Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, and we’ll be reading from chapter 3 this morning.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for a few weeks now, but we never really did a full intro, so let’s do one now. The first thing you should know: even though it comes first in the new testament books, Matthew wasn’t the first account of Jesus’ life written and saved. Mark was the first account. And even though we call it the book of Mark, Mark is probably more the testimony of Peter written down by Mark because Peter didn’t read or write. The book of Mark came way before the book of Matthew. Like John, Matthew waited until near the end of his life and ministry to write his gospel. This is something he’d been wanting to say for a while.
So, the book of Matthew wasn’t written so people could know about Jesus’ life. People already knew about Jesus’ life. Peter’s message, and Paul’s preaching, had spread the gospel far and wide by the time Matthew was writing. Neither was the book of Matthew written to argue or disagree with the book of Mark; in fact the book of Matthew includes large portions of the book of Mark. Matthew was written to convey a specific message to a specific people.
Matthew grew up pretty near where Jesus grew up in Galilee—they were both Jewish, living in a fishing village far from the capital of their region and far from Rome. But they were there for very different reasons, and they took very different paths through life. Jesus was living in Galilee because he and his family had fled for their lives from Jerusalem, with its ties to Rome, when the king in Jerusalem attempted to have Jesus killed. They fled first to Egypt, and then came to Galilee intentionally, because it was under a different Roman prefect, just as Nazareth today is under Palestinian and not Israeli sovereignty. They wanted to put some distance between them and all the folks who had tried to kill them in Jerusalem.
Jesus lived simply, worked construction with his father, as most refugee immigrants do in our country as well. He loved his people dearly, helped his community, and took care of his family, especially after his father died and he was the eldest male. Matthew, though, Matthew went a different route. By the time we meet Matthew in his own book, in chapter nine, he’s a tax collector. Meaning he decided to betray his own people, likely disown his own family, in order to have a little extra money and rub shoulders with the nobles. He was on the so called right track.
It would be hard to overstate how much reason Jesus and Matthew had to hate each other. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been trained to read and write, to keep detailed financial accounts and records. They would have told him that he was smart to make something of himself rather than being mired in poverty for the rest of his life, like the rest of these fools wasting their lives quietly resenting what Matthew had learned to embrace.
Marilyn Robinson, in her book Gilead, imagines a character who is the preacher’s son in a small midwestern town. He’s an incredibly bright kid, and starts preaching for his father’s church, eventually he wants to go to seminary and come back to take over the preaching of the church. The congregation, the whole community, scrimps and saves, and eventually they put together enough to send him to the best college, the best seminary and he comes back after however many years to tell the church he’s an atheist, and he realized in seminary what a sham it all is, and then he leaves the town to take a good job he found in the city because they were impressed with his education. That’s who Matthew is before he meets Jesus.
He’s a really smart guy with a good job who’s made all the right choices, but. There was a cost; something’s missing. Notice I said, Matthew doesn’t come into his own narrative until chapter nine, which is a beautiful confession from him. Jesus calls the first disciples in chapter four, the chapter right after the one we just read. By the time Matthew is writing this gospel account, he’s devoted his life and ministry to following Jesus, but he missed it at first. He was so convinced of his own right track, so drunk with his perceived success, that he missed life and truth itself happening all around him.
Between chapter four when the first disciples are called and chapter 9 when Matthew begins to follow Jesus, you have the sermon on the mount, lepers being healed, even Roman soldiers believing Jesus as their God and savior, demons cast out, Jesus calming a storm, Lord even over creation, and we get to chapter nine, and Matthew writes, essentially, while the world itself was changing, and heaven was breaking though all around me, there I was, sitting in a tax booth, working for the very empire oppressing my people. And he writes, Jesus walked right up to me in this hell of my own making and called me to follow him. Jesus had every reason to hate this man who had betrayed him and the whole community, not just voted but campaigned for all the politicians Jesus’s friends would have hated, and Jesus decides instead of condemning him to save him.
Jesus calls Matthew, and then brings the rest of the disciples to Matthew’s house to eat, which causes controversy to explode. He crossed a line that no one on either side had ever wanted to cross—poor folks and rich sell outs—and the controversy never died down. Part of Matthew’s confession is that Jesus ruined his reputation just by calling him. Ruined his status as a religious teacher by coming to his house to eat.
Jesus ruined his political career to make peace with Matthew, and Matthew did the same. After leaving his booth that day, he could never recover his career. All of his friends would think he was nuts for walking away from a good job to go follow some preacher across the country. They would have talked about burn out and how he must have cracked under pressure and how they wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But in Matthew’s eyes, that was the day Jesus saved him from all of the choices he had made.
Matthew wrote this book to himself, to everyone like him. All the Jewish people who were struggling to accept Jesus as messiah. Everyone sitting in a little booth collecting a paycheck while everything worth living for is happening around them, and they aren’t there for it. Throughout the book you’re going to see Matthew focus on parables and miracles. He’s going to quote the old testament, because he’s writing to folks who trust it, and in all of it, he’s trying to do for his readers what Jesus did for him. In the midst of our daily lives, so often spent in business, just making ends meet, he’s trying to call us to follow Christ, and in doing so, to actually live in him, rather than slowly dying on our own.
Still today, Jesus is willing to ruin his reputation in the world by calling even the likes of you and me to follow him. And if we do, we may ruin our reputation with him, but we’ll finally be truly living life.
Read with me, Matthew, chapter 3. [Matthew 3:1-17] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Some of y’all may remember, we preached on this passage several months ago when we were going through the practices of the church and what makes us Christian, because baptism is a big part of what makes us Christian. We talked about how baptism didn’t start with John.
Judaism at the time, as today, was filled with ritual washings, but what set John’s baptism apart from these, Matthew mentions it specifically in the passage, he says John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. And this washing was meant to last a person a lifetime, which is strange if you think about it, and I want to ask two main questions this morning to help us understand this passage. One, if John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, why does Jesus, if he is sinless, enter into it? And two, if John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance, and if, to quote Luther, “all of a Christian’s life is meant to be one of repentance,” why do we only baptize people once? Why is this not a lifelong repeated ritual in Christianity?
I’ll start in answering these questions just by saying the second question is answered by the first; we are baptized once in Christianity because Christ, being sinless, entered into our repentance, but we’ll need to do some work to unpack that. Most ritual washings, if you’re studying other religions, are repeated. In Islam, you’re meant to wash every time you pray, six times per day, as a means of purifying yourself before God. Similarly, in orthodox Judaism today, you ritually wash your hands multiple times per day and fully immerse yourself to purify yourself either monthly, or before major festivals as a means of purifying yourself and making yourself clean.
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve sinned since I was baptized at the age of 23. Maybe it didn’t take. Or maybe Christ being baptized changed what baptism means for everyone who came after.
I’m going to give you a simple answer to why we’re only baptized once in Christianity, and then I’m going to give you a more mysterious answer to the question of why Christ enters into a baptism of repentance. The simple answer is that Baptism is a ritual celebrating our entrance into the family of God, and once God adopts you into his family, he’ll never let you go, no matter how badly, in our pain and brokenness, we act out. As a foster and adoptive parent, this is something that’s deeply important to me, the reality that once we are adopted by God we are his children in truth and everlastingly.
I had someone the other day say something to me that internally upset me a bit, although I try to give people a lot of grace with this kind of thing because I know its complicated, but someone said the wrong thing to me about my kids. We were talking through ages, and how our son is adopted, the other two kids are in foster care, and she asked me whether or not we had any children of our own, and I forget exactly how I responded, hopefully graciously, but the reason it upset me is that I had just told her we had an adopted son. He is a child of our own. And I will do anything and everything in my power to make sure he knows that in his bones and in his blood.
There’s a new Christian song that upsets me for the same reason, and you’ll probably think I’m silly, because the songwriter isn’t trying to make any theological point with this, it just fits with the rhythm of the song: the song quotes John 3:16, but leaves out the word begotten. The song says “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and as we were singing this at a large event, I wanted to put my hand up and say I am God’s son in truth, he died to make it so. He is a good father who makes no distinction between the children who are adopted and the one who is begotten.
Very simply, when we are baptized as adopted children of our father in heaven, his relationship to his only begotten son, as a whole, is gifted to us. Even if the heavens don’t break open over your baptismal pool, the same message is spoken over you. This is my son. This is my daughter, in whom I am well pleased. And it happens once in Christianity because nothing you could possibly do will change the pleasure of the father over you, the love of the father for you. He does not adopt children based upon their character or their works, but only based upon their need for family.
And so it is with you, if you, no matter what age, are a child in need of a family, run to God our father, for in his house there are many rooms and his love covers a multitude of sins. The entire life of the Christian is meant to be one of repentance, but we are brought into the family of God only once, declared righteous and beloved only once, and everlastingly by the unmerited grace of our father in heaven. Amen.
But then we still need to answer the first question, the more mysterious question. And here also we need to draw a sharp distinction between Christian baptism and the other ritual washings of other religions I mentioned before, which will help us to understand John’s message to the Pharisees here in the first part of our chapter.
You see, the pharisees of that day ritually washed themselves over and over again to make sure that they remained clean, not just physically, but spiritually as well. The rituals themselves were in keeping with the law, and so the rituals were good, but in the hearts of the pharisees God’s good law became perverted into a form, not of seeking the righteousness of God, but showing to the people around them their own righteousness. It became a way of showing everyone that they had kept the law down to the letter, and in so doing they perverted the law.
John’s baptism was the opposite of that. John’s baptism was a confession. As Paul writes, the law of God is meant to lead us to repentance; it’s meant to show us the perfection of God, and the right response of a human who looks into the righteousness of God is not to be proud of our own life and choices, but to shout along with the prophet Isaiah, woe is me! For I am unclean, and my friends are unclean.
John’s baptism was a confession that we are sinful, and when he sees Jesus coming, he discourages Jesus from entering into his baptism. Look at v.14, John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He’s objecting! Jesus Christ is the only person who didn’t belong in the Jordan river that day. Jesus had no sin, and this was a baptism of repentance, plunging fully underwater to acknowledge the curse common to humanity, to admit you are one of the damaged people, vulnerable, in need.
John was right. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized like this. He didn’t need to confess anything, and he didn’t need to be forgiven. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, but we need him to be baptized. Mysteriously, this is Jesus intentionally entering into the curse of humanity in order to redeem it. Jesus’ baptism gives meaning to our own.
Jesus doesn’t need to enter into Baptism just like he didn’t need to enter into humanity, just like he doesn’t need his people to enter into the pain of the world, and he doesn’t need his church to care for the vulnerable. He’s not doing this because he has to, he’s doing this because he loves us, and if he doesn’t enter into our curse, the curse would cover us and we would drown in the overwhelm of our own sins and sorrows.
In Jesus’ baptism he enters into the story of God’s people as they pass through the waters of the Red Sea and wander in the desert, the same desert in which Jesus wanders and is tempted after this passage. In his baptism, he enters into their story, and he enters into ours, in order to redeem it.
I would invite you this morning to trust and believe that if you ask God to adopt you into his family, you are as much his beloved child as anyone around you, as much beloved as any pastor or churchman, wildly, as much as Christ himself. Christ’s life, his relationship with the father has been gifted to you. You are his beloved child, and in you he is well pleased.
If you are like Matthew this morning, and you can see Christ at work in the world, but you’re still sitting at your desk, Christ is calling you today to follow him. You may have every reason in the world to ignore him, to hate him, to stay on the other side of town, but if you let him, he will come eat at your table.
And if you are in need of repentance, come to the waters. Pray with me now.