Baptism of Our Lord
When I talk with the young people of our congregation who are in high school, I often ask them what they are thinking about doing after high school. Frequently their assumption is that they will be going to college. And then I ask, “So do you have an idea of what you want to study – what you think you may want to do after college?”
It’s a reasonable question. It’s also one that really does interest me. It’s fascinating to hear what different young individuals are thinking about doing. Sometimes, however, it feels like it was the wrong question to ask. Because sometimes the answer is that the youth really doesn’t know right now.
Now there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. As adults we recognize that not everyone finds their passion and interest right out of the gate. Sometimes maturity and life experiences are necessary to help reveal this.
But part of me always feels a little regret that my well intentioned question has accidently prompted the youth to state that they don’t know what they want to do. I know that this uncertainty is a source of stress – stress that becomes more intense as they approach high school graduation.
It’s hard when you don’t know what you want to do; what you want to study. High school graduation approaches with unrelenting certainty. And of course, the same thing also happens in college. It approaches with changes that cannot be avoided. It can be scary if you don’t know what you are going to do.
Life is easier when we have a sense of purpose – when we have a goal that we are working towards. In high school, I knew exactly what I was going to do. It was the same thing I had wanted to do since first grade – I was going to be a pastor. People around me knew this. The only hiccup was when the school paper ran an article about the valedictorians and salutatorians (a B+ in typing for this guy) and said that I would be attending Concordia College in a “priest seminary” program instead of a “pre-seminary” one. The last thing I wanted was for every girl in high school to think that my goal was permanent celibacy!
John the Baptist did not have any uncertainty about what he was supposed to do with his life. As we know from Luke’s Gospel, already in the womb the Holy Spirit was using him to point to God’s Christ. His father Zechariah had been moved by the Holy Spirit to prophesy about what John would do.
Matthew begins telling us about John by saying, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” The words “in those days” resonate with the end time language of the Old Testament prophets. John arrived on the scene as part of God’s end time action.
John had no doubt about who he was and what he had come to do. He was God’s prophet declaring God’s Word to his people. John dressed and lived the part. He looked like Elijah as he wore a leather belt and camel’s hair. He lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey. And he proclaimed a direct and clear message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
John declared that God’s end time reign was imminent. In preparation people needed to repent. They needed to confess their sin and turn away from it. He administered a baptism and by submitting to this baptism people demonstrated that they were indeed repentant and were looking for God to act.
John knew that he had one purpose. He was preparing the way for the coming One – the One who was greater than John. 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 all needed to repent because this coming One was going to be the instrument of God’s end time judgment. He was going to destroy all who opposed God, and he was going to provide rescue to God’s faithful people. He was going to bring God’s kingdom – his reign – as he destroyed all evil and put all things right.
With laser like focus John the Baptist knew his mission. But next we hear in the Gospel lesson for the Baptism of Our Lord: “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.’”
Jesus the coming One showed up. But instead of unloading the fire of God’s judgment upon unrepentant sinners, he came to John and asked to receive John’s baptism. Jesus sought to receive the baptism that was for repentance. He came to receive the baptism that everyone else was receiving as they confessed their sins.
This did not fit with John’s purpose. It didn’t fit his mission. This was not how things were supposed to work. In fact John tried to prevent it from happening. He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus answer was to say, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He told John that they both had a role to play in the way that God was putting all things right. John’s role was to baptize. Jesus’ role was to be baptized – to receive a baptism of repentance.
No doubt baffled and confused, John consented. He baptized Jesus. 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.’” Jesus’ baptism prompted a revelation by God. The heavens were opened and the Spirit descended upon Jesus. And God the Father spoke words that were drawn from Isaiah chapter 42 as he declared Jesus to be his Son with whom he was well pleased.
The problem with God is that he just won’t behave. We know what he should be doing. He should be making my life good. He should be making me happy. He should be giving me success. After all he is all powerful – he can do whatever he wants!
And yet instead he allows hardships and difficulties into life. A family member or friend is diagnosed with cancer, or their marriage disintegrates, or they lose their job. Chronic health problems wear on us as they drag on day after day. Jobs become just work and yet retirement is still so far off.
Our reaction to these kinds of things is quite predictable. We doubt God. We grumble against God. We get angry with God.
But God is God, and he is not playing by our rules. He does things in ways that we don’t expect – ways that we would never imagine. His loving concern for us and our welfare rises above the myopic and self-centered way that we usually look at things.
And if you want proof of this fact; if you want assurance that God still cares and is in charge, even though things in your life right now make no sense to you – then look at who is in the water. Jesus receives a baptism for those who need to repent, even though he has done nothing wrong. He is baptized and the Father speaks words that describe the Servant in Isaiah chapter 42. He identifies Jesus who is the Christ as the One who is also the Servant – the Servant of the Lord who suffers in our place. He is the One of whom the prophet wrote, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus goes into the water of his baptism and it is his entrance into a way that leads directly to the cross. He is baptized because as Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is not something that John the Baptist expects. This is not how John the Baptist believes things are going to work. Frankly, the way of suffering, service and death is not how we would do things. But God does it this way in order to forgive you for all of the times you doubt, ignore or get angry at him.
Jesus’ baptism leads to death and the tomb. But it also leads out of the tomb on the third day. By his death and resurrection Jesus has defeated both sin and death. In his resurrection he has provided a living hope that sustains us in faith as we encounter all of the things in life that we don’t understand.
Jesus’ baptism led to his resurrection, and from there it has led to your baptism. Jesus entered into the water in order to die for you. And in the water of your baptism, you have shared in Jesus’ saving death. 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.” And because Jesus rose from his death, your baptism provides the guarantee that you will too. As Paul went on to say about baptism, “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.”
In the face of all of the questions and disappointments and hardships your baptism provides a fixed point of assurance about God and you. It is your connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that event in which it looked like God was nowhere to be found and yet it showed itself to be the mighty and saving action of God for you. Your baptism is always there, always affirming that yes, God does love you. Yes, God does care for you. Yes, Gods knows what he is doing even thought it makes no sense to you right now.
God has not promised that we are going to understand what he is doing. In fact, quite the opposite, he has told us flat out that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has done the one big thing that seemed to make no sense. And then in the resurrection God has explained to us what he was doing. By this action he has given us forgiveness and made us his people – his saints. And because he has done this we can trust and believe in him no matter what happens.