The Bare Necessity of a Righteous Life
January 8, 2023

The Bare Necessity of a Righteous Life

Passage: Matthew 3:1-17

The Bare Necessity of a Righteous Life
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On January 8th, 2022

Today’s scripture text is from the 3rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Last week Pastor Emma addressed the genealogy of Jesus in her sermon, in the lead up to Christmas we heard the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife even though Joseph knew she was pregnant and he wasn’t the father. And we know the Epiphany story of the wise men from the East coming to find and worship the infant king. They come first to King Herod in Jerusalem, who they figure must know, and then are sent to Bethlehem where they find and worship the child with their gifts. We know, I trust, about Herod’s murderous reaction when the Eastern sages don’t come back and tell him where they’ve found the baby. Today we leap into Jesus’ adulthood, with the story of his baptism by John at the River Jordan. As you hear the passage, listen for what John says about the one who is to come, and then pay attention to what Jesus says and does when he comes to be baptized—and what happens next.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘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.’

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

How do we know the right thing to do?

In any situation, how is it that we discern what friends of mine call “the next right step?” and then go ahead and take it? I think that’s the question that hangs over the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel—and indeed over the whole book of Matthew.

It’s there when Joseph, whose ego has been wounded at finding out the Mary, his fiancée, is pregnant and that he is not the father, has to decide to do what to do next. What’s the next right step? Being a, get this? a righteous man, Joseph resolves to divorce her quietly, to not expose her to public shame. That certainly would have been kinder than making a spectacle of her and subjecting to being stoned to death by the community. But just when Joseph, this righteous man, has decided to do that an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary as his wife after all, that the child in her is from the Holy Spirit and will save his people from their sins. So Jesus is born with the protection of a human father, when that was by no means guaranteed, because Joseph, a righteous man, accedes to a greater righteousness—a righteousness borne in mercy and compassion.

What’s the next right step? That’s a question the magi, the pagan astrologers from the East who came to Herod in Jerusalem looking for the baby born king of the Jews must have asked. It’s what brought them there in the first place. They followed the star, and the advice of Israel’s sages, and it led them eventually to Bethlehem. But after they bring their gifts to Jesus, instead of going back to report on the child’s whereabouts to Herod, they are warned in a dream to go home another way. Among other things, this means that Joseph can take the holy family and escape to Egypt to avoid the king’s murderous genocidal rage. And dreams help Joseph to know when to return from Egypt and then when to leave Bethlehem and go to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up. Next right step onto next right step.

We hear people saying Do The Right Thing, and take the next right step, but how do we know the next right thing to do? That’s the question that hangs over the gospel of Matthew, which throughout its pages is concerned with the concept of righteousness. Righteousness, not in the ugly way we think of it now, as a sort of self-righteous—but righteousness in terms of right relationship with God, others, the whole created order.

If you’re like me, when you hear the word righteousness or righteous, your hackles go up at least a little. We think immediately of smug, judgey, self-righteous people looking down their noses, so certain that they know what is right not just for themselves but for everyone else around them. We hear the whispers, “Can you believe he would wear that?” And “Bless her little heart, you’d think she’d know better, don’t you?” “Take a look at what those people did?”

Self-righteousness like that makes me think of the Pharisee in the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel, who looks over at the tax collector who is beating his breast and praying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” and begins his own prayer by saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector over there. You know, I fast, I pray, I tithe. Take a look at me, God, ain’t I a good person?”

As irritating as that sort of self-righteousness can be, there is something even more perilous about the very concept of righteousness which suggests that we really do need to handle it with care. The author and social critic Neil Gaiman names it when he writes: “There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” So righteousness needs to be handled with the utmost care.

All of that being said, Matthew’s Gospel really does want us to think about what it means to be truly righteous, to really obey God and God’s commands. It does so by setting up the religious establishment of the day—the Pharisees and the Sadducees—as a foil to Jesus and his message. They appear for the first time in today’s text, coming out to John to be baptized. And John, well, John gives them both barrels. He calls them a brood of vipers, a bunch of snakes. He tells them they need to bear the sort of fruit in their life that would indicate that they have turned their lives towards God. He warns that the axe is at the root of the tree, and that there is one who is coming who is going to baptize with fire and sort the wheat from the chaff—with the clear intimation either that they are the chaff or that there is a lot of chaff in their own lives that they need to deal with. All of this John addresses to a group of people who are outwardly consumed with following God and God’s commands in righteousness. But their egos, and their desire to have everything be black and white and by the letter rather than the spirit of the law of Torah, have gotten in the way.

And then Jesus shows up. Jesus, the One John has been talking about, the One who will baptize with fire and sort the wheat from the chaff, the One the thong of whose sandals John is not worthy to untie, appears and HE asks John to baptize him. John is horrified by this. “No, no, no. Hold on a second. It should be the other way around. I should be being baptized by you! Not you by me.” And Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for it is PROPER for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Now if you read the footnotes in your Bible, it may tell you that Jesus responds in this way because he recognizes John’s authority and that he identifies himself with those who respond in faith to John’s call. Okay, that might be right.

But I think this also has everything to do with what it looks like to do the right thing—and doing the right thing involves humility. In Jesus’ case, it was setting aside the prerogative that came with his status as the one who was to come. He could have said, “John, you’re absolutely correct. I’m the one whoshould be baptizing you.” But instead he lays aside his privilege. That’s what righteousness looks like in this particular instance.
And to bring the point home, Matthew has Jesus use another word that we associate with doing things right. It is PROPER for us to do this, he tells John. When you hear the word proper, what do you think of? The word proper makes me think of the proper way to set a table, or how to dress appropriately, or to act with propriety. The proper thing to do here, Jesus says, the fitting thing, the becoming thing, is for me to be humble. That’s the right thing.

How easy and boring life would be if it were always evident what the next right step to take is! If the path before us were laid out clearly, and while we’re at it, if it didn’t involve too many bumps in the road. But, in case you haven’t noticed, that’s not the way life is. There’s a lot of ambiguity and there are a lot of bumps in the road. Anybody looking back at 2022 not see some bumps in the road? Do you see some bumps in the road for 2023? That’s the way life is.

So what we have before us is the challenge of figuring out the next right thing—what it means to act with a righteousness and even a confidence that is not smug or self-righteous. We do that a decision at a time—and, if Jesus in today’s text is any guide—we do it with humility.

Along those lines, I think of the prophet Micah, who more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus wrote these words which are such a great plumb line for discernment. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God? To walk what? Humbly, with God. That’s the right and proper approach to life and decision-making.

So as we move into a new year, a couple of thoughts.

Number one. What if humility were one of the factors we considered in our own decision-making about what the next right thing might be? The acknowledgement that we might be wrong. But the courage to step forward anyway.

Number two. It might be helpful as we move into a new year to remember the words of Thomas Merton, that great monk and mystic, who wrote this prayer:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Now that’s a great prayer, but it doesn’t wrap things up neatly in a bow. So if you’re looking for that in preaching, you may have already realized that you have come to the wrong place. Because life is complicated.

A third and final point. Every year around this time, in connection with the observance of Epiphany, we invite people in the congregation to pick out star words. A word that you are going to place on a star and use to guide you through the year ahead.

I’ve done a number of different things when it comes to picking a word for myself over the years. Sometimes, I just go to a site that is a random star word generator. It’s kind of like me asking fate, or God, what are you going to give me? But I get a word.

Before I do that, I usually talk to my spiritual director about possible words. When I talked to my spiritual director this week, I was kind of proud. I said to her, “I’ve come up with a great spiritual discipline for the year ahead. I’m going to write a haiku every day as a way of keeping me focused on what I have to be grateful for and where I’ve experienced God.”

I’ve written more than a haiku a day so far. I read her some of my haiku, and she said, “Well, well, that’s great. Good for you.” Then she directed me back to what my word for the year might be.

I’ve written a haiku about it—
Abundant life is
Alignment with divine love
To know my deep joy.

That’s when I had it. My word for the year ahead. Alignment.

How can I be aligned with what is loving, and kind, and just?

I don’t know what your word is going to be. You and God will figure that out. But let me humbly submit that Alignment is mine.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.