Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
This past Sunday, as the brilliant afternoon sun reflected off our snow-covered mountains, our church gathered to ruminate on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel.
We talked about timing. We wondered aloud why it was that Jesus was nearly 30 years old before he began his public ministry. At this time period in the ancient near east, reaching the age of 30 was quite an accomplishment. Of those who had been born, only 20% would have reached the age of 30.
We concluded that the apparent delay in Jesus’ ministry may have be a result of God’s timing, rather than Jesus’s readiness. This is something that we can all empathize with. Namely, how the timing of things in life can confound us.
And yet, the timing of Jesus’s ministry is not the only thing that seems perplexing about this passage. Let’s ask ourselves this: What was Jesus doing getting baptized in the first place?
The ritual of being dipped in water was a symbol for the repentance of sins. Mark and Luke’s Gospels confirm this. But what is not made particularly clear is why Jesus chose to have this experience in the first place.
Here’s Jesus’ own response to John the Baptist’s sense of shock at seeing Jesus approach him to be baptized: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Fulfill all righteousness? What in the world does that mean?
First, let’s tackle the word righteousness. It suggests, living in a right relationship with God. Some scholars and commentators have suggested that Jesus becomes fully human in order that everyone can experience a right relationship with God.
Second, some think that Jesus may be referring to the righteousness of God. Yes, you read that correctly. Readers of Isaiah will find that the prophet is imploring God to, “Tear open the heavens and come down to make your name known.” When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are in fact, torn open. God’s identity in Jesus is made known. Perhaps this is how God makes good on a promise.
One thing is for certain, Jesus has an encounter with God, the Father, and God, the Holy Spirit, during his baptism. The best explanation that we may have for why Jesus begins his ministry with baptism is his obedience to his Father.
Think about that for a minute. Jesus has an encounter with God through obedience.
Of course he does. We’re mildly surprised, but why should we be?
We will experience God when we do what God asks of us.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Oh, sure. We’ll see in the coming weeks how God encounters people when they are being less than obedient or faithful to him. But overwhelmingly, if you want to have an encounter with God, then you should do what God is asking of you.
We know that this is how the universe works. We hear it in the voices of coaches, teachers and mentors. If you show up for practice and run the plays, you will encounter success. If you rehearse, you will encounter proficiency. If you exercise and are active, you will become fit. Rocket science, this is not.
Our new year is but a handful of days old. Consider arranging your life in such a way that you will encounter the living God. Yes, the Bible teaches us that in time, God will encounter us, regardless of our level of faithfulness. But wouldn’t you rather be found doing what God has asked of you when God shows up in your life?