Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Baptism of our Lord

Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
January 11, 2009 (The Baptism of our Lord)

On the one side is the Son of God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who even as man is perfect and without sin. On the other is John the Baptizer, who, although he is the last and greatest Old Testament prophet and Jesus’ own cousin, is still a sinner who is only saved by God’s grace through faith in the Messiah. The purpose of John’s ministry is to baptize repentant sinners for the remission of their sins. When these two men meet, you would think that Jesus, the perfect Messiah, the Son of God, would be the one to baptize the sinful mortal John. But it is the other way around. Jesus asks to be baptized by John. That doesn’t seem to make sense. And so when we read this passage, we are likely to ask Jesus the question with John: “Why do You need to be baptized? You’re perfect and sinless! You don’t have any sins to wash away! John (and the rest of us) need to be baptized by You! And you want to be baptized by John?”

Jesus answers John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Remember that the reason why Jesus took on a human nature and humbled Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary was so that He could live our lives, except without sin. He came to this earth to live our life, and to suffer and die in our place to take away our guilt of sin. He is the one who is our head, and we are His members. Wherever He goes, we go with Him. And so, since He wanted us to be baptized, it was necessary for Him to be baptized. It was necessary for Him, who knew no sin, to be baptized as if He were a sinner, because He, here at the beginning of His public ministry, is taking upon Himself the guilt of our sins.

Jesus’ attitude here is something that we do well to ponder, by the way. Jesus was without sin and perfect. In fact, He was more than perfect; He was (and still is) the Son of the living God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. He didn’t need to be baptized. And in fact, by submitting to John’s baptism He made Himself look as if He had sins that needed forgiveness. After all, John’s baptism was for repentance, which implies that the one being baptized has something he needs to repent of, that is, he is a sinner. Jesus Christ made Himself look like a sinner by being baptized, even though He wasn’t one. We might think that this was humiliating to go through. After all, we usually resent it when we have to do something that we consider to be beneath us. It makes us look like we are less than we are, and our pride doesn’t like that. For example, there are those who only go to Church every so often or who only take Holy Communion every so often, because they think that it’s only those who are really sinful who need forgiveness very often. But in fact we are all sinners, and if we don’t recognize this fact and desire God’s forgiveness frequently, then that means that we are not only sinners but that we are in denial about our own condition. Jesus, who was perfect, was willing to appear to be a sinner for our sakes. Can we not admit that we are in fact sinners, if it means that we get to receive Christ’s forgiveness which takes away our sin that much more often?

And so Christ submits to baptism, which He didn’t need for Himself, and thereby makes Himself look like a sinner. But this is what His ministry was about. He who knew no sin became sin for us. Not only was He baptized, but He suffered and even died. Since the wages of sin is death, this really made Jesus look like He, too, was a sinful man like the rest of us. But He willingly submitted to these things so that we might be saved.

When you take a bath or a shower, you wash dirt and grime and sweat off of yourself and into the water. The dirt doesn’t just disappear, it goes into the water and follows the water to the sewage treatment plant, where the water is cleaned. The same is true of your sins. Holy Baptism washes you clean of sins, and you return to that holy washing daily through God’s Word and prayer, and weekly through Holy Absolution, and even in between those things you are still one who is baptized, and so throughout your life, Baptism is continually washing you clean of your sin. Where does the sin go? Getting rid of sin is not just a simple matter of God waving His hand and saying, “Oh, that’s okay,” but rather your sins actually need to go somewhere. When they are washed off of you they are washed onto Jesus Christ. This is another reason He had to be baptized. All the sins that were washed off of us in Holy Baptism became His to bear to the cross when He was baptized. He received your sins on Himself, and in doing that He cleaned the water and sanctified it so that it can clean you of your sins through the power of His Word and Spirit.

And what do you receive in the place of your sins? The white robe of Christ’s righteousness. He declares you to be clean and free from your sins. This is a water that cleanses you better than any other water can, because it’s not just simple water, it is water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word. Even the best detergent soaps and shampoos and other cleansers that modern technology has invented can’t clean us in this way. Those things only clean the outside. God’s Word and Christ’s blood in the water of Holy Baptism clean you on the inside. Because of your Baptism, unless you have renounced it by giving up the faith or falling away from it, you are clean in God’s sight. God declares you to be righteous and pure and holy. And just like in Genesis 1 when God said, “let there be light,” God’s declaration has results. God doesn’t lie about you. He doesn’t pretend you’re holy when you’re not. His Word actually makes you into what He declares you to be through that Word. And so, when God says you are righteous and pure and holy, that means you actually are, despite the sin you still see within yourself while you live in this sin-filled world.

You are joined to Christ in Holy Baptism, just as He was joined to you by being baptized Himself. That means that the things that are true of Christ are also true of you. Look at what happened when Christ was baptized! The heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon Him. The Father spoke and said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit came down upon you at your baptism. The Father said about you, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” You, like Christ, are now perfect, 100% sinless, even though paradoxically you are still 100% sinful at the same time while you remain in this world. Through Christ you have been brought into the eternal, blessed relationship of the members of the Holy Trinity. You are now caught up in the perfect love and the perfect holiness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The heavens are now opened to you, where once they were closed because of your sinfulness. You have been adopted as sons of the Heavenly Father and coheirs with Christ of His eternal kingdom. You will live forever in the Father’s mansions. Even though you cannot see this with your mortal eyes, you have faith in God’s promises. You have forgiveness and salvation and eternal life, because of what Christ has done, and still does for you as you continue in His Word, through Holy Baptism. You, whether male or female, are God’s beloved sons, the heirs of eternal life, in whom He is well-pleased. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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