Monday, January 14, 2008

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
January 13, 2008

The righteousness of God. It’s a topic that just sounds as if it belongs in church, doesn’t it? And maybe in a church with members who are a little more fiercely opinionated than your average Presbyterian. As students, most preachers were admonished to make up titles for sermons that would cause a passerby to pause, and perhaps be made curious enough to come inside to see what the sermon would say. In New York City, the standard was that preachers should create titles compelling enough to cause someone on a midtown bus to disembark and enter the church out of curiosity.

Sounds great, but it can be quite a burden when you have to come up with 40 or 50 of these titles a year, every year, for a bunch of years. I’m wondering if today’s sermon title would compel many to enter an unfamiliar sanctuary on a Sunday morning; it might even scare some away. Speaking of years, over 20 years ago I stepped into the pulpit of a church I served for the first time as their pastor. My sermon title on that day was almost as exciting as today’s, it was called “The Plain Truth.” I suppose some who were there might possibly remember every golden word, though I can’t remember a single phrase myself. Figuring maybe 40 or so sermons a year, that makes 600 titles, give or take. And there had been 13 years in the ministry for me before that, 7 as a preaching pastor, for an additional 280 sermons. I am exhausted just thinking about it. I can only imagine how it makes a congregation feel, just thinking about having to swallow 880 sermons, give or take. Some of us have sat still for many more than that.

Still, the sermon title today concerns righteousness and refers to the very first words that Jesus uttered in the gospel. Though the word righteousness may not be much in our modern vocabulary, it was a word on Jesus’ lips at the very beginning of his public ministry, and so it merits our attention whether it would grab passersby or not. We are almost at the end of three chapters of Matthew’s gospel before we hear Jesus’ voice, and when we do, it is in answer to John’s objection about baptizing this one who is so clearly his spiritual superior. Jesus responded to John’s protest, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

His words highlight two or three things, then. They are about what is proper, they are about fulfillment, and they are about righteousness.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Several years ago a film was released entitled, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” loosely — very loosely — based on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. The film was set during the Great Depression in the deep South, as three inmates escape from a chain gang. They are a clueless trio, but manage to bungle their way to freedom. On their journey they come across a gathering of folks by a riverbank who are lining up to be baptized. Two of the three scramble down to the water, and the first one baptized, the one played to perfection by Tim Blake Nelson, exclaims as he returns to his skeptical friend on the bank that the pastor told him all his sins have been washed away, even the theft of a pig for which he’d been convicted and sent to prison. His friend reminds him sarcastically that he had maintained all along that he was innocent. He responds, “I lied...and that’s been washed away too!”

The church has always maintained that Jesus was sinless, the one human being ever on the face of the earth who did not sin. John the Baptist came to the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for sin. Why would Jesus, sinless as he was, desire such a baptism? How is it that it could be proper? We can all understand the motivation behind the pig-stealing convert’s baptism, he needed to be freed from his burden of guilt as we all do, but why Jesus? Why baptism to erase the sin of one who knew no sin?

This was among the first challenges leveled by non-believers at the church’s proclamation about Jesus. How could it be that baptism for repentance was a proper thing when Jesus had nothing in his spirit in need of cleansing? The word translated as proper is sometimes also rendered “fitting.” Matthew uses it only two times, and both times the word is on the lips of Jesus. Luke uses it once, in a story about faithful servants that also appears in Matthew’s gospel. It doesn’t appear at all in Mark or John, and only four additional times in the rest of the New Testament.

What does it mean to do something in a proper way? The plainest meaning I can identify suggests that a proper way of doing something is the right way, the appropriate way, the orderly way. Bent over my study desk as a youngster, with my head cradled on my elbow, looking sideways and nearly cross-eyed across my homework page, my father was as likely as not to pass by my room and call out to me, “Alright son, you won’t get much done sitting that way, now sit up properly.” Now we may argue with folks who suggest this or that method for doing things as the proper way, but I think that when Jesus mentions the word proper in regard to his own baptism, he means that it is the right way to go about doing things, that it has an appropriateness. However much this may have confounded John and contradicted his image of the mighty coming Messiah, Jesus described his submission as proper. Jesus was obedient to God, properly so, a model for us all.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Here is something I had missed in all the times I have read over this passage. “It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.” For us...meaning, this was something which involved both Jesus and John in fulfilling the heart’s desire of God: The sinless one and one who, like the rest of us, was a sinful person. Baptism requires one who receives it, and one who administers it. And clearly, in this model, the one who administers it is not in any way superior to the one receiving it, any more than the priest who baptized Mother Theresa would have been considered superior to her. It was a fulfilling action on both parts, John and Jesus. Jesus, God’s word made flesh, could never be truly human unless in his life he submitted to the fullness of human experience in partnership with other, fallible human beings. Every person knows what it mean to ask and receive forgiveness. Jesus, though sinless, nevertheless needed to know the experience of the forgiving and cleansing love of God. He needed to submit to the baptism of John.

Matthew is big on fulfillment. He uses forms of this word fifteen times in his gospel. The typical formula is, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet...”

It is as though, while the world awaited the arrival of Jesus, there was a big gap, a large something missing. There had been expectation, Lord knows, plenty of expectation and hope and even wishful thinking. But not so much fulfillment. For the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people, there had still been some waiting to be done. And then came Jesus, down to the riverside, and from there the gospel takes off with reports of this and that fulfilling what Isaiah or Jeremiah or Zechariah or the Psalmist or Hosea said in their prophecies in the Old Testament.


“It is proper for us in this way,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

And so at last to righteousness. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” The word righteousness in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean what we might think. It means to be in an appropriate, proper relationship with God. “Paul wrote that none of us is righteous,1 not saying that none of us has ever done anything right, but rather saying that our life with God and with God’s children is out of kilter, needs to be set right. Jesus has become our righteousness, says Paul. Jesus has done for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, namely, put things right between us and God. Righteousness means to live life in congruence with the demands of a just God, to see our lives, not as our own, to use as we please, but rather as God's gifts, to be used as God pleases.”2

Theologian Joseph Sittler often shared a story of a mechanical breakdown he once experienced in Jerusalem. He took his car to a mechanic. When the mechanic had finished his work on the car, he started it up, and as it hummed along perfectly, he said, “Zadik.” Zadik is the Hebrew word for righteousness. In the garage, it meant simply “It’s working,” or “It’s working again the way it is supposed to work.”

Righteousness means doing the revealed will of God. It means our relationship with God is returned to the working order which God intended. God has provided people with ample instruction on doing his will. To seek righteousness means to set about doing God’s revealed will, to aim at making things work again the way they are supposed to. Living justly with kindness and mercy, that sort of thing.

For whatever reason he knew it, Jesus knew that to pursue righteousness meant receiving the baptism of John. It meant an obedience to God signified in partnership with faltering and failing humanity so that God could turn us toward the relationship he has always had in mind for us. In this, Jesus is, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews said, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

How do we move from our repentance-needy lives to the place where repentance is made possible, where the cleansing of the waters of baptism can touch us and transform us? I invite you to pass by the baptismal font on your way out of the sanctuary this morning. Touch the waters, remember the one who has cleansed us, remember you are baptized, just like Jesus before you, and be glad.

1 Romans 3:10; Psalm 143:2.
2 “No Problem,” by William Willimon, preached at the Chapel at Duke University, January 10, 1999.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved