The Righteousness of God

Baptism of Our Lord, (Year A), January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

You know, there’s a word in the Gospel of Matthew that repeats over and over and over again.  Since most of our Gospel readings for the next year come from Matthew, it’s something to listen for.  Righteous.  The Gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time talking about righteousness.  Fair enough, that’s a common religious word; Christians use it a lot, although less than we did, say, fifty years ago.  The thing is, though, that a lot of times when Matthew talks about “righteousness,” he’s not always using it the way we would expect.

According to the dictionary, “righteous” means “acting in accord with divine or moral law:  free from guilt or sin.”  So far so good; that’s what Matthew means, too.  But it’s when you put the word into use that things get tricky.  For example, we tend to make sharp distinctions between people who are “righteous” and people who are not.  Righteous people are good, moral, go to church and read their Bible.  They are pillars of their community.  And we often see a sharp divide between the righteous and the sinners, even when we don’t actually use those words to describe them.  The righteous people are good, God-fearing people; sinners are not.  If someone we consider righteous stumbles or has a problem, we rally around them.  If someone we consider a sinner has a problem, we are quicker to condemn than to help.  The righteous are always welcome at church.  The sinners often face gossip just for showing up.

John the Baptist was well aware of this distinction.  He called for sinners to repent and be baptized: to turn away from their sin, go into the water, and get a fresh slate to become righteous.  He knew that even people who looked righteous on the outside, like the Pharisees, were really sinners, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge them.  John wanted God’s kingdom to come, and he wanted people to live their lives in accordance with God’s law.  He’d baptized many people before Jesus showed up, and when Jesus came to be baptized, John tried to prevent him.  Matthew knew that Jesus was not a sinner.  Jesus, alone out of the entire world, had no need of a baptism for his own forgiveness.

When you think about it, John is right.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus is not a sinner.  Jesus is the son of God, God made flesh and blood like you and me!  Jesus doesn’t need to be washed clean from anything.  Jesus doesn’t need to get a clean slate.  Jesus is the one person in the history of the world who has been totally and completely righteous his entire life.  So why did Jesus want to be baptized?  More than that!  Jesus told John: “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There’s that word: righteousness.  But Jesus was already righteous, so what did he need to be baptized for?  Just for form’s sake?  No.  Jesus needed to be baptized because it was God’s will.  God was doing something, with that baptism.  And what God was doing was reaching out to the unrighteous.  The sinners.  The ones who fall short of God’s law, the ones who’re drowning in guilt and sin.  Everyone who has ever been baptized is tied to Jesus’ baptism.  And through Jesus’ baptism, we are tied to God.  Because Jesus was baptized, our baptisms are not just a temporary thing, getting a little cleaner.  Because of Jesus’ baptism, our baptisms mean we are saved.  We are set free from our bondage to sin.  Not just for a little while, but forever and ever.  In our baptisms, we are reborn children of God.  In our baptisms, we are claimed by God.  In our baptisms, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the words the Father spoke when Jesus came up out of the water?  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism.  So those words that the Father spoke to his Son, those aren’t just for Jesus.  Those are for us, too, for everyone who has ever been baptized.  When you were baptized, God spoke those words to you, too: “You are my beloved child.”  And that is a bond that nothing can ever break.  God has claimed us, washed us clean, forgiven us, and adopted us as his own children.

It doesn’t stop there.  Do you remember in the reading, where the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus?  That happens to us, too.  When we are baptized, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit comes to us in and through the waters of baptism.  God lives in us, because of our baptisms.  Because through our baptisms, we are tied to Christ’s baptism.

No matter how righteous we think we are, we don’t deserve that gift.  No matter how righteous we are, we could never earn God’s love and forgiveness.  We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.  Some of our sins are more obvious than others; some people’s sins are large and public, while the sins of others are more private, or pettier, and are largely ignored.  We may think we’re righteous, but we still sin.  We still go astray from God’s law and the path God has laid out for us.  And all too often we find justifications, reasons to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing even as we turn our back on God.  We are not righteous.

We’re not righteous, but through Jesus’ baptism and our own baptism, we are given the gift of Jesus’ righteousness.  Jesus is pure and sinless.  Jesus always follows God’s will.  And through Jesus, we are given the gift of the salvation that comes through that faithfulness.

We aren’t saved from our sin and brokenness and lostness because we are righteous.  We are saved because God wants to save us.  We aren’t righteous on our own; we could never be good enough to earn that title.  But God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit anyway!

And that’s the difference between the way we use the word “righteousness” and the way God uses the word “righteousness.”  We use it to exclude, to break people up into categories, “good” people and “bad” people, “righteous” and “sinners,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”  God looks at us, sees the depths of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our lostness, and loves us anyway.  God sees all the bad things we have done, our pettiness, our thoughtlessness, our selfishness, and instead of rejecting us for it, God sends his only Son to save us.  God looks at all the ways we have turned away from him, and reaches out to adopt as his children.  God’s righteousness is that he reaches out to us even though we are not worthy.

John the Baptist protested when Jesus came to him to be baptized.  He knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for his own sake.  But that wasn’t why Jesus went to the Jordan River.  Jesus wasn’t baptized for his own sake, but for ours.  Jesus was baptized because it is God’s will that sinners should be saved, and we are saved through the waters of baptism which connects us with Jesus.

We’ll be hearing the word “righteous” a lot as we read the Gospel of Matthew together in church this year.  We’ll hear it from Pharisees who think they know what God’s will is.  We’ll hear it used to describe Jesus.  Whenever you hear it, remember that the ultimate act of righteousness is the cross.  Righteousness means Jesus’ obedience even to the point of death on a cross so that sinners might be saved.  Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his baptism; Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his death, and resurrection.  And it is through that baptism, through that death and resurrection, that we are washed clean and forgiven.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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