Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany, January 12, 2020 (Matthew 3:13-17) – The Baptism of Jesus

“Triptych of Jan Des Trompes” (1505) by Gerard David (ca. 1450-1523). Groeningmuseum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon Audio from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Jesus’ Baptism” (2008) by Richard Buswell, Lynchburg Stained Glass. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia. Personal photograph.

Today in the church year, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus.  We’re blessed here at Good Shepherd because we have a visual representation of this event that we can contemplate here in the sanctuary when we think about what we heard in the Gospel lesson this morning.  If you’d all take a look to your right, you’ll see the window depicting Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John—-Jesus standing in the water (presumably after coming up out of the water after being immersed), and John trickling water over Jesus.  And then the Holy Spirit, descending in the likeness of a dove, coming down to point out Jesus to the crowds gathered there.  There’s also the fun addition of a fish jumping among the cattails, no doubt disturbed by the act of baptism.  But all of the details Matthew highlights in his Gospel are here for us to view and think about and see in full color.

I’ve always thought that it’s interesting how God the Father uses the Holy Spirit to point out Jesus to us in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  The fourth century church father and bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom—-or, ”John the Golden-Mouthed,” so-called on account of his beautiful and insightful sermons as well as his sharp-but-necessary words for the ruling elite of the day—-writes in his homily on Matthew 3:13-17 that God did this to point the crowds assembled at the Jordan to the One to whom they should be paying attention.  Chrysostom says that God points out Jesus in this way because, for the crowds, John the Baptist was the center of attention.  John the Baptist is the son of a priest; he was born to a woman who was famously unable to bear children, and he looks like an Old Testament prophet—-he’s wearing camel’s hair garments, he has  wild hair and beard, and he eats locusts and wild honey.  He looks like Elijah.  Surely he’s the one that is promised; surely he looks like a messiah might look.  But instead, when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and the Father’s voice booms out: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Elsewhere in Scripture, when God says this, he follows it up with a command: “Listen to him!”  But here, perhaps, we ought to watch him, and see just what it is he is doing.

“St. John Chrysostom preaching before the Empress Eudoxia,” Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)

And what is he doing here?  He is being baptized.  We see it in our window well enough.  Jesus goes to John at the Jordan and requests to be baptized by him.  But unlike the others present at the Jordan, John knows who Jesus is.  Jesus is pretty nondescript; to anyone there, he’s just some random Galilean carpenter, but in reality, Jesus is the one whose sandals John is not fit to carry.  He’s the one who should be baptizing John.  He’s the Son of Man coming with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff; he’s the one laying his axe to the root of the fruitless vines, who will be doling out God’s judgment on the wicked, and he desires to be baptized?  Jesus doesn’t need to repent of anything—-he doesn’t need to be warned to change his ways because the kingdom of heaven is at hand because he’s bringing the kingdom.  He doesn’t need to be baptized by John at all because he’s God incarnate, the perfectly sinless man.  So why does he travel all the way to the Jordan from Galilee to see John to be baptized?

“The Baptism of Jesus” (1546) by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). Cleveland Museum of Art. Public Domain.

The short answer is this: Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized because, in doing so, he was taking our place.  He, the sinless man, was being baptized in the stead of a sinful people.  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  It was a baptism where those who came to him did so to show that they realized the weight of their sins under God’s judgment and were repenting of them so that they would be ready for when the Messiah came.  The whole world of sinners literally came out to John to be baptized—-soldiers, tax collectors, the legalistic Pharisees, and even the Sadducees—they all came to the banks of the Jordan to be baptized and to confess their sins, to lay themselves at the mercy of God who was coming soon.  Had we been there and heard John’s preaching, we would likely have come to be baptized, too.  John’s preaching convicts us of our sins.  But John’s baptism did not impart the promise of eternal life to those who came to him; it was not “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  Instead, it directed those who came to John to trust in the One who would save them, and it urged them to confess their sins to God and trust that he would forgive them when he came.  And now, the One himself had come to be baptized as well.  He would be cleansed in the waters, too, just as those he was coming for were.  It was only right to do so, in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”

And what does that mean, “to fulfill all righteousness”?  The theologian N.T. Wright writes the following in his book, Matthew for Everyone“But if he, Jesus, is to [fulfill God’s plan], this is how he must do it: by humbly identifying himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life and ultimately dying their death.”[1]

Jesus’ baptism is his first step toward doing this in his public ministry.  Once he has been baptized, Jesus will go do battle with Satan in the wilderness and then begin his ministry to the people, preaching the Gospel of the coming kingdom of heaven.  And when he is baptized, what he does in the Jordan prefigures what he does for his people all throughout his ministry, culminating in his sacrifice and death on the cross.  He sees his people—not just the people of his day, but us as well—condemned under the law, shown to be the sinners that they are, facing God’s judgment, and he goes down into the water in their place.  He not only models for them what they should do, but he also identifies himself with them fully.  He becomes their representative—he embodies, in himself, all of Israel, and indeed, all people condemned under the law for their sin.  Aubrey Taylor writes the following in The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels:

Therefore, when Jesus is baptized under John, it is perhaps best understood in light of his role as a “representative of Israel.” Passing through the waters of the Jordan, in harmony with his ancestors and the hopeful pilgrims of his own day, he participates in the same symbolic act that characterized John’s ministry. Jesus identifies himself with corporate Israel, its calling, its failings, and its hope—and participates in a movement that sought to usher in the kingdom of God.[2] 

“The Baptism of Christ” (1803) by William Blake (1757-1827), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Public Domain.

Jesus’ baptism prefigures his being made “sin that knew no sin, that we might become his righeousness” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In his baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners condemned under the law, confessing their transgressions, and he identifies with them so strongly that he will again, at a later time, take the place of all sinners and feel the full force of the law in his death.  When the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove, it is God’s way of pointing everyone who sees Jesus to see him not just as a fellow person being baptized, but as the One who saw humanity in its sins and joined it, sharing in the whole human experience and ultimately, redeeming it.  When God says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” he wants those present at his baptism, as well as all of us, now, to see Jesus for who he is, the One who will save us from our sins, who will fight sin, death, and the Devil which all attack, entice, harm, and kill.  When Jesus was baptized, he indicated to the whole world and all people that he would bear the sins of the world upon himself and drown them under the waters of death, returning to life again, victorious.

“The Baptism of Jesus” (1485/1486) by Jean Colombe (1430-1493), from Très Riches Heures du Jean Duc de Berry, folio 109v. Condé Museum. Public Domain.

And this is why our baptism differs from the one Jesus receives.  When Jesus died and rose again, what Chrysostom calls the “Jewish baptism,” the baptism John practiced, ceased to be a washing of repentance and became a washing of the forgiveness of sins given to us by Christ.  In Christ, this baptism ceased to be symbolic: it became a sacrament, where God’s word bonded to water brings the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, that life which Jesus won for us in his death and resurrection.  When we are baptized, as Chrysostom puts it, “also this, [the opening of the heavens] is done, God calling you to your country on high, and persuading you to have nothing to do with earth.  And even if you see not, yet never doubt it.”  When you and I were baptized into Christ, not only did we renounce sin and the devil, we were forgiven in Christ, once and for all, and the heavens opened for us, also.  We were made children of God, citizens of the kingdom of Heaven because Christ identified himself with us, took our place, and died and rose to save us from our sins.

If you look back at our baptism window, you’ll notice a detail that doesn’t match Matthew’s text:  John is pouring water on Jesus’ head with his hand when Matthew says, Jesus is submerged and then reemerges from the water—John had apparently dunked him.  Perhaps John also poured water over Jesus’ head, too, but the text does not specify.  But I think this artistic liberty is important for us, that Jesus is receiving a baptism like ours in this image, that like every adult and baby baptized in this sanctuary, he, too, is having water poured over him.  This image of Jesus reminds us that our Lord, when he came among us those many years ago, loved us so much that he took our place and went through literal hell for us that we might be saved from our sins and the judgment of God, and live to be his own redeemed children.  Jesus Christ was baptized out of his love for us and was proclaimed the Son of God at his baptism; we, baptized in his love, have been made God’s own children, sons and daughters of the King. 

Sometimes, we forget just how great of a gift this baptism in Christ is.  Just the other day, one of my friends from seminary (he’s a pastor now) had the privilege to conduct his grandfather’s funeral.  In the car ride home from the grave site, he was speaking to his father, who had never been baptized.  He and his father spoke about life, death, and the work of Christ.  My friend asked his father if he desired to be baptized, and his father said yes, he did, and that afternoon, my friend baptized his father in the kitchen sink, speaking the promises of God in Christ to him, and bringing him into Christ’s fold.  My friend’s sorrow at the death of his grandfather that day turned into joy, because now, his father’s now has the assurance that his sins are forgiven.  His father is now a recipient of the promise of the kingdom of Heaven which is now here, brought to us when Christ died and rose again for us.

Martin Luther once said, “when you wash your face, remember your baptism.”  Your baptism is an everlasting promise of God’s love for you.  But also remember, as John Chrysostom said, that, when we see Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, we see God pointing “out to us our Deliverer from all evils,” through whom the Spirit is given to convey “the adoption to all the world’s offspring in common” as children of God.  In baptism in Christ, we have been made God’s children, and we bear the indelible mark of him who made us so.  Amen!

[1] Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 21-22). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Aubrey L. Taylor, “Wilderness Events: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel and Kristopher A. Lyle, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 57–58.

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