Baptism of Our Lord
I had trouble believing that it was really happening. I knew it was, because I could see it. But it was just hard to understand.
On Monday night I was keeping track of the College National Championship football game between Alabama and Clemson. I expected it to be a close game. I thought Clemson certainly had a chance to win, but Alabama was favored and I thought they probably would. After all, since coming to Alabama coach Nick Saban has won five national championships. He has built a juggernaut that recruits the best talent every year, and then Saban’s singular focus creates a football team that is always in contention for a national title. In particular, Saban – a coach with a background in defense – has fielded teams with stifling and overwhelming defenses.
But as the game progressed, I saw something I never thought would happen: Alabama was blown out. The final score was 44 to 16. Clemson did to Alabama, what Saban and Alabama have been doing to everyone else for a decade. They made Alabama looked bad and humiliated them on the biggest stage. I had trouble believing that it was really happening. I knew it was, because I could see it. But it was just hard to understand.
The same thoughts must have been going through John the Baptist’s mind that day at the Jordan River when Jesus approached him to receive John’s baptism. Matthew tells us that John had appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He announced a prophetic message of repentance, and he looked the part as he dressed like Elijah wearing a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. He lived off the land as he ate locusts and wild honey.
John got people’s attention. He announced that the reign of God was imminent – it was about to arrive – and that all people needed to repent in preparation for it. And the thing that was truly unique about John was the fact that he administered a washing – a baptism – to others. As I mentioned during Advent, ritual washings were common in Judaism. But they were all self administered. John’s baptism was something that he applied to others and it was so unusual that it gave John his nickname – “the Baptizer.”
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.” People confessed their sins, and showed that they were repentant and were looking for the arrival of God’s reign in faith by submitting to John’s baptism.
John was an impressive figure, but he minimized himself by saying he was just the forerunner. There was in fact someone even greater coming. 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’s language left no doubt about what this coming One was going to do. He was bringing God’s end time judgment.
Matthew begins out text by saying, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” Jesus made the trip from Galilee in the north of Israel to the area in the south where John was conducting his ministry. He made the trip for a reason – to submit to John’s baptism.
When Jesus showed up, John was utterly confused. In fact, he wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized as he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John knew Jesus to be the coming One that he was proclaiming. This was the One who was going to burn up sinners with the fire of God’s judgment. So why was he coming to the water of a baptism of repentance – something people were receiving as they confessed their sins?
Our Lord understood John’s confusion. He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus told John that they each had a role to play in order to fulfill God’s saving work to put all things right. This baptism he had come to receive was part of that saving work. So John consented and baptized Jesus.
Matthew tells us, “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.’” After Jesus was baptized, God acted. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, and God the Father spoke, identifying Jesus as his Son.
You have to sympathize with John the Baptist. Of course he was confused. After all, John recognized Jesus as the One who would bring God’s judgment against sinners. So why was Jesus acting like a sinner by coming to John for baptism? And as readers of the Gospel we know that our Lord had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the name Jesus – “Yahweh saves” – because he had come to bring the forgiveness of sins. So what was Jesus doing in that water?
The answer is to be found in Isaiah chapter 42. There through the prophet God says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” At the baptism of Jesus, God the Father spoke words based on this verse, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in order to identify him as the Servant of the Lord.
This happened in a setting where people were confessing their sin because it was the Servant’s job to bear the sins of all. In Isaiah chapter 53, the prophet said about the Servant, “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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We are like sheep that have gone astray. We know what God’s will is from his Word. Yet we choose to do things our own way. And sometimes it isn’t even a matter of choice. In spite of ourselves we end of doing those things that are wrong – those things we really don’t want to do. We don’t hallow God’s name by what we do. We hurt the people we love and care about.
Isaiah said that the Lord has laid on the Servant the iniquity of us all. That is why Jesus was in the water. He was there to take our place. Though sinless, he was there to take our sin as his own.
You can draw direct line from the water of Jesus’ baptism to the cross of Good Friday. From the moment he received John’s baptism, Jesus Christ had taken up the task of suffering and dying for your sin. Just before Holy Week, Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” By that death he has redeemed you from sin. He has freed you to be a forgiven child of God.
God warned Adam that if he disobeyed by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. Sin has brought death ever since. Your sin brought death to Jesus. But because he is the sinless Son of God, his death was the means by which God’s righteousness – his saving action to put all things right – was fulfilled. Because of his death for you, you are now forgiven. It does not matter what you have done. By confessing your sin and believing in Jesus Christ you sins are no more in God’s eyes.
But Jesus Christ’s death was not the end. Instead, he defeated death by passing through it. For on the third day the Spirit of God, who descended upon Jesus at his baptism, raised our Lord from the dead. He is now the risen Lord. And it is as the risen Lord that he instituted Holy Baptism. On mountain in Galilee he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Through his Word, Christ has taken water and made it the means by which we receive the benefit of the saving work he began in his own baptism. On the cross Jesus received the judgment against your sin. St. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Through the water of baptism you have shared in Jesus’ saving death. It has become yours, and so you have received the forgiveness he won. This is the promise of God’s Word. Through faith in God’s work of baptism, you have exactly what he says: the forgiveness of sins.
At his baptism, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and identified him as the Servant of the Lord. Through your baptism, you have received the Spirit of God. He worked regeneration through water and the word, and so now your baptism has become the source of your life that serves the Lord. Paul went on to say about baptism, “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.” Through baptism, you have received the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. He has made you a new creation in Christ, so that now through his work in you, you can walk in newness of life – so that you can live the life of the Spirit, the life of faith toward God and love for your neighbor.
John the Baptist was not wrong about Jesus when he described what the coming One is going to do. He didn’t understand that Jesus first had to suffer and die for all people – that he had to die on the cross, and that was why he had come to receive John’s baptism. But the risen and ascended Lord is the One who will return in glory on the Last Day. He will carry out the judgment as he clears his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn, but the burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
The comforting good news is that because Jesus was baptized to take on our sins and die on the cross, we are the wheat. Because we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we know that we are saints in God’s eyes – we are holy because in Christ we are forgiven. The day of our Lord’s return will be one of joy for us – a joy that we already have now because Jesus was baptized, and because we have been baptized.
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