Baptism of Our Lord
It’s safe to say that last Sunday didn’t exactly go as I expected. As I talked with various church leaders about the weather forecast and how we should handle services, it was very hard to know what to do. The weather forecast that the city of Marion was receiving from the Emergency Management Agency via the National Weather Service indicated that when the 7:45 a.m. service began there would be some mixture of rain or ice followed by one to three inches of snow on the ground. Then during the time of the Sunday school, Bible class and the 10:15 a.m. service the worst of the storm was supposed to arrive. All told they were predicting five to ten inches of snow with high winds creating drifts.
It was very difficult to know what to do. The timing of the storm meant that there was no way to know what was actually happening until it was already time for the first service. The timing also meant that we wouldn’t be able to have the parking lot cleared. We knew that most people would not try to come to church if the weather looked bad. But if we were having services, there would be some people who would still come, and the last thing I wanted to see was a member get into an accident or fall here at church. And so we made the decision to cancel services. But let the record show that Frank Glaub was the one church leader I talked to who said we should just go ahead with services no matter what happened.
Needless to say, I was not happy about cancelling services. I sent out emails and posted it on Facebook. I was concerned that not everyone would learn about the cancellation, but figured that with a 100% chance of heavy snow it wouldn’t really matter. And so I found myself in a situation I’ve never experienced before. I went to bed in Marion on a Saturday night knowing that I could sleep in on Sunday morning.
I was in fact asleep on Sunday morning when Matthew came rushing into our room and exclaimed: “Mom and dad, there’s no snow!” And at that moment, I wished that the bed would just swallow me up. When Sunday morning arrived, it did not turn out to be anything like I expected it to be.
This morning we are celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. We hear about what happened when Jesus came to John the Baptist at the Jordan River, and we learn that it too did not turn out to be anything like John expected.
John the Baptist showed up in the wilderness along the Jordan River and caused quite a stir. He dressed in ways that recalled the prophet Elijah as he wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. Like a number of the Old Testament prophets, he seemed a little odd as his food was locusts and wild honey.
However, John had a powerful message. He proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God stands near!” John announced that God’s end-time reign was imminent. He told of a powerful figure who was coming. This one was going to bring God’s end-time judgment. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John’s message was powerful. And the people responded. Matthew tells us, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” John called the people to repentance. He called them to confess their sins in preparation for the arrival of the judgment. He administered a baptism in the Jordan by which people demonstrated that they were repentant and that they were looking for the arrival of God’s reign that John was proclaiming.
This is the setting in which our text takes place. We hear: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, 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 thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” The coming one – the instrument of God’s judgment proclaimed by John - showed up. And what did he do? He asked to be baptized by John. He asked to receive what John described as a baptism for repentance.
This was not what John expected about the arrival of the coming one. Fire and judgment on God’s enemies and sinners? Yes. Being baptized like a sinner? Definitely no. And so at first John tried to prevent it from happening. However Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Now as I have described in this month’s news letter, from Isaiah and the Psalms we learn that God’s righteousness means not just the status before God from living rightly – a status that God gives to us on account of Christ. Instead, in an even broader sense it describes God’s end-time saving action. Jesus was saying that his baptism by John was necessary for the accomplishment of this salvation.
John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Then we are told: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Three remarkable things happened: the heavens were opened; Jesus saw the Spirit descend upon himself like a dove; and God the Father’s voice was heard calling Jesus his Son in whom he was well pleased.
These last two tell us exactly what was happening. At the beginning of Isaiah chapter 42 God had said: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
At Jesus’ baptism the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father identified Jesus as the Servant who is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. This is something that Matthew makes extremely clear by twice quoting Isaiah’ servant prophecies and saying that they were fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus enters the water of the Jordan to be identified as the Servant of the Lord. He goes there to be designated as the One who will be the suffering Servant. He goes there so that he can be the fulfillment of the words: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
Jesus goes to his baptism in order to take your place. That is what is happening in our text this morning. Our Lord goes in into the water in order to take your place; in order to take on your sins. And when he emerges from the water his ministry is directed towards one goal. It is directed towards the cross, for there by his death he will win forgiveness for all of your sins.
Jesus goes into the water because you have anger and hate towards other people. He goes into the water because you put yourself first – before God, and before your spouse and children. He goes into the water because you don’t trust God to care for you, and because you complain that the ways which he provides aren’t good enough.
Jesus steps into your place and takes these and every other way you sin against the holy God upon himself. And then on the cross he received God’s judgment against your sin. He was pierced for your transgression. He was crushed for your iniquities. By his bloody wounds and death you receive the healing of forgiveness. He did this. And then on the third day he rose from the dead. He defeated the final wages of sin – death.
Like Jesus, you have been baptized too. Yet your baptism did something very different. Through your baptism, you came to share in this saving death of Jesus Christ. His suffering and death for your sins became yours. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Through water and the Word, the baptismal font was a tomb. You were buried with Christ, sharing in his saving death. But at the same time, the baptismal fount was a womb. There you received spiritual rebirth. There you were linked to the new life of the resurrection through the work of Christ’s Spirit.
Paul says that this means two things for you. First, the life giving Spirit of Christ enables you to walk in newness of life. The Spirit is the resurrection life of Christ already at work in you. The Spirit’s work grounded in baptism is the reason that, in spite of the old man that is still present too, you can begin to show forgiveness and love towards those who wrong you. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, your baptism is the reason that you can begin to put your spouse and children first – just as Jesus Christ put you first. This is the reason that you can begin to trust God more and more in the midst of life’s uncertainties, even as you recognize and give thanks for the many blessings he provides.
And second, your baptism is the guarantee that you will share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day. You have already died. You died with Christ in your baptism and you were buried with him. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ did not stay dead. Instead, on Easter he rose from the dead with a transformed body that can never die again. And because in baptism you have shared in Jesus death, you know that you will share in the resurrection of the risen One when he returns in glory on the Last Day. Your baptism will reach its ultimate conclusion on that day when Christ raises you up to live in the new creation.