First impressions stay with us. They persist as a sort of foundation for everything else we come to know about a person, a place or a thing. They become the backdrop and milieu upon which we build all new information we learn.
When the author of the gospel of Matthew describes the first scenario involving Jesus as an adult, quoting the first of Jesus’ words he chose to record of Him, it makes an impression. It should. Here in the third chapter of Matthew—our Day 3 of twenty-eight days exploring the life of Jesus—we learn something foundational about Jesus. A character trait emerges that means everything to our understanding of this unique man.
We are also introduced to the religious leaders of the day. We first see them arriving at a remote desert location to ferret out the source of a grassroots movement. They are concerned an ascetic in the desert might dilute their power over the local people. There, on the banks of the Jordan River where it snakes its way through dry and dusty hills, they find an earthy hermit-like character called John. He’s performing a ritual of cleansing that had started a millennium and a half earlier as a result of an understanding of God’s great holiness.
“You brood of vipers!” challenges the baptizer, honing in on the Jewish leaders with his piercing eyes and voice as they descend the hill. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He turns his back on them in blatant disgust. The crowds that had come to the waters in humbleness look on in disbelief.
“I baptize you with water for repentance,” explains the camel-hair-robed sage, turning to those who had come with sincerity to the water’s edge. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”
Perhaps this very day, or at the least not too many days later—we’re not told which—Jesus arrives at John’s river-baptismal. Perhaps he takes his place in the queue or maybe he is there earlier than any of the others at dawn’s break, the desert night’s chill still on the sand.
John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why should the sinless Son of God submit Himself to a rite of cleansing?
Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, we’re told, John consented. He baptized the Holy One and was one of those who heard a Voice from heaven thunder, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
There is a theme in this chapter that runs like a golden thread through the characters to whom we are introduced. It’s about integrity. The unorthodox John who understands his role as one who would “in the desert prepare the way for the LORD”—we see his integrity in his humble admission of need for purity in contrast to Jesus at the river’s edge; the proud Pharisees and Sadducees, arriving to quash this upstart revival of people tired of living meaningless lives—we see the leaders’ lack of integrity in their deficiency of what John calls ‘fruit’, evidence of humility toward God, compassion and mercy toward their followers; the crowds, ‘sheep without a shepherd’, people like you and me who realize that God is holy and we are not—people who are willing to open their hearts to be changed so that their outward lives will be transformed; and we see Jesus—the One whose primary goal was to “fulfill all righteousness”, to live a perfect, sinless, obedient to-the-Father life of integrity in the keeping of a promise made millennia earlier. That promise was to be the seed that would develop fruit to bless all people everywhere.
The perfectly complete integrity of Jesus is the only hope for humankind. By it we may accept God’s forgiveness. By it we may enter into a new life and hope. And by it we may resource integrity growing from the inside out of our own lives day by day.
This ‘Day 3’ message calls out to us from Matthew’s gospel with piercing clarity and truth. We know deep inside we fail miserably every day in our attempts to live with integrity, when we try it on our own. Yet, as Matthew tells us, there is One who is for us, will live in us and through us if we are willing. Let’s come to Jesus, the completely righteous Son who longs to live His integrity through us with only a word from us—yes.
(Photo Credit: “ArugotRiver” by Maglanist at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ArugotRiver.jpg#/media/File:ArugotRiver.jpg)