Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9 ; Acts 10:34-43 ; Matthew 3:13-17
Grace and Peace be with you, Beloved of God, called in righteousness and kept by the hand of God. Amen.
Here’s an interesting little factoid: the words for “mother” are remarkably similar almost anywhere you go in the world. English-speaking children and Spanish-speaking children say basically the same thing: mama or mamá, the only difference being where you put the accent. Italian, Romanian and Dutch children all say something that sounds like mama. Chinese children in Mandarin homes say mama, as do children in Swahili-speaking homes. Those who live in India and Israel, speaking Tamil and Hebrew, turn the word inside out and say amma. Those who speak Thai or Navajo shorten it to one syllable and just say ma. The same holds true for the names babies give to their fathers – it’s generally some variant of papa, or baba, or abba. Isn’t it curious, that around the world the first words spoken by children to call out for their parents are variations of the same sounds?
Linguists have a theory to account for this. Apparently the easiest sound for a baby to form, and therefore the first sound most babies form, is the open “a” vowel: ahh. Similarly, the easiest consonants for a baby to form are “m,” “p” and “b” (the labial consonants). So the easiest sound a child can make is “ma,” “pa” or “ba.” Stringing these sounds together, children begin to speak by saying mama, papa, baba – and, as those of you with infants in the house know, if a baby starts saying those words parents come running with faces beaming with pride. It’s only natural that children learn to associate their first vocalizations with the people who show up to listen to them. Just as the first act of the parent was to name their child, it becomes one of the child’s first unintentional acts to name their parents. Naming one another, they become a family.
First words are significant not only for babies, but for adults as well. First words create first impressions, which set the tone for new relationships. When learning a new language one of the first things you’re taught is how to introduce yourself correctly –because we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
In today’s gospel reading we hear the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. The first chapter gave us an account of Jesus’ genealogy and birth. The second chapter recalled the visit of the wise men, the escape to Egypt and the return to Israel. Chapter three begins with the story we heard during Advent – John the Baptist in the wilderness preaching the need for repentance and warning that “the ax is lying at the root of the tree” (Mt 3:10) and that the one to come would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11).
Then we get the account of Jesus’ baptism that we just heard, containing the first words spoken by Jesus so far in this gospel. Jesus comes to be baptized by John, who is scandalized by the idea that the one whom he has been deferring to in his ministry comes to the river and defers to him. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replies, his first words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15).
Jesus speaks for the first time, and he speaks about righteousness. Righteousness will be a major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout this gospel, so it makes sense that Matthew uses his first statement to establish this idea. And, right from the start, a question is introduced: what is righteousness? On face value the word itself means carrying out the revealed will of God, acting in accordance with moral or divine law. This works in this scenario as well, as Jesus will be revealed throughout his life as the one who carries out the will of God, and who reveals God’s will for all of creation.
It’s hard to use phrases like “God’s will” without introducing all sorts of other questions. Questions like, “what is God’s will for all of creation,” and “what does it mean to act against or outside of God’s will,” and “what happens to those who act against God’s will,” which in turn often leads to, “who are you to tell me what God’s will is?” Discussions of God’s will get scary because they are so often paired with people claiming to speak for God, placing God on their side. That kind of moralism can be terrifying. Preaching in the wilderness about the righteousness of God, John the Baptist drew people to the River Jordan to be baptized after they’d confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6). Baptism became for them a sign of being washed clean of their misdoings. And, having been made clean, they felt more comfortable looking around at all the dirty people of the world and calling them to righteousness.
One of my best friends from childhood is now married with three children. Shortly after the birth of her first son, she confessed to me over a couple of beers that she didn’t plan to have him baptized. “When I think of baptizing him, all I can think is that these people are judging my child. That they think he’s tainted with some invisible stain. That he’s already somehow a sinner, and that he needs to be baptized to be saved. But I gave birth to him, and I look at him – even when he’s crying or making me miserable – and I don’t see a sinner. I see my child. I’m filled with love.”
I have to admit that this made me sad. Less so that her child wasn’t being baptized, and more that to her baptism was evidence of the church’s judgment of her child. That the church is a community of people who would only see her child with the eyes of love, the eyes that she looks through, if he conformed to the church’s rites and rituals. To see the church the way she seemed to see the church was to see a community not so much made righteous by the gift of baptism, but made self-righteous by the assumption that they possessed something everyone else needed to come to them for.
That, however, is an error – both in her thinking and in the church’s when it conforms to her fears – because baptism is not something that the church owns and dispenses at our own discretion. It is not our righteousness being shared with the unrighteous – it is the righteousness of God being shared freely with all the world.
You know that I moonlight a couple of nights a month at Children’s Memorial Hospital as a chaplain. We occasionally get requests there to baptize children, especially if they’re going into a major surgery – or, in the worst of cases, if they are close to death. These are moments of terror for parents, who have to entrust their children’s lives to people who are practically strangers, and who want to do everything in their power to protect their children. Some see baptism as a bit of magic – there to ward off bad luck – others see it as an insurance policy there to cover their children in the event of death. We know that it is neither, but we do it anyway because of what it is: waters that hold us the way we were held in the womb before we were born into our families; the love of God pouring over us like the waters of a bath, washing away the grime of our fears and confusions and revealing the goodness of the creation that lies beneath the waters, revealing the infant that parents look at with the eyes of love. Then we pray that the child will live to grow into a fuller understanding of the meaning of the gift of their baptism.
We are all growing into a fuller understanding of the gift of our baptism. In the reading from Acts we hear Peter preaching one of his great sermons as the meaning of his baptism becomes clearer to him. In the chapters preceding this one Peter has come in contact with a Gentile named Cornelius and his family – people that Peter would not have eaten with, much less baptized, as a matter of Jewish law. But Peter receives a vision from heaven along with the command, “what God ha
s called clean, you must not call profane.” In response Peter baptizes Cornelius and his entire family and changes forever the church’s understanding of baptism. No longer for the people of Israel only, for the ritually pure, for the insiders, Paul explains his actions beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”
The righteousness of God, which sounds like fire and brimstone to some of our ears, which sounds like judgment, is – in fact – God’s mercy made tangible, given to us in ordinary things we can see and touch and eat and drink. The righteousness of God is love and mercy opened wide for all to experience. The righteousness of God brings an end to fears of not measuring up to other people’s expectations of what it means to be a good Christian, or a good parent, or a good spouse, or a good child. The righteousness of God means setting all that aside and being made new – a new body that is all of us together, a new family that is the whole world.
Jesus enters the waters of baptism and receives the gifts of God, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, just like each of us have – at the hands of imperfect people, people like John the Baptist – and that is, as Jesus says, proper. It is proper that we receive the gifts of God at the hands of ordinary people made holy by God. That is the meaning of Jesus’ first words about righteousness. He is saying something to us about how we are to see each other, the way God sees us, the way my friend sees her baby boy, like parents who are falling in love with their children. With hearts that tender. Jesus uses his first words the way children all around the world have, to say something about his parent. To name the righteousness of God. Abba. Ba ba ma ma. God rushes to the waters to hear these first words of the child, bursting with pride that the child has heard rightly, that the child understands the righteousness God has sent this child to give away. God says to this child, and to you, and to me, “this is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”