13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him,  and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son,  with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 (ESV)
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then Jesus comes. That’s how Matthew puts it in the Greek. Perhaps, it doesn’t sound right in English because the rest of the story is in the past tense. But Matthew wants to punctuate a new chapter by slapping the grammarian across the face. Then Jesus comes. John is baptizing on the river. The people are asking him what it is he is doing. He just got done telling them that his baptism isn’t the one they really need. His is water for repentance. When the Messiah comes, he will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus comes.
Then Jesus comes to be baptized by John with his baptism of water for repentance. When John says he baptizes with water, he is emphasizing that it is only water, and that it was only repentance. It was based in the law. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was strict with the law, neither adding to it, nor taking away from it. He was calling people to repentance. He was showing them their failure to live up to the standards of the law. Showing them their need for this one who would come to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. And he, who Jesus would says was the greatest among men born of a woman, would know his own need of this baptism.
Today, you have a lot of people who don’t think they need it. I think most of this stems from a confusion of John’s baptism and the baptism of Jesus, but also from a confusion regarding the law and the nature of grace. Somehow, people think they can be quite good enough without baptism, and don’t need baptism to show their faithfulness to God. There are other people who see baptism as more or less a ceremony of dedication in which they pledge to live a righteous life according to God’s law. Of those who see baptism in this manner, the smart ones don’t get baptized. If you are going to go that route, you will have to live a life that would perhaps resemble John the Baptist’s, and even he failed. Even he recognized his need to be baptized by Jesus. Yet, Jesus who came eating and drinking, managed to live the better life, the perfect life that John couldn’t live by avoiding the pitfalls or worldly pleasure.
John separated himself from the world. He had disciples that followed him out there in the wastelands. They fasted, and they avoided drink as the Pharisees point out to the disciples of Christ who did neither. And yet he knew he needed to be baptized by Christ. He knew he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t righteous, that we wasn’t even worthy enough to wash the feet of Jesus much less baptize him. It really shows the futility of sanctification by way of the law. People think they can do it. That they can make themselves holy by following the law. And then they fail. So they add to it.
Now, John had a special commission from God to be who he was, to be as it were a Nazarene even from birth. That is to live his life in accordance with the Nazarite vows of the Old Testament, that any Jewish person could take upon themselves from time to time in devotion to God. Paul even did it as a Christian. These were the vows he was completing when he was arrested in the Temple in Jerusalem. But some men would be set aside for this from birth. Men like Samson in the book of Judges. To this day, there is warrant for this sort of thing in the Christian life too. Some Christians do things similar to this at lent. Or at other times in their life, to exercise discipline in their lives perhaps, to help turn their attention to things above, to bring added focus to prayer and daily devotion. Perhaps as training their bodies to withstand temptations when they come so they do not fall in the midst of persecution, or let their own greed and lust get in the way of showing love to their neighbor in the name of Christ.
But for the most part to live a life in the manner of John would be sinful in and of itself without the commission from God. To take it upon yourself to live a life that would spurn the earthly gifts of God as evil. I mean this is one of the reasons I just love the book of Ecclesiastes. There the wisest of men, King Solomon, at the end of his life in which he pursued the meaning of life which he finds to be vanity outside faith in God, lays out what God has given man to enjoy in this world: the wife of your youth. It’s a strange phrase, but in it I think he shows that joy that comes with a mature relationship that has weathered the storms of life and raised children together, as well as the joys of the youthful relationship when Meatloaf considers you doubly blessed. Then he says wine which God has given you to cheer your heart. He counsels against drunkenness and the abuse of this gift easily abused. But nevertheless, would consider neglect to also be abuse. Bread, by which he means food. It’s not something that is supposed to merely nourish you, but it too is supposed to bring joy to your heart. Something that you share with those you love, and allow to nourish your soul. Finally, there is the work of your hands. Work isn’t supposed to be drudgery. In this sinful world it often is. It is not for nothing that God condemns Adam to eat by the sweat of his brow. Yet, even in the drudgery of modern day jobs, God gives us a glimpse of the heavenly paradise to come when we take pride in our work, and those moments where we find joy. But it’s not just the job that is meant here. It’s perhaps hard to find any satisfaction working the cubicle farm, where the florescent light is a poor substitute for sun. But here is also meant the joy that comes along with working a garden in the back yard, or tinkering with cars, welding, knitting or any other number of hobbies. All this to say, God does not intend for your life to be one living in the wastelands of Palestine eating locusts and wild honey. Nor, does he consider anyone holier because they avoid drinking. Love anyone more because they abstain from marriage and sex. These are temptations sinful temptations, actually. Perhaps John the Baptist knew this most. It’s funny, he never counsels anyone to live the way he lived. He tells the soldiers to be content with their pay. Tells the tax collectors not to over tax. Tells the people to share in their abundance. But he never counsels a life divorced from the world living like hermits. He condemns King Herod for taking his brother’s wife, but doesn’t have anything to say about his life of luxury.
John knows what the answer to his sin is. It is not a more strict life, but being baptized by Christ. And then Christ comes. But Christ demands to be baptized by John to fulfill all righteousness. “Let it be so now” he says. It came from heaven, John’s baptism. It did not bring with it the Holy Spirit promised in Ezekiel 36. It did not bring with it the forgiveness of sins. Those who were baptized by John would later have to be baptized with Christian baptism as is made clear in the 19th chapter of Acts. But it was from heaven, as is the law of God. And along comes Christ. He has no sin to repent of. But he submits to the baptism of repentance. He repents not for his own sins, but for your sins. In bowing to repentance with you, in bowing to repentance with all those who submitted to John’s baptism of repentance, he accepted your repentance as his own. And with that repentance, he paid the price for your sin with a baptism of his own, the baptism that we are baptized into, the baptism of his death and resurrection. In this way Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for you. That when his baptism of death and resurrection were done, we who are baptized would be buried with him into his death that just as he is risen from the dead we too might walk in the newness of life. This is the baptism in which we live a holy life. It’s a life not made holy by works of the law, but by the life Christ lived in accordance to the law out of love for us, that in his love the holiness of Christ might permeate our life in love. His love, the life he laid down for you his friends, the death you were buried into, would permeate your life with newness. And it is this love with which he washes your feet, his death that we proclaim until he comes, when he washes away our sins anew in his body and blood given for you.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.