Monday, January 9, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – The Unnecessary Necessity

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 8, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Matthew 3:13-17 

Then, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. And John tried to stop him, saying, “I have a need to be baptized by you, do you come to me?” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Allow it just now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. And when Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the spirit of God come down like a dove and come upon him. And behold, a voice from heaven said, “He is my son, the beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Unnecessary Necessity

I’m going to tell you right up front, the title of this sermon makes no sense. It just doesn’t. And even though I’m certainly not beyond doing something that’s kind of cute and clever, or at least I think it is, this title is just goofy, or as the Greeks might say, “goofos.” What the heck was I thinking. “The Unnecessary Necessity,” give me a break. If something is unnecessary, it can’t be a necessity; it can’t be necessary, right? That’s a contradiction of terms. Now, if I’d said “The Necessary Necessity,” that would make sense. I mean, it’s pretty redundant, but at least it’s correct. But a necessity that’s unnecessary, man, that’s what’s called an oxymoron, with an emphasis on the moron, you know, like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly” or everybody’s favorite “virtual reality.” Man, something can’t be both unnecessary and a necessity, right? That would be crazy, something from the Bizarro world.

But you know, I think that’s pretty much what we’re looking at in the passage we just read, one that folks who’ve spent a lot of time around the church have probably heard dozens of times, and one that, even though it’s one of the few stories that’s found in all four gospels, unlike the birth that’s only found in two, man, it caused all kinds of grief to early Christians. And I’m talking about the baptism of Jesus. You see, when you think about it, on the surface, this would seem to be about as close to an unnecessary necessity as you can get.

I mean, just think about what’s going on here. According to what Matthew wrote right before this passage, John was out there in the wilderness of Judea preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And of course, he was baptizing folks in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. And just like we talked about before Christmas, he must have been pretty good at it, because Matthew wrote that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan.”

And as we read just a few minutes ago that included Jesus, the same one whose birth was predicted by the angel to Joseph and who received the gifts of the Magi and who was sent to Egypt, as we discussed last week, in order “...to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” Now, at this point, Jesus came to John to be baptized. And even though that sounds all fine and dandy, there are two problems with this baptism business. You see, first, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, now did he? I mean, John’s was a baptism of repentance, and to repent, to turn, to change, a person has to recognize his or her sin, right? That’s why people confessed, recognizing their sins, when John baptized them.

But Jesus, well, we believe that, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested [you know, tempted,] as we are, yet without sin.” Now that’s what we believe, and so, you tell me, what did Jesus have to confess? Of course, I recognize that may not seem to be a big deal to us, certainly not when compared to Pittsburgh versus Miami later this afternoon, but it was huge in the early church. At the very least, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. In a word, it was unnecessary, right? Now that’s one problem.

And second, man, John didn’t want to do it. He just didn’t want to baptize Jesus. As a matter of fact, he wanted Jesus to baptize him, didn’t he? And even though that certainly said something about how John saw his own status when compared to Jesus, I think it said a lot more. Let me explain; do you remember what John said about the one who was coming? According to Matthew, he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now that’s what he said; therefore, I assume that’s exactly what John wanted, what he expected to happen now that Jesus was on the scene. And since he sure seemed to believe that Jesus was the one, I think John was ready to start that cleansing process right now. And to get that ball rolling, baptizing Jesus just wasn’t necessary. And so, in a nutshell, with this kind of baptism, Jesus didn’t need it, and John didn’t want to do it.

And yet, we know what happened, because like I said, we find this story in all four gospels. But only Matthew offers a reason. Remember, after John said, “‘I have a need to be baptized by you, do you come to me?’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Allow it just now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” Now, I’ve got to tell you, I find this response really interesting. I mean, Jesus said this has something to do with fulfilling “all righteousness,” and when you check out what “righteousness” means in Matthew, it always involves doing the willing of God. In other words, Jesus was saying that, even though he didn’t need to do it, getting baptized would fulfill the will of God. And you know, I think this is really clear when you read these verses in the Contemporary English translation: “Jesus answered, ‘For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.’” And I also want you to notice that, regardless of the translation used, Jesus spoke in the first person plural. You see, whether “...it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” or “...we must do all that God wants us to do,” Jesus didn’t say “me” and “I;” instead, he said “us” and “we.” In other words, even though, on the surface, it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to be baptized at all nor was it necessary for John to do it, according to God’s will, both were necessary.

And so, according to Matthew, John did it. “And when Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the spirit of God come down like a dove and come upon him. And behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘He is my son, the beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.’” You see, as a result of this action, God announced who Jesus was, not just to Jesus, but everyone around. And you know, that’s why I called the baptism of Christ, well, an unnecessary necessity.

And I’ll tell you, I think that’s something important for us to remember, and I’m talking about both that it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized and for John to do it. You see, the fact that Jesus was baptized tells us a lot about who he was and is. I mean, because he submitted to something so tied up with sin and confession and repentance, that shows just how much he identifies with us. You know, God doesn’t academically understand us nor does he intellectually grasp who we are. Like it says in Hebrews, he can sympathize, he can empathize, man, he can identify with us on our worst day, because he was tested and tempted just like us. And for that reason, it’s really no surprise that, in the very next story, right after he dried off, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We have met our savior, and he was one of us. And we can see that in his baptism. But we can also see that he’s more than that. I mean, remember, right after his baptism, not only did the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend, but we heard the voice of God declare to us and to everyone who listened that Jesus wasn’t just a baptized man, he was and is also the divine and beloved Son of God. And that’s really, and I mean really important, because since he’s both 100% human and 100% God, he did for us something we couldn’t do for ourselves. You see, when we accept that, as Paul wrote, the wages of sin is death, the only person in human history who really didn’t need to die is going to die; man, he’s going to die on a cross. And through his death, we’re going to die too: die to sin, die to slavery to death and decay, die to a life that’s so bound and constrained that only with this kind of freedom can we live a new life one that’s focused on and dedicated to God. You see, his baptism shows us exactly who Jesus was and is.

And the fact that John did it in spite his objections, well, I think reminds us of something really important as we live our Christian lives. Now, based on what he said, I think we can agree that John really didn’t want to baptize Jesus. Instead I think he wanted Jesus to baptize him, you know, to baptize him with Holy Spirit and fire so that the one he’d talked about could start chopping down the tree and cleaning the floor and separating the wheat from the chaff. In other words, I believe John wanted, man, he expected Jesus to start doing what John had preached that the coming one would do, and this water baptism just wasn’t part of the story. Now that’s what I think John believed, and yet he still baptized Jesus right there in the Jordan River. I mean, even though baptizing Jesus violated what he thought about the guy who was coming, you know, the one whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to carry, even though it flew it the face of what he wanted and expected, at the word of Jesus, John did it anyway. And I’ll tell you, at least for me, that’s really important. You see, there’s all kinds of stuff I want and expect from the one I worship. I mean, I want him to bless me with exactly what I want, because let’s get really, a blessing has got to be something we want. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a blessing. I mean, dah; it wouldn’t be a blessing for me; therefore, it can’t be for God, right? And at the very least, I expect God to give me a little extra credit for all I’m doing right here and now for him. My gosh, I could be running around, having a good time. Of course, at my age, I don’t run as fast as I did forty years ago, but y’all know what I mean. But instead, look at what I’m doing. Here in church, sacrificing all that fun. And so God has got to have a little something to give me, you know, when the time is right, a perk, a special reward, at least that’s what I think from time-to-time. Now that’s what I want and sort of expect. What about y’all? Well, what John does in this story reminds me and probably should remind all of us that we just might have to put aside some of that stuff we want from God and expect him to give. In fact, as Jesus said, we might even have to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and to follow him; something we can accomplish by doing what he’s called us to do. And right here I’m thinking about, one, making disciples of all nations, a subtle little job, and two, by loving both God and neighbor. You see, in baptizing Jesus, John put aside what he wanted, what he expected, so that he could obey the will of God. And maybe this baptism reminds us that we’re called to do the same thing ourselves.

And for that reason, I really believe this story is important. I mean, even though, on the surface, there really was no reason for Jesus to be baptized or for John to do, as Matthew wrote, it really was what God wanted to happen. You see, for Jesus, it ended up being a sign that he was both human and God; therefore, he could identify with us completely and yet also do for us things we’re not able to do for ourselves. And for John, he was forced to lay aside some of his wants and expectations so that he could do exactly what God had called him to do. And you know, I think the same thing can happen to us when we accept and even embrace something that may make a little more sense than it did about twenty minutes ago, and I’m talking about this unnecessary necessity.

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