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.

Sermon for Pentecost, June 9, 2019 (Acts 2:1-21) – “Depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!”

“Pentecost” from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), F 102r 1. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

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

Imagine, if you will, the following:  The year is AD 33, though you, as someone in the Jewish community would have known it as the year 3794, or as the 786th year since the founding of Rome, or the 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.  You and all of the congregation are crammed together in a house in Jerusalem, praying.  The day is the feast of Pentecost, called “Shavuot,” the Feast of Weeks.  It is a Jewish harvest festival, which “conclude[s] the period of seven weeks which began with the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest during the Passover celebration.”[1]  But it is also a festival commemorating God’s giving the Law to the Israelites at Sinai fifty days after their leaving Egypt, when God descended upon Mount Sinai in thunder and fire, when “[the] smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:18, ESV).  You and the rest of the assembly are probably planning to observe the feast with everyone else in Jerusalem.  But recently, strange and wondrous things have been afoot in your little community.   Jesus has ascended into heaven.  Fifty days ago he was resurrected from the dead after being put to death by the Romans, and now he’s gone to be with God, his Father.  But he promised to send a helper to you, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to speak to his glory and be your guide.  And now you are waiting, following Jesus’ command to “not depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4, ESV).

And while you’re all together in the house, talking, praying, reading, there’s suddenly a mighty whoosh, a great wind, roaring like the sound of a jet engine through the house (not that you’d have known what a jet engine was). But nothing is moving, it’s merely the sound.  Suddenly tongues of fire, perhaps like those God sent down on Sinai over one thousand years earlier, come down through the air and rest above the heads of each person in the house, you included, and you’re filled suddenly with this indescribable feeling, maybe a warmth, maybe a prickling, you can’t say.  It feels unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, though.  Something is going into you, filling you, and you feel different.  Better?  Whole?  Alive?

“Pentecost : The sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles” from the Hortus Deliciarum (1180) by Herrad of Landsberg (1125-1195). Public Domain.

Suddenly you and everyone else are running out of the house, dashing into the street.  The neighbors have heard the whoosh, as well as the out-of-towners who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost.  They’ve come from all over the world for this, men and women from other parts of Judea and Galilee, from Parthia to the east and Crete to the west; from Egypt, Pontus, Persia, the Anatolian coast, North Africa, and far off Italy.  The whole known world is represented in Jerusalem this day.  And suddenly, like things possessed, you’re speaking to them about Jesus and who he is and what he’s done.  And they can understand you and you can understand them, even though you don’t know a lick of Farsi or Latin or Egyptian.

But some people in the crowd laugh at you.  They hear all these languages that they’ve never heard before, this literal Babel of voices, and they think you’re all drunk. They can’t believe it.  You can’t believe it.  How can this be?  What is causing you to do this?  How are you doing this?  You see, this is the work of the promised one, the Holy Spirit, and he has entered you and made these things possible.  The Third Person of the Trinity has come into you and made you his instrument to proclaim the Good News to the world congregating in Jerusalem.


That’s the first part of the Pentecost account from today’s Acts reading.  We have all heard the story before, but has it ever occurred to you that something is happening here that is an exact reversal of what happened on several occasions in the Gospels?  What we’re looking at in the Pentecost story is not just the story of a miracle.  It’s the story of— and I use this term carefully— a possession.  Or perhaps put a better way, an exorcism and a possession.

“St. Felix, priest of Rome performing an exorcism” (1170-1200), by “Frater Rufillus,” from the Weißenauer Passionale, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 146v. Fondation Bodmer, Coligny Switzerland. Public Domain. Cropped.

When we think about possession, we usually think about demonic possessions, especially the pop culture depictions of them, like the film depictions in The Exorcist or Ghostbusters or The Evil Dead franchise, or that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze inhabits Whoopi Goldberg’s body so he can give Demi Moore one last kiss, to name a few.  Or we might remember those famous Biblical possessions: the possessed man in the synagogue who tried to call Jesus out early in his ministry or the possessed man in the land of the Gerasenes who hosted the demon Legion, and from whom the demon was cast into a herd of hogs which drowned under its influence.  Or we may remember the possessed slave girl used as an oracle who the apostles healed in Acts.  We even have a famous story of demonic possession at Concordia Seminary, which is said to have served as the basis for the novel upon which The Exorcist was based.  And in all of these examples, we see demons, evil spirits, taking up residence in the bodies of individuals and bending them to their wicked wills, tormenting them and harming them.

But Pentecost is different, because instead of an evil spirit taking up residence in their bodies, the Holy Spirit enters the disciples and takes hold of them.  Prior to his coming upon them, they were open to demonic attack, but now the Holy Spirit is dwelling in them.  Their bodies are his temple, and he is with them forever, glorifying God, testifying about Christ through them, and helping them withstand the assaults of the devil and the world.  They have been “possessed” by him, and are now preaching his Word to an unbelieving world.  And even after hearing the sound of the Holy Spirit rushing through the house and seeing and hearing the disciples, these people from Galilee, speaking in tongues not their own, some of the Judaeans and visitors to Jerusalem still did not believe that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was at work there among them that day.  They chalked it up to “new” wine, “sweet wine,” the flavor of which masked the alcohol and made it far too easy to drink too much.  To them, this miracle was no miracle at all, just a bunch of lushes babbling drunkenly in the street.

“Pentecost” (1925), by Ludwig Glötzle (1847-1929), Saint Jodok Parish Church, Bezau, Vorarlberg. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber (May 27, 2012). This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license.

It’s easy for us, too, to not see, or not want to see, the work of the Holy Spirit, either in us or in others.  The Old Adam, the old sinful man and servant of the devil who still lives within us, tempts us to sin and do those things that would harm us, contrary to God’s will and desire for us.  And because we are sinful beings, we enjoy following the Old Adam.  It is our basest inclination.  And so we sin in all sorts of ways.  We might gossip about a neighbor’s behavior, or get angry at that guy with Maryland plates who’s driving twenty miles under the speed limit in front of us in a no-passing lane.  We might let our gaze linger just a bit too long on someone who is not our spouse and entertain fantasies that, while we didn’t act on them, still were played out in our hearts.  Or we might get angry with our neighbor over some perceived slight, and say things that are very hard to take back.

But when we sin in these ways, when we give in to the temptations wrought upon us in the world, we forget whose we are, trusting in our feeble selves to know what is right and wrong and how we should act.  Isn’t this what happened to Adam and Eve, our first parents? And if we let sin rule us for long enough, when we go in search of unclean spirits and trust their voices over God’s, then God help us, because we become lost and cannot find our way back to him on our own.  And at that point, the law of God condemns us, and there is nothing we can do.  How shall we be delivered from this body of death?  Who can we turn to when the enormity of our sin comes crashing down on us and we realize just how helpless we are?

Peter provides an answer to the despair that comes from living under the rule of sin.  As Peter says in his sermon to the people gathered outside the house, quoting the prophet Joel, God has poured his Spirit out upon all flesh on account of the work of Christ, and he is now working through those who have received him.  They are doing his will now, conformed to him in righteousness so that they might do the works he has set before them.  He has cast out the unclean spirits that once made a home in those who have received him, and has made them his dwelling place. Just as God wrote his law on the hearts of the people of Israel, now he comes himself to rest upon the hearts of all believers.  The house swept clean from which the unclean spirit has been sent has been given over to a new and better Owner, with a very different taste in interior decoration.  They are his own, possessed by him to do God’s good and gracious will.  He, the Paraclete, the Helper, has come to protect them against the assaults of the devil and help them live according to God’s purpose.  Won by Christ, these disciples are now further preserved in faith by the Spirit who works in them, and his indwelling makes it possible for men to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.

How do we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, especially if we have at times not lived as God would have wanted us to?  How do we know that he can help us when we see how terrible our sin is and desire deliverance from it?  I have this to say to you: trust in your baptism.  You see, when you were baptized, the same kind of exorcism and possession that we see at Pentecost took place in you.  In Luther’s Baptismal Rite, the pastor says to the one being baptized, “Fahr aus du unreiner Geist und gib Raum dem heiligen Geist![2]  (I bet you didn’t expect hearing speaking in tongues today!)  “Therefore, depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!”  And later, “Ich beschwöre dich, du unreiner Geist, bei dem Namen des Vaters und des Sohns und des heiligen Geistes daß du ausfahrest und weichest von diesem Diener Jesu Chrsiti [N.] Amen![3]  “I command you, you unclean Spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that you come out of and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ, Amen!”  This rite still exists in our agenda.  The old unclean spirit, the old power of the devil, was cast out, and God’s Holy Spirit has made you his dwelling place.  Bought and cleansed in the precious blood of the Lamb spilled on Calvary to reconcile all of creation to the Father, you are his own.  His Spirit is living in you.  Because he lives in you, you can live the life he desires for you and do the good works that have been set before you for the good of your neighbor.  With him living in you, you can fight temptation to sin and remember whose you are and how you should live when you want to gossip or look with lust on someone or get angry with your neighbor, for he is your protector.  And with him living in you, you can have faith in the promises of Christ, that he died and rose to save you from sin, death, and the devil and turn to him when confronted by your own sin.

“Baptism” from the Reformation Altarpiece (1547), Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, by the Cranachs. Public Domain. Cropped.

And if you fear that you are too great a sinner, that you have lost your salvation because of how you have lived, or if you fear that you are beyond redemption because you have fallen away from the faith for a time, take heart!  You might be a great sinner, but God is an even greater savior!  His promises are still for you.  You can’t wash off your baptism.  That promise is indelible, and you can always return to it.  The Holy Spirit is still working in you to show you your sin and lead you to repentance and Christ’s love and forgiveness.  And when you are restored, he helps you to live as God would have you do.

Jesus says in John 16: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Because of Jesus, we have been cleansed and possessed by the Holy Spirit.  Let us live joyfully in his dwelling in us, confident in the promises he has given us in our baptism and doing good toward our neighbors, and speaking God’s good news in Christ to them so that they too may know him and believe.  For this is the Pentecost mission of the church.

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Mark J. Olson, “Pentecost,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 222-223.

[2] Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 54.

[3] Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 56.