Baptism of Our Lord
Americans shower or bathe, on average just about once a day. It wasn’t always this way. In fact it is only in the mid-twentieth century that frequent showering and bathing became common. In part the change was linked to the widespread arrival of indoor plumbing and the general movement from farm to city life.
But it appears that the increase in frequency was also driven by the efforts of soap manufacturers. Until the mid nineteenth century the word “soap” meant laundry soap, a caustic substance used for scrubbing dirty linens and clothes. A milder form was invented for use in cleaning the body and in order to distinguish this kind, it was called “toilet soap.” The use of this product in cleaning the body has since become so common that today we just call it “soap.”
Soap manufacturers sought to promote the use of their product. The Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers established the Cleanliness Institute in 1927. The institute sought to promote the idea of keeping clean … and hence the consumption of soap. The Cleanliness Institute targeted school children. As Vincent Vinikas has written, “No approach could better meet the industry’s ends than inculcating every youth in American to a tale of soap-and-water. Once habituated to regular and frequent consumption, the children could guarantee a market for years to come.”
Now perhaps I don’t really need to shower every day, as I do in my morning routine. On most occasions I am not actually dirty. But even apart from warm weather during the spring and summer, I do find that there are enough occasions when I perspire that I wouldn’t want to go around too long without showering. I don’t think it would take very many days before I would start to smell quite ripe. I take a shower to wash off all that sweat and everything that goes with it.
We go into water in order to remove dirt and sweat. We do it to get rid all that is unpleasant about it. But today, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, we see that Jesus went into the water of the Jordan in order to take on something. He went into the water to take on our sin and all of the terrible consequences that go with it. And because he did this, now he has given us a washing that removes sin and gives us life.
Our Gospel lesson today narrates the baptism of Jesus. It begins with the word “then,” and this of course signals to us that Jesus’ baptism has a relation to what has just been happening in the Gospel.
Matthew began this chapter by talking about the ministry of John the Baptist. He tells us, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As we heard during Advent, John the Baptist was the one whom several prophets in the Old Testament had foretold. He was sent by God to prepare the way for the Christ.
His ministry was a call to repentance. He told people to confess their sin because God’s end time judgment was about to arrive. The distinctive feature of his ministry was that John administered a baptism that he described as being “for repentance.” The act of being baptized by John demonstrated that a person repented of their sin and was looking for God’s end time salvation that was coming for his faithful people. 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.”
This is what was happening when Jesus showed up at the Jordan River. Matthew says in our text, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” Now keep in mind, Jesus was from Galilee which was in the northern part of Israel. He had to make a journey to the southern part of Israel in order to arrive at the location where John was baptizing. This was a very purposeful and intentional action. Jesus went to John in order to be baptized by him.
In the Gospel John had just spoken about the Christ. He 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 declared that he was nothing compared to the One coming after him. John baptized with water. But this coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. In his end time action, this One would pour out the Spirit on those who repented, and he would pour out the fire of judgment on those who did not.
John sets up this expectation about the coming One … and then Jesus shows up and asks to receive John’s baptism. He asks to receive John’s baptism for repentance – the one that people are receiving as they confess their sins. None of this made sense to John and so in fact he tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized. After all, as he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him and said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John relented. Jesus went down into the water and was baptized by John.
We learn in our text: “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.’”
When Jesus had been baptized the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and the voice of God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The words of the Father and giving of the Spirit are the fulfillment of what Isaiah wrote at the beginning of chapter 42: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” The Father identified Jesus as his Son – the One who is the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah’s prophecy. He designated him and endowed him for his work by sending the Holy Spirit upon him.
Jesus is the Servant of the Lord. And this means he is the suffering Servant. Matthew makes this explicit by saying in chapter 8 that Jesus fulfilled the words of Isaiah chapter 53. Jesus is the One of whom Isaiah wrote: “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 into the water to receive baptism – a baptism for repentance. He goes into the water in order to take on the roll of the suffering Servant. He goes into the water in order to take on your sins – in order to take your place. The water of Jesus’ baptism was filled with your sins. It was like the water in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – black and filled with fuel, garbage and debris. It was filled with all of the ways that you hurt your family members by what you say and do. It was filled with all of the lust in your heart that drives what you look at and do. It was filled with all of the coveting and jealousy that resides in you.
Jesus went into the water of his baptism in order take this all on himself – in order to take your place as the suffering Servant. He did this because he had come to bring you forgiveness and salvation. When John the Baptist tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus responded: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus said that John’s role was to baptize. Jesus’ role was to be baptized. And both of these actions served to fulfill all righteousness.
In the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is his saving action that puts things right. Psalm 98 says, “The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.” Jesus receives baptism and takes on the role of the suffering Servant in order to carry out God’s work of salvation. It is the first step as he makes his way to the cross to give his life as a ransom for many – as a ransom for you. On Good Friday he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he received God’s judgment against your sin.
But God’s righteousness – his saving action - could not end in death. And so on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He began the new life of the resurrection. And then, as the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus instituted the baptism that he gives. In the last chapter of this Gospel we find that Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus instituted Holy Baptism. The water that Jesus went into was filled with your sin. The water that Jesus now gives in Baptism through his Word is filled with forgiveness. It is a water that washes away your sins. It is a water that gives you the righteousness of God – that gives you his salvation.
That’s what happened when you were baptized. God washed away your sin because of Jesus. Your baptism happened once in the past. But the power of baptism is not trapped in the past. That’s what the medieval Church at the time of the Reformation thought – it’s what the Roman Catholic church still thinks today. This is the belief that baptism only forgives original sin and sins committed up to the time of baptism, and that it can’t help with any sins committed after that time.
But baptism is not limited in this way, because it connects you with the saving death of Jesus. 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, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” You have been joined to the saving death of Jesus. His sacrifice has become yours. And it is still yours because of baptism. That forgiveness and salvation is always there, ready to be grasped by faith.
Your baptism is an objective fact that never changes. It never goes away. The forgiveness and salvation won by Jesus on the cross has been given to you through water and the Word. That blessing is always there, ready to be received by faith because you have been baptized.
In the Gospel lesson we see Jesus go into the water as he receives John’s baptism for repentance. He enters into the water in order take on the role of the suffering Servant. He enters into the water to take your place. He takes up your sin so that he can fulfill all righteousness – so that he can bring God’s salvation by dying as the sacrifice for you. Now, in your baptism, he has washed your every sin away.