It was an old-fashioned tap-off. Sammy Davis, Jr. against Gregory Hines, 40 years Sammy’s junior. I watched, moved, knowing Sammy was gravely ill and about two weeks from death.
The biography playing on TV showed the results of the dance-off: Gregory was so honored and so in awe of Sammy’s skills, he dropped on his face and kissed Sammy’s tap shoes.
The dramatic gesture got me thinking about shoes and standing in awe. Wasn’t John the Baptist the one who said he wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal? But when Jesus came to John for the purpose of baptism, what made John think he was qualified to deter Jesus Christ from this act of obedience?
He felt unworthy.
What Is Righteousness?
Jesus didn’t laugh or scoff at John. He didn’t tell him, “You better believe you’re unworthy!” No, instead He told John this baptism helped fulfill all righteousness. (Matthew 3:13-17)
The people who saw and heard Jesus talking to John about righteousness probably believed that fancy word meant living a good life, obeying the laws — that sort of stuff. A righteous dude is someone who won’t do another fella wrong. Someone you can count on. Someone you want to have on your side.
All of that applies to Jesus of Nazareth in spades. But for the Messiah, the Son of God, being righteous wasn’t just about being good and doing right. It meant being right with God.
That definition didn’t appear out of thin air the moment John and Jesus stepped into the river. It’s been around all along.
Way back in Old Testament days, the author of Proverbs 11:4 said, “Righteousness delivers from death.”
He didn’t have to add:
Being good does not deliver from death.
Obeying the law does not deliver from death.
Being a solid citizen does not deliver from death.
But being right with God ― now we’re getting somewhere!
So what Jesus said to John is, “This is how we are going to put things right between people and God.”
The Messiah stepped in on our behalf to save us from sin and death. He knows none of us is worthy. He knows we need His righteousness. And with His baptism, Jesus continued the journey He began in a manger in Bethlehem. He took one more step toward becoming one of us — one more step toward the cross.
When I first wrote this, I said, “And so Jesus shows us the way of righteousness.” But that’s not the whole story. Jesus creates righteousness for us. Jesus is our righteousness.
You’re Not Worthy
I imagine anybody close enough to hear Jesus and John talking sort of yawned and looked around at each other, shrugged and said, “Well, so what else is new?”
Or, “Here we go again. Ol’ John’s brought us out here to listen to yet another guy give a series of speeches about how important it is to be good. We might as well be home making burnt offerings to graven images for all the good this is doing us.”
Everybody’s hanging around, waiting for something life-changing to happen, but really sort of hoping everything stays the same.
And to be fair, so far there hadn’t been any real surprises. As jazz musicians say, Jesus is laying it down, but John ain’t picking it up. John is tuning up for that old, worn-out standard: “I’m Not Worthy!”
This is where Jesus breaks through all the tried-and-true, saying, “Of course you’re not worthy! John, buddy, nobody ever accused you of being worthy! This isn’t about you being worthy, this is about Me being the Son of God. So now, you just go where God leads. Then you won’t have to worry about being worthy. You’ll be righteous. I’ll make you righteous, I’ll make you right with God.”
It was true for John then, and it’s true for us now:
Jesus is always standing before us, waiting for us to do as He calls upon us to do.
Jesus is always ready to come into the parts of our lives where we have shut Him out.
No matter how hesitant we are, Jesus is never in doubt.
No matter how unworthy we feel, Jesus is ready to be baptized for us, live for us, die for us, and rise to glory for us and with us.
Jesus says, “Let it be so now. Let it be so tomorrow. Let it be so for the rest of your life, and for the life eternal. For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
It’s in remembering this I realize I’m Gregory Hines and John wrapped up in one, unworthy man, kissing the feet of the only One who stands worthy.