Baptism of our Lord
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
John the Baptist is back again. You remember him from Advent, the one preparing the way of the Lord, the one who proclaimed to those who came out to him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, the unquenchable fire?” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” With such words, John the Baptist reminds us that the Christian faith is not always about being nice–though, of course, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love. However, love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. And the truth about our sin is not something we want to hear. The old Adam only wants to hear the truth in watered-down and corrupted form. “Sure you’ve made mistakes and have your failings, but if you try hard to do what’s right, if your intentions are good, God won’t hold it against you. Besides, your sins aren’t really that bad. Nobody’s perfect.” That’s the kind of talk that the old Adam is drawn to and that he himself engages in; for then he can still find his security in himself and not in God alone. John won’t let us get away with that.
Now it is true that, according to Scripture, we are to speak the truth in love. Our purpose in speaking the truth is always to be for the good of the one who is hearing us; that’s love’s goal. But hearing the truth about sin, hearing the call to repentance rarely seems loving at the time. It sounds like judgmentalism and an attack. We put up our walls and instantly start blaming the messenger of the truth. But the reality is that John the Baptist actually was speaking the truth in love when he called those coming out to him a brood of vipers, children of the snake of Eden. For only when they had come to truly see their deathly spiritual condition would they desire the holy cure in Christ and penitently receive His kingdom of pure grace.
And the same is true for us yet today. John’s voice still rings through the centuries, calling us away from the fatal loves of this world, from taking refuge in our family heritage or our own spiritual efforts and self-justifications. He turns us from the way of death, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus the King is here in His words and the sacraments. Receive Him in humble repentance. Find your life in Him alone.
It’s important that we begin today by remembering all of this about John’s baptism, that it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. For only then can we begin to understand what’s going on here in today’s Gospel. John prepared the way of the Lord, but even he didn’t fully grasp the ways of the Lord. John seems shocked when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, and it is written that John tried to prevent Him, to stop Him from being baptized! “What are you doing, Jesus? This is a baptism for those who need to repent. This is a baptism for sinners in need of forgiveness, not for You, the sinless Son of God. I should be the one being baptized by You! Why are you coming to me? This seems all wrong and improper and upside down.”
But Jesus responds, “Permit it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is proper; this is right. For this is why I have come–to stand with sinners in order to save sinners.
A pastor friend of mine described what Jesus was doing as a divine trespass. Usually when we think of trespasses and sins, we think of how we’ve crossed over a boundary and have gone where we shouldn’t go. By crossing the line, we attempt to enter into God’s territory and do things our own way as if we’re in charge. But here Jesus does just the opposite. He crosses out of divine territory and into the territory of fallen man. He trespasses for our good out of His realm as God into the mud and muck of our sin as fallen creatures. He doesn’t just make Himself to be like us by becoming human–that we celebrated at Christmas. Now He goes the final step, the full trespass, and He makes Himself like us by even allowing Himself to be dirtied with our sin.
Today, the Son of God is numbered with the trespassers, so that we trespassers may be restored to being children of God. Saying it most starkly, today Jesus becomes Sin with a capital S. And if that sounds blasphemous, listen again to these words from 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus became a sinner so that you would become saints. He had no sin of His own; but He made your sin His own, as if He had committed it all. Isn’t that what John said after Jesus baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” You might say that Jesus stole your sins from you; He took them away. The only way they can damn you now is if you steal them back and insist on continuing in them and keeping them away from Jesus. Either your sins are on Him or they’re on you. And Jesus says today, “They’re all on me. I took them. Believe that; deal with it. You don’t get to hold on to them any more; you don’t get to keep beating yourself up over them. I became your pride, your greed, your lust, your immorality, your jealousy, your impatience, your laziness and weakness. And in turn you have become My righteousness, My holiness, My glory. Today I begin My sacred journey toward Calvary, bearing and carrying the sin of the world, so that I may destroy it there by My death and the shedding of My blood.”
You see, at His baptism Jesus was not just interacting in some shallow way with the common man. He is not like Hollywood actors or politicians who go and serve at the local soup kitchen to “identify” with those less fortunate than themselves. Rather, Jesus is more like a very rich man who gives up all his advantages and stands in line with the beggars, and becomes dirt poor and dirty Himself. He goes so far as to take your place and put Himself into your bondage in order that He might burst the bars of your captivity and conquer your satanic captor. As Isaiah prophesied, God’s Servant Jesus will “bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” Our Lord’s Baptism and His holy cross are inseparably connected. For on both occasions He is there as your substitute. He trades places with you to set you free from the power of death and to give you the glorious liberty of His everlasting life.
This is why we hold baptism in such high regard. This is why it is such a powerful act of God and a true Sacrament. Our Lord Jesus has put Himself into it! He who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross has “trespassed” into the water and sanctified it with His real presence. Christ is in the water to make baptism a fountain of grace and forgiveness and life. Baptism and the cross still go together, for your salvation, even as they call you to die to yourself and rise with Christ to newness of life.
There are those who hold baptism in low esteem and consider it to be a mere ceremony or human act of dedication. They say that Jesus was merely setting an example for us here. And so the Small Catechism poses the question, “How can water do such great things?” like rescuing from death and the devil and giving eternal salvation to all who believe. The answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.” Do you see? It's not mere water that does these wonderful things. It is the Word of God that is in the water that is the key thing, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, whom our hearts cling to and trust in. His presence makes baptism a life-giving, faith creating event. As Titus chapter three says, “[God the Father] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” He who needed no baptism put Himself into the River in order that your baptism might be a holy cleansing. What was washed away from you in your baptism was washed onto Jesus and absorbed by Him in His baptism, that He might take it away from you and conquer it forever.
That’s why the heavenly Father is so pleased with His Son here. Jesus faithfully and humbly obeys His Father and gives Himself in love to accomplish your redemption. And therefore, in Jesus, the Father is perfectly pleased with you as well. At the holy font you truly were Christened, incorporated into Christ’s body, made to be the temple of the Holy Spirit that descended upon His body. You’ve become part of the divine family, children of the heavenly Father. For it is written, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” No longer are you the brood and offspring of the serpent. You are sons of God in Christ, forgiven and redeemed and holy children, well-pleasing to Him in Jesus. God the Father is happy with you; He rejoices in you, His baptized ones.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, heaven has been opened to you. The “No Trespassing” sign for sinners has been torn down. You’re allowed in because of the Divine Trespass of Jesus. You have crossed the Jordan with Jesus into the Promised Land. This is real. You are a child of God in Jesus. You are precious in God’s sight. You are His beloved. Stay close to the river of baptism. Come back to it daily in repentance and faith. For your Life, your Jesus, is in the water.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠