Baptism

Have you ever played the game of “Telephone”? If you haven’t, here’s how it goes: Players form a circle and the first player whispers a message to the second. The second player repeats the message to the third, and so on. When the message reaches the last player, they announce the message they heard to everyone. The first person then compares the original message with the final version — suffice it to say, they’re rarely the same. Well, sometimes the Gospels can seem like a game of telephone.

Each of the four writers gives an account of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, but they go about it differently — and this makes sense; they’re writing to different groups of people, in different places, at different times. In addition, each has their own set of priorities, things they believe are important to know and understand about Jesus.

As much as they might want to tell you about every second of Jesus’s life, they couldn’t possibly do that — the story would be too long for anyone to write, let alone read. All biographers are faced with this same challenge — winnowing a lifetime of details down to what they see as the essentials; they have to make choices about what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it.

Adding to the difficulty here is that none of the Gospel writers was around for all of Jesus’ life — many scholars doubt that they were there for any of it, so they had to rely on second and third hand information. As I said, it’s a like a game of telephone that took place two thousand years before the telephone was even invented.

For example, let’s assume that Matthew actually wrote the first Gospel. We know from the Gospel itself that Matthew didn’t meet Jesus until about a year before the Crucifixion, so he couldn’t have had direct knowledge of events like Jesus’s birth and baptism. Someone (or several someones) must have told him what happened.

So even when the gospel writers seek to tell the same basic story about Jesus within their bigger stories about Jesus, the details can end up being quite different. The story of Christ’s Baptism from Matthew is one such instance; there are key aspects of that account that differ from those of Mark, Luke and John. Logic tells us that at least one of them must be factually inaccurate.

But let’s not concern ourselves with historical right and wrong; let’s focus instead on more biblical things, more essential things; let’s consider what Matthew wants us to know about Jesus’s baptism, and what this event tells us about who Jesus is and what that means for us.

Matthew explains that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” But John doesn’t seem to want the job; “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” is what John says.

But Jesus is having none of it: “[He] answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’” Interestingly, this conversation appears only in Matthew — the other gospels don’t mention it at all.

These are the first words that Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel (and we’re almost three chapters into the story at this point). When Jesus speaks, we ought to listen; but when Jesus speaks for the first time, we really ought to listen.

“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Basically, Jesus is saying: “Look, I know it seems strange that you would baptize me. I mean you were correct when you said that one who is more powerful than you (namely, me) is coming after you. But we really need to do this — in order to fulfill all righteousness.”

These words — particularly the last one — might sound odd to our modern ears, but “righteousness” is really important to Matthew — he uses the word seven times in his Gospel, while none of the other writers uses it at all — and so we probably ought to spend a little time with it.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, “righteousness,” simply describes the proper response to God when God asks something of us; to be righteous is heed God’s call and to do God’s will. This is how Jesus uses that word here. He’s saying that it’s God’s will that he be baptized by John, so he and John have to make that happen.

But John wasn’t the only one who had issues with all of this; Jesus’s baptism created a real dilemma for early Christians. Many saw it as a serious problem that Jesus was baptized by John, who was his inferior. This wouldn’t be something that a person of authority — let alone the Messiah — would ever allow to happen.

And yet, despite the fact that it is theologically inconvenient, despite the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke disagree about so many details of Jesus’s life story, they agree on this: Jesus was baptized by John (John’s Gospel sidesteps the issue altogether by not saying who performed Jesus’s baptism). It’s like those four out of five dentists who told us to chew Trident gum — I mean there may not have been consensus, but there was general agreement.

But this left Matthew, Mark and Luke with a lot of explaining to do; they needed to reconcile what took place there in the Jordan River with what we understand about who Jesus is.

For Matthew, the explanation for how Jesus’s baptism happened lies in his righteousness — his willingness to heed God’s call no matter what. Sure, the story doesn’t make sense when it’s judged by our understanding of the way things ought to work, but Jesus is playing by a different set of rules — he’s playing by God’s rules.

And under God’s rules, worldly concepts like status and power and authority get turned upside down; under God’s rules, you reign by serving, and you lead by following.

This is what Matthew wants us to know about Jesus: that he was willing to do what God asked, no matter how difficult it may have been, no matter who it may have ticked-off, no matter how much it may have defied human expectations.

But Matthew doesn’t stop there. While he definitely wants us to know who Jesus was and what Jesus was about, he also wants us to know what this means for us; he wants us to understand what we’re supposed to do. And the way Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s baptism underscores this idea.

As soon as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon him. A voice from heaven — presumably God’s — declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If you look at what Mark and Luke have to say about this, their versions are a bit different. In their Gospels, the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In Mark and Luke the voice from heaven speaks only to Jesus, while in Matthew it speaks to everyone. This might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John objects because he believes that he is not worthy. Jesus doesn’t disagree with John’s reasoning, he simply says that such reasoning doesn’t matter; he must be baptized by John in order to “fulfill all righteousness,” in order to do God’s will. That’s what matters.

And when it happens God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s the first time that Jesus is referred to this way; and it seems that Jesus’s willingness to be baptized by John is what prompts God’s words.

In Matthew’s version of the story, God holds up Jesus’s actions as an example for the crowd to follow; his behavior inspires God to point to him and say, “Did you see that folks? That’s how it’s done! That’s why I picked him for the job!”

And, like I said, this is not the last time that Matthew conveys the importance of righteousness, of doing God’s will — even when it contradicts what the world typically demands from us.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” Jesus says.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says.

Righteousness. The choice we make to listen when God is speaking.

Our baptism, like Christ’s, represents, among other things, our call to do God’s will in the world — to love God and one another, to serve with joy, to give more than we receive. Even when it is not the popular thing to do, even when it is not the easy thing to do — because it is the right thing to do, because it is the righteous thing to do.

And it all starts right here, with this unlikely Messiah who gives himself over to God in the waters of baptism, who does what God asks of him because God asks it of him.

This is what Matthew wants us to know about Jesus.

May we go and do likewise.