Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9 ; Matthew 3:13-17
Over the holidays, I had a new experience: Christmas morning with a 6 year old. My sister, her husband, and their daughter (my niece) stayed with us. Christmas morning with a 6 year old turns out to be magical and energetic and really early. 5:30am early. Then, it turns out that 5:30am early, coupled with a late night bedtime, turns into a 7am tantrum, followed by 9am tantrum, followed by the adults taking a mid-morning nap and the 6 year old watching a movie.
One of the gifts that was the subject of one of the tantrums was a jewelry bead set. She so badly wanted to open it immediately and put them together. None of the adults were in the mood for that; we didn’t have the energy to help contain all the little beads that would inevitably roll off the table. So, I promised her that when they got back to our house that evening, I would put a bracelet together with her. She confirmed with me: “so, when we get home from dinner at Bibi’s (her grandmother), we will do this?” “Yes, I promise.”
Promises are a funny action because they tie the present to the future. It is an action taken in the present for something to be done in the future. Loving promises can give hope. Promises can propel us in a focused direction. Promissory notes at the bank. Pinky promises on the playground. Christmas morning promises made mid-exhaustion. Divine promises made to an exiled people, waiting for righteousness to be fulfilled.
Our two Scripture selections pair nicely together today because we can see God’s promise on one end and see its fulfillment on the other. In Isaiah, the prophet states “Thus
says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out…..
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
And then in Matthew, we hear Jesus say in regards to being baptized by John, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Kathryn Matthews (who by the way, is a writer for the UCC Sermon Seeds website - many of you have asked) draws the connection between these two books of the Bible. She states that the “same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope--the promise--of new things .... When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God's own deep faithfulness and care.”
It’s nice to see promises fulfilled, especially by God, because it sets a precedent to trust. Whether you are 6 years old or 60 years old, if you make promises but they are never fulfilled, then you lose trust that those things will happen.
For us, we see today that God promises the people righteousness - now, this is a potentially tricky word because of the connotation it has taken on in modern times. Sometimes, people currently mistakenly interchange “righteousness” for “self-righteousness.” That’s NOT what
we’re talking about there - God didn’t promise for people to confidently assert that they are morally superior to each other. (Though, that may feel like an unchanging truth in the world.)
When we read about a fulfillment of righteousness as Jesus speaks of it, “he relates it to salvation, which is another word for healing the damage that has been done to our relationship with God.” (KM) This righteousness that was promised centuries before and being fulfilled in Jesus is living a morally justified and virtuous life - striving to bring about the peace and justice and mercy that God instructs and Jesus models. This is where our salvation lies. And all of this, this promise fulfilled, is marked by Jesus’ baptism. Last week, we celebrated Epiphany, where Jesus was revealed to the wise men as the Christ, the Messiah. This week, we remember Jesus’ baptism, the marking of Jesus as the fulfillment of righteousness. It is in his life that we learn just living, right living, ethical living.
An amazing Christian author who sadly died last Spring is Rachel Held Evans. In her book, Searching for Sunday, she reflects on Jesus’ baptism and writes: "Jesus did not begin to
be loved at the moment of his baptism, nor did he cease to be loved when his baptism became a memory. Baptism simply named the reality of his existing and unending belovedness."
I love those words so much because it reminds us that in our baptism, also, it doesn’t mark the moment where we begin to be beloved, it’s simply naming the reality that we are beloved - always have been, always will be - and that means we are a part of the promises of God.
We are a part of God’s promises. We affirm that here at LCCC with the practice of baptism.
It is good for us to remember our baptism, because it is a reminder to us that we are beloved.
It is good for us to remember that sometimes promises fulfilled can be scary or not quite what we expected. Consider the following: Jesus is not the savior that the people expected, John was about to back out of his part of the baptism, and after Jesus was baptized the skies opened and a voice was heard!!
While some of the baptisms we have here may include crying babies or wondering siblings, it’s pretty calm compared to the scene described in Matthew. Jesus’ baptism was likely not what the people imagined. We need to remember that sometimes we have one image of what God has in store for us, and that image is much different than what will actually come to be. It is good for us to remember the specifics of a promise and to not fill in our own details.
Had my niece, hearing me say that I promised to do beads with her when she got home, assumed that meant we would then open all her new toys and play with them, she would have been sorely disappointed. When we, hearing the words of the Isaiah 43 say “when you walk through the fire you will not be burned,” assume that we can walk through a house on fire without getting burned, we will be sorely disappointed. I am not discounting that miraculous things happen in this world, but we need to be sure we are clear on what God promises us.
God has promised to show us the way to deeply loving one another and creation, which will come with many blessings. God has not promised us that way will always be easy and filled with comforts.
It is good for us to remember to be grounded in God’s promises of righteousness, instructions of just living, and assurance of being beloved. Immediately after Jesus’
baptism, the Gospel of Matthew turns to his time in the desert where he resists temptation and then emerges grounded in his mission and calling. We, too, can be grounded in God’s
promises and let that propel us forward with mission and call.
As God promised righteousness and fulfilled that through the life of Jesus, as tired aunts promise play time on Christmas morning and fulfill it many hours later, I hope that you are
grounded in God’s promises that you are loved and that you trust in God’s instructions of mercy, justice, and equality. I hope that grounding helps guide you forward in living a truly
loving life. Amen.