Baptism of the Lord

You may remember your family vacations with your children. Today more and more we fly to our vacation destinations, if we have the means. But when I was young, more often we drove.


To stay as long as possible at our vacation site, we compressed our drive home into a non-stop trip through the night. Toward the early morning hours, what we wanted most was to be out of that car. When we got home, the first thing I did, before anything else, was to go to the bathroom, let the hot water run in the shower, and stand under it for as long as I could. Then I found the words of my dad addressed to my complaint about the long drive to ring true: “Take a shower and you will feel like a new man, son.” 


Today our gospel lesson features the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist. Baptism has been compared with a bath. It’s an apt comparison. Water cleanses. Water refreshes and renews, just as I experienced after those long overnight drives home from vacation. 


Through the waters of baptism, the Gospel teaches us about a crisis we have in our standing before God. Because we have drifted away from God, because we have resisted God’s will and have violated God’s commandments, we stand before God as sinners. This is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. 


In the biblical imagination, sin stains; sin defiles. That is why the waters of baptism summon us, as it were, with these words: “Go down into the waters and wash. Emerge from the waters cleansed, refreshed and renewed.”  


Of course, we are speaking here in a spiritual sense. The author of First Peter tells us that we are not to think of baptism as the removal of dirt from the body, but as the pledge of a clear conscience towards God (1 Pet. 3:21). That is, not the removal of dirt, but the removal of guilt and thereby a clear conscience towards God. 


All that is good and is to be accepted with gratitude and a sense of relief. But when we return to our Gospel lesson, we see that it is Jesus who is about to be baptized by John. Do anyone see the incongruity here? 


Remember that John appeared in the desert preaching the message: “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins!” But Jesus has no need to repent; he has committed no sin. He has no guilt that needs to be removed. Consequently, John is just as perplexed as we are: “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14). 


What are we to make of this? What is happening here? 


Neither John nor Jesus gives us an explanation. Jesus only replies indirectly that it is “proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). 


These are the very first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps that is significant. A man will speak about his true passion from first to last, if you give him a chance. God’s righteousness is Jesus’ passion. It is the theme of his life and ministry from here at the beginning all the way to his death on the cross. 


In Matthew’s Gospel, God’s righteousness means doing the will of God, which Jesus wants done on earth, as it is in heaven. And this is consistent what we know of him elsewhere. In John’s Gospel, when the disciples noticed that Jesus was hungry and urged him to eat something, he replied: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34). 


To do the will of God in the waters of the Jordan is to enact God’s saving righteousness. Jesus’ baptism here shows that he sees himself as a member of that chosen, beloved, but sinful Israel that John threatens with the divine judgment. He descends into the water with them as one of them. He pledges his solidarity with them. As author Dale Bruner writes: “It is well known that Jesus ends his ministry on a cross between thieves; it deserves to be just as well known that Jesus begins his ministry in a river among sinners.”


We have to pause here to unfold the implications of Jesus’ action. For it is very theologically significant. We can say that in his action he is identifying with his people. 


What does it mean to identify with someone? It means to make the situation or lot of another your own. 


We have referred before to the love of a mother for her child. This love becomes most evident in the mother when her child is ill. She becomes so distressed at the sight of her child’s suffering that she would gladly make it her own. She is willing to take the child’s place. 


In going to John to be baptized, Jesus shows his intent to make our lot his own. He sees us in our distress, in our sin, in our estrangement from God, and he identifies with us. 


The divine judgment under which we stood, he also stood. He bore it for us, with us, in our place. The German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to Jesus as the “man for others.” Nowhere else is this title more appropriate than here. He is not at the Jordan for himself. He is there for others. He is there for his people Israel. And, by extension, he is there for us. 


Who is this who undergoes baptism at the Jordan? 


Last time we celebrated Epiphany. The word means “manifestation” or “appearance” or “shining forth.” It referred to the experience of the Magi. In following the star that stopped over Bethlehem, they encountered the Christ child. It was no ordinary child. If he were, they would not have fallen down on their knees to worship him. To the Magi the Christ child shined forth as Immanuel, as God with us, whom they recognized and adored as such. 


But what the Magi saw in the child is made public here at the Jordan. The dove and the voice tell us plainly who he is. At the Jordan Jesus appears, is manifest, and shines forth as the one he truly is: He is the beloved Son of God, on whom the Holy Spirit rests.


We said a moment ago that Jesus makes our situation or lot his own. That is true. That is what Jesus at the Jordan shows us. But there is more. He also makes his situation or lot our own. 


So what is his situation? We just heard that he is the beloved Son of God, on whom the Holy Spirit rests. Let’s be sure we are clear here. In this situation Jesus is unique. He is the incarnate Son of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, with whom he lives in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. 


But he makes his situation ours. If this is true, then in Jesus’ baptism we can look as if in a mirror at our own baptism. What do we see there? Let us pause here to reflect on what this event at the Jordan can tell us about our baptism. 


Through baptism, there is opened up for us a relationship with God. Before we were identified with Christ in baptism, the heavens were closed to us. The ordinary experience of men and women, in their estrangement from God, is that the heavens are closed. But coming up out of the waters of our baptism with Christ, we see the heavens open up. 


“Lord,” cried the prophet Isaiah for his people, “look down on us from heaven, where you live in your holiness and glory. Where is your great concern for us? Where is your power? Where is your love and compassion? Do not ignore us…Why don’t you tear the skies open and come down?” (63:15; 64:1). 


And here at the Jordan the heavens are opened. It’s significant that in Mark’s more vivid portrayal of the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are torn open, as if in answer to the prophet’s plea. Before, the heavens constituted a barrier; before, the heavens blocked our access to God. But in Jesus Christ the heavens are opened for us.


Through the opening of the heavens the Holy Spirit comes. It is by the Spirit that we recognize and know God. It is in the Spirit that we pray to God. In our words of assurance earlier we heard that we have not received a spirit of fear, but a Spirit of sonship, and by that Spirit we call out “Abba Father!” 


God addresses Jesus at the Jordan as the Son whom he loves, with whom he is well pleased. In his identification with us, Jesus shows that he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, making himself a member of the human family. And if we are his siblings, then God addresses us too as the sons and daughters whom he loves. We have all been adopted in Christ and welcomed into one family as God’s own children. 


Today people ask incessantly about identity. It is so difficult, it seems, for so many of us to figure out who we are today. But to be in Christ, to be God’s own child, is our core identity. Put otherwise, our baptismal identity is our core identity. This is affirmed when we hear the words that God addresses to his Son as addressed to us. The Spirit himself testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children. God is a personal God. God draws us into personal relationship as does a parent his or her child. 


When our actions are consistent with our identity, we are integrated and whole human beings. That is why the Lutherans always used to say that as Christians we are to live out our baptism. 


Do we struggle with a bad conscience? Do we struggle with guilt and condemnation because of a besetting sin, a nagging regret, or a stubborn addiction? Jesus Christ stood in the waters of the Jordan for us, undergoing a baptism there, a baptism that he completed on the cross of Calvary. As a result, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This is what we discover when we live out our baptism. 


Do we struggle with prayer? Does God seem impersonal and distant to us? Do we doubt that God hears our prayers, let alone answer them? When Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan, a voice from heaven addressed him: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” 


We may hear those words as addressed to us too when we remember and live out our baptism. Again, in Christ, we have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out “Abba, Father!” In God, we have a Father who gives good gifts to his children. We can come to God in prayer as children come to their parent. If parents, who are evil, give good gifts to their children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? 


Do we struggle with weariness? Is it exhausting to live for Christ and his church? God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, so that he could go about doing good. 


With our baptism the Holy Spirit has anointed us too with the Holy Spirit and with power to do good. This power comes not from us, but from God. When God calls us into service, when God gives us a task to do in the service of the church, he gives us at the same time the power to do it. 


If we are tired, we ought to wait on God. For those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isa. 40:31). 


If we are tired, God will give us power. This power is promised to us as God’s children. This power is the Holy Spirit, whom we have received from God. 


Celebrating the Baptism of the Lord reminds us to live out our baptism. We also do this whenever we go to the Lord’s Table to receive communion. For the Lord’s table is a table for God’s family, for those adopted as God’s children through baptism and faith. There God provides nourishment for his children, just as fathers do for their families.


Let us keep this image before us, this image of Jesus and John the Baptist at the Jordan River. For there is so much to see there. There we discover who it is who saves us. There too we discover who we are in him, what we have in him. How great a salvation do we see there! Amen.   

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