Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Matthew 3: 13-17, the gospel lesson appointed for the Baptism of Our Lord, is a brief account, but amongst the Synoptic gospels, surprisingly it is the lengthiest account we have of Jesus's baptism  It includes a dialogue with John the Baptizer prior to the baptism, which is recorded nowhere else.  In this dialogue we hear Jesus say, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."  This is a clue to the concern of the entire book of Matthew: that "all righteousness" be fulfilled.  We will need to attend closely to this theme as we enter now this Year of Matthew.

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers as outlined in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These are questions are not meant to be exhaustive but used in conjunction with other sets of questions that unearth other insights.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This brief text is complex in that the Triune God is present and all three Persons are active.  To answer the question of how the Word is functioning we usually seek to understand what God or Jesus or the Spirit is doing or saying.  Here God is saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  This is an announcement of the identity of Christ - a gospel function.  Jesus also is speaking, as well as being acted upon, and his announcement is that his baptism will "fulfill all righteousness."  This is also a gospel function.  Finally, the Spirit is active in alighting on Jesus following the baptism in the form of a dove, identifying him as the Beloved Son, again a gospel function.  In each case, the Word functions to announce the good news that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God who comes to fulfill all righteousness.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Since this this text is almost exclusively testimony regarding Jesus' identity there is no Law in this text, no word which exposes our need for Christ.  We might infer from Jesus' words regarding the fulfillment of righteousness that we too need to be concerned with this, but this text offers no word in that regard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We know that it is always important to identify with the people whom are addressed by the Word, not with Jesus or God or the Word itself.  In this case, the Word is speaking to those who witness this baptism - and by way of the scriptures to us who now hear or read this Word.  We are the ones to whom God is speaking when the voice from heaven declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A text functions as a call to obedience when it invites us to live in response to God's work in Christ.  Here it would seem that the call to obedience involves following our Lord's example and seeking baptism.  Having said that, the baptism of Christ and our baptism are clearly different in that Christ was without sin and we need cleansing from sin.

5.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels is often a wonderful tool for comparing similar stories in the gospels.  This story is a great example of this.  When we compare the four accounts of Jesus' baptism we see that this opening dialogue between John and Jesus is reported only in Matthew, as is the concern about fulfilling "all righteousness."  We see also that only Matthew mentions the Jordan River as the site of the baptism.  Does this have significance pointing to Jesus' entry into a new "promised land"? Finally it is important to note that the voice from heaven, which in Mark and Luke speaks directly to Jesus:  "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased," in Matthew addresses not Jesus but the witnesses of this event:  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."  In Mark and Luke we overhear the words from heaven, but in Matthew we are addressed directly.  This is an important difference.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry was clear that moving our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium was important.  This text, since it centers on Jesus' identity, might be an excellent opportunity to speak of our dis-ease with that identity, and then provide a way to ease that discomfort.

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