Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13-17 + Isaiah 42:1-7 + 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
INTRODUCTION – WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
Water, water, everywhere. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it now, but last Sunday after church, those of you who remained for a few minutes saw water everywhere that it wasn’t supposed to be, pouring down from the ceiling of the fellowship hall, bursting through the ceiling tiles, drenching the carpet and the chairs and anyone who was standing too close. It was just plain water, but if it had burst through that pipe just an hour later, plain water might have ruined our church building forever.
Plain water is powerful – to destroy and to sculpt and to sustain life. Where would we be without it? But that’s nothing compared to what happens when the Word of God and water come together.
You remember how this universe began, don’t you? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him. Without him nothing was made that has been made.” You remember that those words refer to the Son of God, the eternal, creative Word from the Father.
But do you remember this passage from 2 Peter? “Long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” Somehow – and we won’t know how until God reveals it to us in heaven – the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God brought water into existence and made this whole universe with it. When Word and water came together, creation happened.
When Word and water came together at the time of Noah, the earth was destroyed, but Noah’s family was saved. When Word and water came together at the time of the Exodus, Egypt’s army was drowned, and God’s people Israel delivered.
In today’s Gospel for the First Sunday after Epiphany, Word and water came together again when Jesus appeared at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. If you read the first page of the service folder today, then you know what this Epiphany season is about: revelation after revelation, testimony after testimony that this man named Jesus is more than a man. He is God; He is the Christ; He is mankind’s Savior. That’s exactly the testimony we’re given when Word and water came together for the Baptism of Our Lord.
First, John testifies: For months he had been pointing people to the One who was coming, pointing to the One who comes after him, the thongs of whose sandals John was unworthy to untie. And suddenly, there is Jesus approaching John to be baptized. Just a man, as far as everyone there could tell. But John, Jesus’ cousin and a prophet of God, knew better.
John was dumbfounded. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John tried to keep the Word and water from coming together, because John knew that this man standing in front of him was greater than he, far greater, infinitely greater. For as great a prophet as John was, John knew that he was a sinner who needed his own sins washed away – the only way to enter God’s kingdom. John knew that this man standing in front of him had no need to repent and have his sins washed away in baptism, because he had no sin. And yet all men have sin, because all are born in it and steeped in it. All men need to repent of their sin and receive God’s forgiveness in the place where God offers it. All except this one man, Jesus, because – the point of Epiphany – Jesus is God.
But the Word was determined to come together with water. His own testimony reveals him as the Savior-God. “Let it be so now,” Jesus told him. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Now, you have to understand about this word “righteousness.” It’s a big word in the Bible. It means perfection. It means sinlessness. It means justification – an innocent verdict in God’s courtroom. It doesn’t come in degrees. Either you have it or you don’t. Either you’re righteous in God’s sight or you’re unrighteous, and to be righteous, you need a perfect record, a clean slate. Anything short of that brands a person as unrighteous.
The question is, whose righteousness was Jesus fulfilling when the Word came together with water? His own or someone else’s? The answer is, Yes! Under the law – God’s requirements for mankind – righteousness belongs to the person who has perfectly kept God’s requirements. It comes from me; it comes from you. Or it would, if it could. But it can’t, so it doesn’t. Because God’s law accuses you – always, from the motives of your heart to the words that fall from your lips to your actions to your inaction. God’s law accuses you of loving him less than you ought, and of looking out for yourself more than you ought. You have no righteousness of your own, only condemnation.
And no man – even a perfect man – can offer you his righteousness, unless that man is more than a man, unless that man is God. By coming together with water, the Word – Jesus – numbered himself with sinners, though he was sinless, and formally volunteered to fulfill all righteousness so that now, sinners have an alternate source of righteousness, a righteousness that doesn’t come by what you do, but by what he does, a righteousness that comes to you, not by doing, but by believing.
And you can’t combine the two. You can’t offer God your righteousness plus the righteousness of Jesus. It’s either/or. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, not some, not a little bit, not whatever you weren’t able to fulfill on your own. Either you claim your own righteousness before God or you claim his. Try to claim both (which is one of the main problems with Roman Catholic theology) and Jesus walks away and leaves you alone.
And that’s what repentance is really all about. To mourn over your sinful record and to rejoice over Christ’s record of righteousness fulfilled in your place. Here’s how Paul talked about it in our Second Lesson today, Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. That’s what he became for us – our divinely appointed Substitute – when Word and water came together.
THE SPIRIT TESTIFIES
When Word and water came together, the Holy Spirit, too, was there, testifying to Jesus’ divinity and his mission of stepping in as the Sub for mankind. With water still dripping from his clothes and his hair, Jesus went up out of the water. [And] heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. Silent testimony from the Spirit, not a word spoken. But there was no need, because he the Spirit of God had inspired all the words of the Old Testament that prophesied the coming of this Servant of God, as you heard in the First Lesson today: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”
The Spirit is always there when Word and water come together. He was there at the Red Sea in Egypt, the breath of God blowing over the waters to drown Egypt and to save Israel. He was there at the time of Noah, the breath of God blowing over the water-covered earth to make it habitable again for man.
And why the form of a dove? Again, it takes us back to the beginning, back to the creation when Word and water first came together, and “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And God spoke his Word, “Let there be light! And there was light.” So Isaiah said of Christ, “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
And so, when Word and water come together, there is the Spirit testifying with words inspired long ago, through every prophet, through every apostle, through ever pastor, through every Christian and at every baptism, “Jesus is the one – who does it all, who gets it right, who is worthy to take the place of all men, because he is more than a man. He is the Son of God and the Son of Man. Trust in him and you will be saved!”
THE FATHER TESTIFIES
And the Father testifies, too, when Word and water come together. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” People are foolish who believe that there is salvation apart from faith in Christ, who believe they can be acceptable to God apart from faith in his Son. This is my Son, God says. Not this one over here or that one over there. This one. Jesus. He is the one I love. Not this one over here or that one over there. He is the one with whom I am well pleased. Don’t even think of approaching me except through my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well-pleased, because I won’t hear you; I won’t help you; I won’t forgive you; I won’t save you.
Ah, but for the one who trusts in the Father’s beloved, well-pleasing Son, there is only grace and mercy and forgiveness all the time. Because Word and water came together when blood and water flowed from the pierced side of the Word when he died on the cross, and the sins of mankind were paid for. Even then the Spirit was there and the Father was there to raise him from the dead on the third day. And now his life covers all those who have been covered with him…when Word and water come together.
THE TRIUNE GOD STILL TESTIFIES
And now we come full circle to the moment when Word and water come together in Holy Baptism. When Word and water come together, there is the Triune God testifying, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When you were baptized into the name of this God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – you joined the Word in the water, you took on the righteousness of Christ. What he is, you are! This is your entrance into Paradise. This is your escape from death and the grave. The Word was there in that washing with water through the Word, as Ephesians 5 puts it. The Spirit was there in that washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit, as Titus 3 puts it. And the Father was there, claiming you as his own child, whom he loves, with whom he is well-pleased – not for your sake, but for the sake of Christ. This one is baptized into Christ – see, this is now a new creation, a tiny bit of humanity rescued from the dying world, a redeemed Israel. This one has fulfilled all righteousness. This one’s sins are forgiven. This one is mine! And the devil can’t have him, and the world will never snatch her out of my hand.
If you would only believe this, what comfort would accompany you every single day, and what strength. What is trouble? What is affliction? What is old age? What are the attractions of this world that hold your attention? God isn’t joking about the power of Word and water together. Christ was baptized into you so that you might be baptized into him. Your death became his death and his life became your life. This is why you who believe in him will never die, because he never dies – not anymore, not ever again. Word and water came together, and new life was born, life that is still sustained through Word and water once poured, through Word and Sacrament still administered, until the moment you fall asleep in him and wake up with him in heaven. Treasure your baptism and the Baptism of Our Lord, where Word and water came together. Plain water can do great things, but when Word and water come together, then eternal life begins. And where would we be without it?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.