Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
The church year is divided in two halves. We’re now in the half where our Sunday Gospel texts focus on the earthly life of Jesus. We’ve thought again about his conception and birth. Last Sunday was Epiphany, when the gospel text reminded us of the wise men who followed a star to the manger in Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus.
This morning, we come to his baptism. We may wonder why he wanted to be baptized in the first place. Even John the Baptist didn’t understand right away, for he believed that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, yet Jesus was coming to him.
First of all, Jesus began his public ministry with his baptism. Immediately after that, he spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness in a conflict with Satan, then he began to preach and call his first disciples. He soon started healing sick people and becoming known in Israel.
All three persons of the Trinity appeared at his baptism. His Heavenly Father identified him as his Son. The Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove. Jesus’ baptism shows everyone that he has dedicated his life as a man to God: his Father is pleased with him. The Father loves righteousness and holiness and here he proclaims that Jesus brings these qualities into the world in full and that he will be able to carry out his important, saving work.
John the Baptist acts as a witness, our representative. He said at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “I myself did not know him.” But now, after hearing the Heavenly Father’s voice and seeing the Spirit in the form of a dove and remain on Jesus, he says: “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
At Jesus’ baptism, God puts his seal of approval on the ministry his Son is about to begin.
Why didn’t he make the announcement another way? After all, baptism cleanses sinners and Jesus didn’t sin at all, not even once. Why would he ask for a ritual that didn’t seem to apply to him? The answer involves one of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith. Everything we are and everything we have and everything we know about ourselves comes from God. Every person on earth has a relationship with him. God intends our bond with him to be harmonious and fruitful, but all men and women are sinners. We know this from Scripture and our minds tell us. God wishes to deliver us from sin, however, so that that we may live fruitful lives, with joy in him and in harmony with each other. He wishes us to live creatively, without the terrible burdens of guilt and lack of self-confidence. He intends to continue the abundant life he wants to give us throughout all eternity. Our new lives can’t take place, however, until sin has been wiped out, so he sent his Son to earth to solve the problem of sin. Since he brought healing and salvation to the human race, Jesus needed to identify with us in every way. He took on our cloak of sin, so to speak, so that we wouldn’t have to wear it any more, at least in the eyes of God. Also, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of sinners partly because every good leader sets an example; he doesn’t ask his followers to do something that he himself wouldn’t do.
So Jesus asked John to baptize him so that he could take part in full in the mystery of God’s complete union with mankind. Paul described the mystery this way in 2nd Corinthians: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is what happened, then. God demands righteousness of all people. He knows we can’t fulfil his demand because sin has deeply corrupted our natures, so God became sin for us so that he could forgive our sinful natures completely and so that we might become the righteousness he’s looking for. We don’t need to understand how it works. We need to know only the effect of the mystery: the work Jesus began when he took on our flesh and that he continued in his baptism and finished on Calvary. He brought our envy and anger, our pride and backbiting, the sins that ruin lives and separate people from God, to Calvary to enliven our relationship with God and rebuild our lives.
So Jesus’ baptism benefits us. The 6th chapter of Romans helps us understand our connection with it. Paul wrote that believers – you and I – have died to sin because Jesus died for all sinners. Christians have the power and freedom to die every day to sin by subduing our sinful natures with God’s help. God pledges that in our baptisms the blessings of Christ come to each of us. Christ’s death for sin is also our death. Paul said that everyone who is baptized into Christ is baptized into his death. His resurrection life is our life. Jesus died for us so that the separation of the body from the soul isn’t the end of everything but the beginning of a new life. Baptism is God’s way of bringing us into a personal relationship with Jesus’ life – his power and his love. God claims us in baptism just as he expressed his relationship with his Son at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” he said, “with whom I am well-pleased.” God claims you and me to participate in every blessing that comes to the human race as a result of Jesus’ life and death.
I looked into Luther’s large catechism to understand better what baptism means for us. Luther wrote that baptism is God’s work, not a human institution. He said that the purpose of baptism is to save. Jesus said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” People don’t receive baptism, Luther wrote, so as to become princes, but to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to become members of the kingdom of Christ and to live with him forever.
Luther also said that faith alone enables a person to receive the benefits of baptism. Faith helps us understand what baptism means. There’s enough in baptism for every Christian to study, Luther said, to keep us busy for a lifetime. Christians have enough to do to believe the promises and blessings of our baptisms – victory over death and the devil, the forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit with all his gifts.
Luther tells us that to appreciate baptism and to use it correctly, we need to draw strength and comfort from it, especially when memories of our sins or guilty consciences distress us. At such times we say, “But I am baptized. And since I’m baptized, I have the promise that I’ll be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” Reminders of baptism reassure us of God’s loving disposition toward us.
Luther described the effect of baptism in another way as well. He said that baptism means slaying the old Adam and the resurrection of a new man or woman. Two actions take place every day throughout our lives – the slaying of our desire for sin and the birth of new life. Luther said the Christian life is a daily baptism that began once and continues throughout our lives. We drown whatever is born in us from Adam – irascibility, spitefulness, envy, lack of chastity, greed, laziness, pride, and unbelief and enter Christ’s kingdom. The longer we live there the more we become gentle, patient, and meek, and free of vices that corrupt the soul.
Baptism remains forever, Luther said. Even though we fall into sin, we have access to our baptisms so that we subdue our sinful side again and again and abide in faith every day with its fruits and blessings. We have God’s forgiveness each day for as long as we live on this earth.
Jesus lived by the promises his Heavenly Father gave him at his baptism. He imparts a share of his staying power to us. Our baptisms tie us to Christ, in whom we find forgiveness, freedom, and strength. The effects of the baptism he received in the Jordan reach us today. May we continue to receive the blessings of the wonderful gift of baptism – his and ours – today and all our tomorrows. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.