Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13-17 + Isaiah 42:1-7 + 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Every year, every Sunday, we spend our time here in church following the life of Jesus through the church year. So far this church year, we’ve celebrated two key events in our salvation history. Jesus, our Savior was born. Jesus, our Savior, was circumcised. The Law of Moses required that Jesus be circumcised in order to bring him into the covenant God made with Abraham and receive the inheritance promised to Abraham. But in today’s Gospel we come across another one of those key events in our salvation history, and this one – this one the Law didn’t require. The Law didn’t require Jesus to be baptized, and yet your salvation demands it; your very life depends on it, and here’s why: baptism is where your life intersects with Jesus’ life.
What I mean is this: picture your life along a vertical timeline. You were born. You will die. You will rise from the dead – you and everyone else, believer and unbeliever alike. And you will face judgment for the things you did, the things you said, the things you thought, even the very person that you were, between your birth (your conception!) and your death.
Your timeline is your death sentence, because from the time your mother conceived you, you were not the person God’s Law required you to be. God’s law requires obedience, but not a forced and compelled obedience. God’s law requires obedience that flows from a willing heart, a glad heart. What God’s law requires is love, love that is defined by the Word of God, not by some inner feeling in yourself, a down-to-the-bottom-of-your-heart king of love that shows itself in unquestioning submission to God’s will, pure selflessness, sacrificial devotion to God and to your neighbor. What God’s law requires is good.
But you’re not. Your timeline started out in sin and your thoughts, words and actions demonstrate that sin along the way. It’s not love for God to put your family before God and the hearing of his Word. It’s not love for God to dishonor his name in the world through filthy language and dirty deeds. It’s not love for your neighbor to ignore him or neglect him, to abandon him in his need, to cheat him or cheat on him, to grow angry and bitter toward him, or to refuse to forgive him when he repents. Your timeline, the story of your life has the thread of sin running all the way through it, and it ends in condemnation and eternal death.
So God, in his mercy created another timeline, the story of someone else’s life, the life of God’s Son, born as the Son of Man. His timeline is what man’s timeline was meant to be. It runs parallel to yours and is like yours in many ways. He’s every bit as human as you are. He was born as a man. He died man’s death. He rose from the dead.
But in between his birth and his death, the story of Jesus is so unlike your story. His was a sinless life, a life of love, and willing obedience to his Father in heaven, even willingly submitting to that pain and suffering and death that he didn’t deserve. But it was God’s will. And so he suffered it. Gladly.
So, whereas your timeline ends in condemnation, his ends in justification – in victory, salvation, and life. Your salvation is not in your timeline, but in his.
Here’s the problem: Your timeline runs parallel to his. Your life is yours; Jesus’ life is his. Your birth is yours; Jesus’ birth is his. Your works are yours; his works are his. Your unrighteousness is yours; his righteousness is his. Your death is yours; his death is his. Your condemnation is yours; Jesus’ eternal life is his. And that’s how it remains.
Unless…the two lives intersect at some point in between birth and death. Baptism is that God-appointed point of intersection, the point at which the life of the sinner and life of the sinless One meet, and don’t just meet, but trade places in the sight of God.
Matthew tells us that Jesus intentionally went from his home in Galilee to theJordan Riverfor the purpose of being baptized by John. But why?
Baptism was a very public confession to the world that the person being baptized was a wretched sinner. It had a stigma attached to it. The “good” people ofJerusalemwouldn’t be caught dead being baptized by John. I would compare it, maybe, to enrolling in a modern-day drug or alcohol rehab program. Who does that? Drug and alcohol addicts. Why? To get the help they desperately need, because their lives are being ruined by their addiction. To enroll in a drug rehab program is to admit publicly, “I have a problem.”
That’s the kind of stigma that was attached to John’s baptism. Sometimes I wish there were still such a stigma attached to baptism instead of the glamorized notion people have of baptism today in our country. It’s just the thing to do for some families. It’s a tradition, a family ritual. It’s nice. It’s pleasant. Safe and sanitized. People have gotten this idea in their heads that baptism is “cute.” It’s not cute. It’s dirty, or at least, it’s a confession that this baby – or this adult! – is dirty, filthy dirty with sin, one of the damned who needs rescuing from damnation and who is about to be rescued by Jesus by means of water and Word. Because that’s the reality of baptism.
Why did Jesus go to be baptized? He had no sins to repent of, and no need of forgiveness. Jesus knew that. So did John. It’s why John objected at first to Jesus’ request to be baptized by John, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”
Why did Jesus go to be stigmatized as a sinner, to be “with sinners numbered,” to be counted among sinners in those baptismal waters? Because this is where the life of Jesus and the life of sinners meet.
“Let it be so now,” Jesus told John, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
If we unpack that phrase a little bit, “to fulfill all righteousness,” we’ll see that Jesus already had a timeline – a story full of righteousness. The law didn’t require that Jesus be baptized at all. Rather, it’s the bridge that moves his righteousness from his timeline to yours and mine and fulfills all righteousness for us who lack righteousness. This is where Jesus, in his baptism, trades places with the sinner in his or her baptism. And isn’t that pure grace! That it’s not in death where we meet Jesus, but before death – but in the cleansing waters of baptism. What’s yours becomes his; what’s his becomes yours. Your sin gets laid on him and he pays for it. His righteousness gets laid on you and you’re praised by God for it. Your death sentence is transferred to him and his life-sentence is transferred to you who believe in him, who have been baptized in his name. Now, in this baptismal intersection Jesus becomes the sinner he was not so that you could become the child of God that you were not. Now, all that belongs to him becomes yours, just as all that belonged to you became his. It all hinges on baptism and faith in Jesus who instituted the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
The climax of today’s Gospel is at the end, when Jesus steps out of the water and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and God the Father’s voice is heard from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” When you grasp the fact that baptism is where your life meets Jesus’ life, those words have a whole new meaning. Because God the Father, the Father of all grace and mercy and compassion, the Father of love and forgiveness and glory and might – that Father doesn’t just claim Jesus as his beloved Son. He claims you who are baptized in his name. And he isn’t just well-pleased with Jesus. By faith in Jesus, through your baptismal connection to him, God the Father is now perfectly well-pleased with you, not because of your timelines, not because of your story, but all because of Jesus’ timeline and Jesus’ story and baptism, which has pulled you into Jesus’ story and Jesus’ life.
The Bible calls that “baptismal regeneration,” being born again, that God now reckons you to be his child, by faith in Jesus. You see what that means for you – for you, and for your baptized children, and for your baptized parents? It means that you stand justified before God, welcomed into eternal life. What can the devil or the world do to you, if that is true? No sickness, no cancer, no crisis at all can change the fact that you were baptized. And that goes for your baptized children and your baptized parents as well. They have a Father who loves them and is committed to their care, to see them safely through this vale of tears to their heavenly home. You have a Father who loves you. All things must work together for your good, because you are God’s child, with whom he is well-pleased – because your sinful story is covered by the sinless story of Jesus.
All this is by faith in Jesus. Baptism is of no value to anyone if he or she walks away from the faith that comes from baptism. But for those who believe, God the Father not only accepts you as his child, but he also sends his Holy Spirit, who spends the rest of your life making your life look like Jesus’ life. Here something wonderful takes place and Jesus gives much more than he receives. When you cross timelines with Jesus, your sin doesn’t cause him to sin. But his righteousness does have an effect on you; his righteousness does rub off on your life. So you don’t live for yourself, but for him who died for you and was raised again. You don’t fight temptation by yourself. You fight temptation together with Jesus. You remember what he did right after he was baptized? He went out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil, and not just to be tempted, but to fight against temptation and come out victorious.
That’s what your baptism means for you, too. It means a life of fighting temptation, of saying no to sin and yes to righteousness. It means a life of suffering, too, of bearing the cross, a life of humility, a life of daily and painful self-denial, a life that looks ever more like the life of Jesus. The Bible calls that “renewal,” being renewed in the image of Christ. It’s a life-long process that will only be finished in the perfection of heaven. But baptism is where that life-long process begins.
Nothing can summarize all this any better than Paul’s words to the Corinthians today: And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Jesus has always been all those things, but he became all those things “to us” when our timelines intersected, when baptism brought us together. Baptism is where Jesus’ life meets your life, where all that is bad moves from you to him, where all that is good moves from him to you. That’s why you’ll never have any reason to boast, because all the good came from outside of you, from your Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Amen.