Baptism of Our Lord
If you ask a person who is the greatest basketball player of all time, most likely the answer you will receive is Michael Jordan. There are certainly other players who can enter into the conversation, such as Bill Russell. But for the most part the consensus is that Jordan is best who has ever played the game.
When you consider Jordan’s accomplishments, it’s hard to argue against this conclusion. He won a NCAA championship at North Carolina by hitting the winning shot. He won two Olympic gold medals. He won six NBA championships in a pair of “three-peats” and was the Finals MVP in all six of them. He was a ten time NBA scoring champion and scored 32,292 points in his career which ranks him fourth all-time in NBA history as he averaged 30.1 points per game. And Jordan wasn’t just about offense. Nine times he was named to the NBA All Defense First Team and three times he led the NBA in steals.
When we think of Michael Jordan, we think of basketball and greatness. So, if you had attended a Birmingham Barons AA baseball game during the 1994 season you would have been excused for asking, “What in the world is he doing here?”
On Oct. 6, 1993 Jordan shocked the sports world by abruptly announcing his retirement from basketball. There were a number of contributing factors. Jordan had just finished his first NBA threepeat with the Chicago Bulls during 1991-1993. Set in the middle of all of this was the 1992 Olympic gold medal won by the first “Dream Team.” Jordan was worn down, and then in 1993 his father was murdered.
So what do you do when you are the greatest basketball player and you retire at the age of thirty one? Apparently, if you are Michael Jordan you try your hand at professional baseball. Jerry Reinsdorf owned the Chicago Bulls. He also owned the Chicago White Sox and he gave Jordan a spot at the White Sox’s AA affiliate in Birmingham, AL – presumably expecting that Jordan would get baseball out of his system and return to basketball with the Bulls.
For a season before coming out of retirement and back to basketball, Jordan rode the bus and played minor league baseball. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player. But as a baseball player … he was bad. He hit .202 with no power. Fans in Birmingham were thrilled to have Jordan on the team. But as they watched him make out after out, many of them must have wondered at some point, “What is he doing here?”
In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, John the Baptist has the same reaction. As Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John wonders, “What is he doing here?” In fact he is so puzzled that he tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. In Jesus’ answer to John, and in the events that followed at his baptism, we learn that Jesus Christ came to take our place and bring God’s end-time salvation.
John the Baptist showed up in the Judean wilderness along the Jordan River and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven stands near.” Matthew tells us that people were baptized by him as they confessed their sins. John called all people to repent, even the religious establishment. He did this because he said that God’s kingdom – his reign – was about to arrive and everyone needed to be ready.
John said that he was the forerunner of someone even greater. And it wasn’t too hard to figure out what was going to happen when this coming One arrived. Just before our text John says, “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 his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It was clear that this coming One would bring the judgment of the Last Day.
In our text we learn that Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee in order to be baptized by John. John is giving a baptism for repentance to people who come there confessing their sins. And now Jesus comes to receive this baptism! He comes to John in order to be treated like a sinner.
Why would Jesus do this? It made no sense. And so we hear in our text, “John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” What business did Jesus have being baptized? Why would the One who brings the judgment of the Last Day take his place where sinners stand?
Jesus’ response to John begins to explain things. He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus said it was this way now. In the word “now” our Lord acknowledges that things may not look like John expects. Yet in his next statement, he confirms that John is right about Jesus and that in fact the baptism of Jesus is necessary for God’s salvation.
Our Lord said, “thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Psalms and Isaiah God’s righteousness is often set in parallel to his salvation. His righteousness is his saving action to put all things right – an action that includes the whole of creation. Jesus said that it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. John and Jesus each had a role to play. John was there to baptize. Jesus was there to be baptized.
Jesus enters into the waters of repentance willingly – even insistently. You on the other hand don’t want any part of that water – not really. You don’t want to confess what you have done wrong, you would rather talk about how you have been wronged. You don’t want to confess what you have said, you would rather talk about what other people have said. You don’t want to confess how you have failed to serve, because you would rather be served.
It is because of you that Jesus comes to the water of repentance as he is baptized. And then in the events that followed the baptism we learn about what is happening and what it means for you. Matthew writes “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.’”
The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus. And then God the Father says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words are taken from Isaiah chapter 42, and are in fact quoted about Jesus later in the Gospel. There Isaiah writes, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.”
At this baptism, Jesus enters into the waters of repentance in order to take on the role of the Servant of the Lord for you. He, the sinless One, identifies himself with you the sinner and takes your place. He takes up your sins in order to carry them to the cross. For there he will fulfill all righteousness by dying for you. He will be the suffering Servant who was wounded for your transgressions and crushed for your iniquities. He will be the One who gives his life as a ransom for many.
But then, on the third day God the Father will raise him from the dead through the work of the Spirit. And in this event it will be clear that God’s righteousness is putting all things right. The crucified and risen One will have won forgiveness for all who believe in him and will have begun the Last Day by his resurrection.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River set him on the path that led to the cross and resurrection for you. In your baptism, you have now received a share in his death, and so you know that you will also share in Jesus’ resurrection when he returns. The apostle 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 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 baptism you have shared in Jesus’ saving death. Now, when you stumble in the struggle against sin – or just plain fall - you know that in repentance and faith there is forgiveness present for you. In repentance you confess your sins to God. And in faith you return to the water of your baptism. You return to the event by which you have shared in Jesus’ saving death. And because you trust God’s promise about what he did in your baptism, you know that you have exactly what his word says: forgiveness.
Jesus emerged from the water of the Jordan in order to live for you. And each time by returning to the water of your baptism, you emerge to live in ways that follow in the ways of Jesus. As Luther writes in the Small Catechism the baptizing with water “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Today we see Jesus in the water of the Jordan. But we don’t ask “What’s he doing here?” Because of the words of Jesus, the descent of the Spirit and the words of the Father we know why he is there. He is there to take our place so that we can be with God.