The Baptism of Our Lord, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
As Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John had to have wondered, “What’s He doing here?”
He’s so puzzled that he tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized.
In Jesus’ answer to John, and in the events that follow, we learn that Jesus came to take our place and bring God’s end-time salvation.
John the Baptist showed up in the Judean wilderness along the Jordan River and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
Matthew tells us that people were baptized by John as they confessed their sins.
John called all people to repent, because he said that God’s kingdom—God’s reign—was about to arrive and everyone needed to be ready.
In the verses immediately before today’s Gospel lesson, John says, “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 his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
It was clear that this coming reign of God would bring the judgment of the Last Day.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn that Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee in order to be baptized by John.
John’s giving a baptism for repentance to people who come there confessing their sins. And now Jesus comes to receive this baptism.
He comes to John in order to be treated like a sinner.
Why? It makes no sense.
And so, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).
What business did Jesus have being baptized?
Why would the One who brings the judgment of the Last Day stand in the place of sinners?
Jesus’ response to John begins to explain it.
He says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Baptism is meant for sinners—that’s why and who John was Baptizing.
Jesus needs to be Baptized—but not because He’s a sinner.
“Let it be so now…” Jesus says, meaning that He doesn’t need Baptism for the same reason everyone else does—because we’re sinners—but because the baptism of Jesus is necessary for God’s salvation.
He says, “…for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
In the Psalms and in Isaiah, God’s righteousness is often set in parallel to God’s salvation.
”The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:2).
This is how Hebrew poetry often works. Hebrew parallelism says the same thing in different ways to add depth and nuance to our understanding of God.
”I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Isaiah 46:13).
”My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed” (Isaiah 51:5-6).
”My mouth shall tell of your righteousness, and of your salvation all day long; For I do not know the sum of them” (Psalm 71:15).
”He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head…” (Isaiah 59:17).
God’s righteousness is His saving action to put all things right—an action that includes the whole of creation.
John and Jesus each had a role to play. John was there to baptize. Jesus was there to be baptized.
Jesus enters into the waters of repentance willingly—insisting up on it, even.
You, on the other hand, don’t want any part of that water—not really.
You don’t want to confess what you’ve done wrong, you’d rather talk about how you’ve been wronged.
You don’t want to confess what you’ve said, you’d rather talk about what other people have said.
You don’t want to confess how you’ve failed to serve, because you’d rather be served.
No one wants to stand in the place of sinners.
So, in mercy, God sent His Son into the world, to redeem it.
Jesus stands in the place of sinners, to be Baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. To save us.
And then, in what follows, we learn what exactly this means for you.
St. Matthew writes “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’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus.
God the Father says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
These words are taken from Isaiah chapter 42, and are quoted about Jesus later in Matthew.
But there, in Isaiah, we hear: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the [Gentiles]” (Isaiah 42:1).
At His baptism, Jesus enters into the waters of repentance to take on the role of the Servant of the Lord for you.
Jesus—the sinless One—identifies himself with you—the sinner—and He takes your place.
From you, He takes away your sins, to carry them to the cross.
For you, He fulfills all righteousness by dying.
Jesus is the suffering Servant, wounded for your transgressions and crushed for your iniquities.
He is the One who gives His life as a ransom for many.
Too often, our preaching and teaching stops there.
Christians have more to say. More to look forward to.
We must not forget:
On the third day, God the Father, by the Spirit, raised Jesus from the dead.
Here we see it plainly: God’s righteousness means putting all things right.
The crucified and risen One has won forgiveness for all who believe in Him. And in His resurrection—we see what the Last Day looks like.
Jesus’ baptism sets Him on the path to cross and resurrection.
In your baptism, you receive a share in His death, and a share in His resurrection.
His resurrection is a fact.
Yours will come on the Last Day.
But it’s true even now.
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? 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.
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” (Romans 6:3-5).
Through baptism you share in the saving death of Jesus.
So when you stumble in the struggle against sin—or when you fall—you know that in repentance and faith there is forgiveness present for you.
In repentance, you confess your sins to God.
And in faith, you return to the water of your baptism.
You return to the day God chose you for salvation.
The crucifixion of Jesus—when He earned it.
And your Baptism—when God gave it to you.
Trust God’s promise about what He did in your baptism, and know that you have exactly what His word says: the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.
Jesus emerged from the water of the Jordan to live for you.
When you return to the water of your baptism, you emerge to live in ways that follow Jesus.
Luther, in the Small Catechism, writes that baptizing with water “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Today we see Jesus in the water of the Jordan.
But we don’t ask “What’s He doing here?”
Because of the words of Jesus, the descent of the Spirit, and the words of the Father we know exactly why He’s there:
To take our place—that we can have a place with God.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
This sermon borrows from one preached by Rev. Mark Surburg, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church–Marion, Illinois.