Friday, January 06, 2017

January 8, First Sunday after Epiphany: Righteousness #1: Tzedek

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

This past Friday was Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the day that marks the Visit of the Magi. The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” that is, an appearance, an exposure to the public. The Sundays after Epiphany mark the successive exposures of the Lord Jesus, of which the most important was his baptism. We don’t know whether the Lord Jesus had any expectation of the dove or the voice from heaven, but they confirmed his identity and mission both for himself and for the public. His baptism was his coming out, his debut, his commissioning. Time to get to work.

This may be the sixteenth time I’ve preached to you on the Baptism of Jesus, and the sixth time I’ve preached on Matthew’s version on it. This time around I want to look at what the Lord Jesus said to John the Baptist in their brief exchange, to wit: “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 in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” What does that mean, “to fulfill all righteousness?”

To answer that question is going to take eight weeks. This is the first sermon in an eight-part series on Righteousness. The Hebrew word is tzedek. It’s a very frequent word in the Torah and the Prophets, and it’s important to the Lord Jesus as well, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story we read that Joseph was a righteous man, which was the best thing you could say about a man. The Lord Jesus speaks often of righteousness in his teaching.

As important as it was to them, it’s hardly a priority for us. We rarely use the word in daily life. You did not use “righteousness” to evaluate our presidential candidates. You don’t use the word to describe your friends, and I doubt that righteousness is something you even unconsciously aspire to. But the Lord Jesus did, as indicated by his words to John.

I’m going to preach on it not only because it’s a key word in the Bible, but also because the word assumes the union of things that we generally separate, like church and state, or spiritual and civil. We’ve been put off recently by how some Christian groups are trying to combine these again, claiming that America is a Christian nation, and wanting Christian personal morality to be enforced by law. We should not let the misuse of the gospel cancel the holistic Biblical vision that is implied by the word tzedek.

The word righteousness unifies personal goodness and social justice, and harmonizes doing right with human rights. This unity and harmony in human righteousness is a reflection and extension of the unity and harmony of God, for God is righteous most of all, and you are righteous for the sake of God. So, is this righteousness for you? Do you want to be righteous? Are you interested in God’s righteousness in the world, do you want to share in it?

I believe that the righteousness of God in the world is what the Lord Jesus was speaking of with John the Baptist. The whole historical stream of the righteousness of God from Genesis to Malachi—he was putting himself in front of that. In other words, he wasn’t just going to do his own thing, he was claiming the history of God’s work behind him, driving him and even pushing him. He was saying he wanted to capture that in what he’d do—he’d ride it, flow with it, channel it, express it.

But also, and more than it, expand it, because what he said to John can be translated differently, “For it is proper in this way to fill up all righteousness,” or even “fill out all righteousness.” So he saw himself as the one who would expand the righteousness of God within the world. He dared to see himself as in control of God’s righteousness. I suspect he already had an inkling of how costly it would be for him to do this, but only as Matthew unfolds the story will we see all that this righteousness entails.

We do know that the Lord Jesus was guided by the prophecies of Isaiah, especially by the so-called Servant Songs in the second half of the book. One of these Servant Songs provides our first reading, the call of God upon the Servant. God says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.” God calls, and the tone of voice God uses sounds like righteousness.

Righteousness is relational, it’s the tone of the relationship between God and the servant whom God is calling. Righteousness is not so much an abstract and objective standard out there but a personal investment, and there’s freedom in it. God is freely entering into a binding relationship with the Servant, and in this relationship each party has rights, and the goodness of the relationship requires the rightness of their mutual behaviors. Righteousness is a freely chosen behavior within a relationship. That means righteousness is creative, and active, and an investment in someone.

Like when Joseph took the pregnant Mary to be his wife. He could have chosen for the familiar kind of righteousness, regarding appearances, keeping the rules, standing on his right, but he dared to choose the more risky kind of righteousness in relationship, freely choosing Mary, investing in her in the midst of her predicament and serving her in her special mission and sharing it with her.

A righteousness not defensive but generative, not wall-building but life-sharing.  A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench, he will bring forth justice in the earth. He will not stand upon his rights, he will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. This is a righteousness of liberation and a justice of restoration. This is a creative, investing kind of righteousness. Is this the kind of righteousness for you? Do you want it, to receive it and to have it and to do it? What do you need in order to practice it?

Most people want to do the right thing. Yes, I know there’s lots of scary and conniving people out there, especially the ones who get elected around the world, but even they probably think they are doing what is right. And the Bible can sometimes sound very tolerant of this. In our second reading, for example, St. Peter says “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Is that the same as righteousness, doing what is right?

But what is right in one nation is often wrong in another. And then not doing what is wrong is not necessarily the same as doing what is right. Doing what is right often goes farther than not doing what is wrong. It is not righteousness to just not do what is wrong. But then you can do what is right without it being righteousness. I’m sure that in general you want to do what is always the right thing to do, but it would seem that righteousness aspires to more than that.

Righteousness means aspiration. Righteousness means character. Righteousness means commitment, and hard choices, and sacrifice. Righteousness means investment and relationship. And when it means investment in relationships it looks like love. Maybe that’s why it had to wait for the Lord Jesus to come into the world for it to be filled out, for it had to be a righteousness full of love, brimming with radical love, pouring out sacrificial love.

John the Baptist wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized because he saw baptism first and foremost as the sign of a person’s repentance, and he could not imagine that the Messiah should have anything to repent of. John the Baptist expected that the Messiah should be righteous already. But the righteousness of this Messiah will be an outgoing righteousness, embracing, investing, God with us, getting baptized along with sinners, eating with prostitutes as well as Pharisees, drinking with tax-collectors as well as scribes, touching the untouchable.

We have seven weeks more for this, but already I can say that what it means for you is this: you, for your part, you do what is right, as best you can. And God, for God’s part, works God’s own righteousness in the world, through God’s Word and Spirit and love. And the righteousness of God takes up your doing right into a synthesis which is your own righteousness.

It’s a process, it takes a life time. Your righteousness is not your accomplishment but the gift that you receive upon what you do that is right. You aspire for the righteousness of God, and God meets your aspiration with love, and righteousness is worked into your character by the power of the love of God. I know that this is what you want, the righteousness of the love of God. 

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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