Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17
“Much obliged.” Do you use that phrase? “Much obliged.” It isn’t a common response for me personally, but it is a way we might say thank you, although it might sound a little old-fashioned or formal to our ears. It used to be a more common way of saying thank you. What does it mean exactly? “Much obliged” is a kind of shortening of a fuller sentiment: “I’m much obliged to you for what you did for me.” And to spell it out even more clearly, to be obliged is to be in someone’s debt - to be obligated to another person. To be obligated (according to Google) is to be bound to someone, legally or morally. If we’re obligated to someone, it can be with thanks and gratitude and appreciation because of what someone’s done for us, or it can be a weight, a burden, something that makes us feel trapped, what we owe to someone. If we think about our obligations, there are probably some that make us feel thankful and stir our sense of commitment, and some that make us feel overwhelmed. What legal obligations do you have? Debts we owe. Taxes we pay. Contracts to which we’re a party. What obligations do you have to people? To friends, spouses, children, relatives, bosses, neighbors, employees, students, teachers? When you think about the obligations you have in your relationships, how do you feel about those commitments? Is your indebtedness in relationship one direction, or mutual, between both people? What kind of time obligations do you have? How is your time bound up? What of your time is designated to certain tasks, certain ways of being spent? What of your time is obligated, and what is discretionary, to be spent as you choose? We are much obliged indeed. Much obliged - it’s a complicated little phrase.
Our gospel text for today has me thinking about obligations and what it means to be obligated. In the Christian calendar, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when we remember the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus is kind of a conundrum. In the gospels, Jesus’ baptism takes place in the context of John the Baptist baptizing many people in the Jordan River. John has been preaching a fiery message, focused on this key message: “Repent, for the realm of the heavens is near.” And people respond to his message in droves, confessing their sins, and being baptized as a sign of new life. But then Jesus comes to be baptized too.
If baptism relates to repentance - a recognition that we’re not going in God’s direction, we’re not headed closer to God and we need to turn around and head back to God - and John the Baptist’s theme word is certainly repentance - then why does Jesus get baptized? If Jesus is perfect, guiltless, he doesn’t need to repent, right? This conundrum has plagued readers of the scripture for a long time - and evidently even plagued the writers of the scripture. While Mark’s gospel just has Jesus being baptized with no seeming concern for uncomfortable questions, Matthew’s gospel includes an exchange between Jesus and John where John himself seems uncomfortable baptizing Jesus. We see this in verses 13-15 of our Matthew 3 text. In the New Revised Standard Version, the version of the Bible I use most, it reads like this: “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then [John] consented.”
Although Jesus’ response seems to clear things up for John enough to go ahead and baptize Jesus, his response has never really cleared things up for me. But then I read Dr. Wil Gafney’s translation and interpretation of this text. We’re using Dr. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church Year W for the season of Epiphany, and her commentary opened up this text for me. In her translation, Dr. Gafney constructs Jesus’s exchange with John like this: “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John forbade him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it go for now; for this way is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John let it go.” In her commentary, Gafney notes that the words “Let it go” are weighty words here, words that would serve to release an obligation - as in a legal obligation. They could be words of divorce, for example - certainly a release from an obligation. Or, here in Matthew, words canceling a legal objection. John has filed a verbal objection to baptizing Jesus, and Jesus tells him: “Let it go.” I think this exchange between Jesus and John at Jesus’s baptism is saying: figuring out the theological details of why I, Jesus, should get baptized, when for others it is a sign of repentance, is not the point here. The point here is what my baptism will do - it joins me to the human struggle, to the human faith journey, in a concrete way, marking the beginning of my ministry in ritual.
And John lets it go, lets go of his objections, lets go of holding Jesus and holding himself to the obligation of figuring out how and if it makes theological sense for someone like Jesus to be baptized. John lets go, and baptizes Jesus. And as soon as John lets go and baptizes Jesus, the heavens are opened, and God sends her Spirit down on Jesus like a dove, descending, and God’s voice is heard: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The letting go of the obligation, the clearing of the way for Jesus to be baptized: it results in the heavens breaking open and a powerful experience of God’s presence and affirmation. When John lets go of the obligation to have everything make perfect, logical, theological sense, when he lets go of some mental checklist he has for who needs to be baptized and why, when he makes space for Jesus to participate in a ritual even though he doesn’t believe Jesus needs it, the releasing of the obligation makes way for the movement of the Spirit, makes way for God to draw every closer to God’s creation, makes way for Jesus to begin his public ministry with the deep knowledge in his heart that he is beloved.
Have you ever experienced being set free from an obligation? When I was a fairly new pastor, moving from my first appointment to my second appointment, I got a call from a clergy colleague who administered the conference’s loan and scholarship program. He was an older clergy person who I admired for his wisdom and gentle temperament. I had received a loan when I started seminary that would be forgiven a chunk at a time as long as I stayed serving in the then North Central New York annual conference for a certain number of years (10 I think) - making it more of a scholarship than a loan. But my second appointment was taking me to a church in Greater NJ Annual Conference, where Bishop Suda Devadhar asked if I would come and serve. I was keeping my clergy membership in NCNY, but I wouldn’t be serving in NCNY anymore. So my colleague who administered the loans was calling to tell me I would have to start repayment. I had forgotten all about the caveat to the loan, always viewing it as a scholarship, and never thinking that my new appointment would result in repayment. I didn’t complain outwardly, but inwardly I scrambled to figure out how I would repay the debt.
But then a few days later, he called me back. He’d been thinking it over. And he decided, independent of what the rules said, that I wouldn’t have to pay back the loan. They’d count my service in NJ as continuing work for our conference, since I was keeping my membership there, and they’d just consider the loan paid. He was letting it go. Obligation canceled. I was never sure what prompted him to change his mind, to bend the rules. But I was grateful. It turns out, I only stayed at that church in NJ for 2 years, and then I returned to my home conference to serve for many more, more than meeting the 10 year requirement. My time pastoring in NJ was brief, but it was an important part of my vocational discernment, and I can tie that period of time to clarity and direction about my ministry, to enduring relationships that have nourished my spirit, to exploration that connects me to my current doctoral work at Drew. My colleague - he would have been totally correct to hold me to the obligation that I’d agreed to when I took the money. But he didn’t. He let it go.
I wonder: When are our obligations constraining us and others? When are they holding us back from God, holding us back from love, holding us back from relationship, joy, and thriving? When are the obligations that we have placed on others burdensome and restrictive in ways that act as stumbling blocks to relationship with God? Obligations, of course, are a part of life, and obligations, even and especially challenging ones, shouldn’t just be disregarded. Being obligated to one another is part of the way we love our neighbor. But the interaction between Jesus and John has me thinking about the theological obligations we hang on each other and on ourselves. We have all sorts of ideas, all of us, about what it takes to be “good Christians,” committed disciples, dedicated followers of Jesus. Our ideas might differ from each other depending on our theological perspectives, but most of us have mental checklists and requirements to be serving God in the right way. Sometimes what’s on our checklist can shape us in positive ways, like spiritual disciplines that keep us close to God. But sometimes we turn our theological positions into obligations that are weighty millstones and way-blocking obstacles that cause ourselves and others to stumble on our path with God. What obligations can you let go of? And perhaps, even more importantly, what you have more power over: Who can you free of an obligation that is burdening them? When you let go, what movement of God might you be making space for? The possibilities are endless.
Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. There are so many reasons why Jesus being baptized doesn’t make sense, as John well knew. Jesus asked him to let it go and baptize anyway, and John did. And God’s Spirit broke through, in the midst of a sacred ritual. How can we set each other free, cancel indebtedness that binds, remove heavy burdens, and clear the pathways that we’ve filled with obligations that are more about being right than righteous? And what might God do when we let go? I can’t wait to find out. Amen.
Gafney, Wilda C, “Epiphany II.” A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church Year W. Church Publishing, 2021. Selections from pp. 42-44.