January 8, 2023
Faithfulness in Small Things
Today we are remembering the baptism of Jesus. His baptism sets the pattern for our baptism. He was baptized to share our life. We are baptized to share his life. Whether it is done in a font or a river or a deep pool, whether you were an infant or an adult, Protestant or Catholic, in its essence, baptism is a sacred sign that God is at work in our lives.
Baptism does not forgive our sins, or save us, or make God love us. God’s love and salvation is a gift of God’s goodness and mercy by faith. And yet, the waters of baptism are a sign of all this.
For those of us who are baptized, the waters of the font are a sacred sign that we are always, already forgiven, deeply beloved, and daily called to walk in the light as followers of Jesus.
For those who have not been baptized, the waters of the font stand before us as an invitation to begin a new life in Christ, to choose for your life to be marked with the sacred sign of God’s embrace.
As we remember the baptism of Jesus, hear these words from the gospel according to Matthew.
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.”
Each year, around the time of spring graduations, a video is shared widely on social media of a graduation commencement speech given by Admiral William McCraven at the University of Texas in Austin in 2014. The title is, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
Somehow, the idea of making your bed in the morning is loaded with social shame. Some of us do it; some of us don’t. And before we accidentally wade into marital and parental disputes, let me be clear that I am not here to shame anyone into making your bed. Instead, I want to highlight the deeper point this speech makes as a way into thinking about baptism.
In the speech to the college graduates, McCraven shares with them the key life lessons he learned as a military officer and Navy SEAL. The first lesson is to make your bed, or your “rack” as it’s called in the Navy, first thing in the morning, with four perfect corners ready for inspection. He tells the students:
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
Now, if that wisdom rings spiritual bells for you, that’s no accident. Mother Teresa said “Be faithful in the small things, because it is in them that your strength lies.” Jesus told the parable of the manager and said: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much; whoever is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much.” As Matthew recounts Jesus’ baptism, we see a picture of Jesus’ faithfulness in small things. John was baptizing in the river Jordan, and people were coming from everywhere to be baptized for the repentance of sins. It must have taken John by surprise when Jesus walked into the water, because it was a baptism for the repentance of sins – and Jesus had no sins. John had already said that he was baptizing with water, but one who would come after him, greater than him, who would baptize with fire and Spirit. That would be Jesus.
So, no wonder John objected. Every gospel tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, and every gospel records John’s faithful objection. But Matthew’s gospel is the only one that gives us this next line: “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’” John consented and baptized Jesus in the Jordan. To fulfill all righteousness.
What does that phrase mean, to fulfill all righteousness? In the history of the church, and in the way I have always read this personally, it has usually been interpreted according to the wider understanding of Christ’s atoning work, read back through the lens of the Apostle Paul and the Gospel-writer John.
Christ did for us what we could not do. In his life and death, Christ fulfilled the law of God, all righteousness, and so he became, on our behalf, the truly Human One. He put flesh and bone on God’s hope of finding a true human partner and opened the way for us to be reconciled to God and share God’s life.
Our baptism, following the pattern of our older brother Jesus, is a sign of the righteousness that Christ fulfilled and gives to us. Through his mercy, we too become God’s beloved children. In us, too, God is well pleased.
Now that is much of what Christ does in his baptism to fulfill all righteousness. And yet, I have learned recently, that there is more that Matthew wants us to know. In the next few months, in a sermon series we’re calling Walk in the Light, we will spend time in the gospel of Matthew. And we will discover that, of all the gospels, Matthew is the most focused on ethics. Matthew focuses relentlessly on how we live out our hope and faith in the daily interactions of life. And as we read his account of Jesus’ baptism, we must remember that his concern is first and foremost ethical.
These words that are unique to Matthew, “to fulfill all righteousness,” are first and foremost an ethical calling for us to follow Jesus’ path of faithfulness in small things. Jesus was faithful to be baptized because it was tangible sign of God’s renewing activity in everyday life. The Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz writes: “It is this baptismal text’s uniqueness that it ties the promise of experiencing God to practical, ‘simple’ obedience in everyday life.” 2
So, back to the lesson of McCraven’s speech, now applied to baptism: “If you want to live out your baptism, if you want to experience God, start off by being faithful in small things.”
Baptism is not a once-and-done experience. It is an event that is, strangely, always out in front of us – calling us into a more faithful walk, a more joyful hope, a greater love, and a deeper relationship with Jesus. If you want to walk in the light, to live out your baptism, to experience God, start off with faithfulness in small things. Do the small thing that gives you a sense of healthy pride and gratitude, and that encourages you to do another and another.
In his 1999 book Growing the Life of Faith, the practical theologian Craig Dykstra wrote that faith is, “primarily a response to a gift, an activity of recognizing and accepting God’s grace, which gives rise to a way of life—a way of believing, trusting, committing, and orienting all of one’s thoughts and actions.” 3
What are the everyday, small activities that help you to recognize and accept God’s grace?
Many are things I can’t tell you. They will be unique to you, to your needs, relationships, your abilities, and your personality. But let me share several small things that each of us can commit to in the year ahead.
1) Worship weekly together. It takes more intentionality today than ever to worship each week, and fewer people are doing it. Worship is a choice, and yet it is the central choice that nourishes our faith, connects us to others, and brings us into the presence of God. Worship weekly together.
2) Participate in Bible study. The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are God’s gift to us, as puzzling and hard to understand as they are. With the Spirit’s help, and a community of readers, they are a trustworthy guide as we wrestle the deep questions of life and faith. Participate in Bible study.
3) Pray. Faith boils down to a relationship, and every relationship lives on conversation. Prayer, in all its forms, is the basic conversation of faith that nurtures
a relationship with God. In whatever way fits you, pray.
4) Encourage others, especially when they fail. Life is hard, growing up is hard, adulting is hard, getting old is hard. All of us need encouragement, especially when our confidence and self-worth takes a hit. Encourage others, especially when they fail.
5) Serve those who are in need and in distress. These are the ones Jesus sought out. Care for the homeless and the poor, the rejected and the dejected. Speak up for the ones who need a voice. Visit the sick or the lonely. Listen carefully to another’s story. Serve those in need and in distress.
6) Be generous. Today, our congregation celebrates that we are more than 92% of the way to our financial goal for 2023. The cutout connected people hanging in the narthex remind us of that we are in this together. Generosity is a small sign of faithfulness. Continue to be generous in every way, to this congregation and to anyone in need or who is doing good work in God’s good world. We tell the story of God’s abundance when we share. Be generous.
Every one of these small things, and the many other small things that you might put on your own list, are steps on the way of our baptism. Together, these many small things give rise to a way of life that recognizes and accepts God’s grace in everyday life.
Be faithful in small things. Start early and do them often. Walk in the light. Live as one who is baptized in Christ.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
2 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew 1-12: The Christbook