The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

 

a sermon by James A. Frey

 

 

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

 

 

Dear fellow redeemed:

 

Our God is a blood thirsty God, a God whose demand of us is not that we try harder or get better or hang in there when the going gets tough, but rather is blood.  To the Israelites at Mt. Sinai he explained, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus  17:11).

 

And yet, these bloody sacrifices of bulls and goats and Passover Lambs that were offered by the thousands in Old Testament times were really nothing more than shadows of the one Lamb, whose blood really could atone for sin - our Savior Jesus Christ.  Thus, it comes as no surprise to hear that it took only eight days for his blood to be shed, as he, in obedience to Levitical Law, was circumcised on the eight day of his life.  And by this, he not only showed that the Word had become flesh, but also foreshadowed that this “fleshly” God had come to earth to shed his blood in a way that would satisfy his thirst for blood.

 

Indeed, that was his office: to be both priest and bloody sacrifice.  Today we celebrate the day when our Savior willingly took his office, or to express it another way, the day when Baptism put Jesus in his place. Which just might answer the question that almost always seems to arise whenever speaking of Jesus’ Baptism - why? Holy Baptism is a Sacrament that gives forgiveness to sinners. That’s what St. Peter told the crowd on Pentecost, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). That’s also what Ananias told Paul, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). He “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” had no need for forgiveness, for he had no sin.  Thus, it was not for his sake that Jesus was baptized, but rather “to fulfill all righteousness,” (Matthew 3:15), he told the Baptizer. Jesus was baptized to satisfy the demands of a blood thirsty God, which his Baptism could do because it put him in his place.

 

What was his place?  Since he had come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), his place was our place.  That’s right.  What we’re celebrating, as we see Jesus stand in the waters of the Jordan, is his solidarity with and his substitution for us.  And believe me, this was no easy place for the Son of God to be.

 

Permit me to use a picture from this life.  Since it is a washing, Holy Baptism has often been called a “bath.”  Now during a bath the dirt that clings to a person’s body is washed off into the water, so that should someone sit in that dirty bath water - in other words, should he put himself in the place of the person that washed his dirt off into that water - he would pick up his dirt from that  water. So it happened to Jesus during the bath of his Baptism.  He did not step into the waters of the Jordan to be washed clean of his dirt, for again he had no dirt to wash off.  Instead, he stepped into this bath to pick up our dirt, our sin - indeed, actually to become sin for us!

 

My friends, there is no way you and I can even begin to comprehend the love that moved our Lord to do this, for there is no way we can comprehend how repulsive sin is to a holy God.  Suffice it, though, to say, this was even more repulsive to him than taking a bath in raw sewage would be to us.  Yet Jesus did it.  He stepped into our place, our raw sewage, our sin, because that is what grace moved him to do.

 

And what a surprise!  When he came out, the Father is not repulsed!  Just the opposite, for heaven was opened, we’re told, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.  And in a clear voice he declared for all to hear, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). 

 

Do you see how much the Father loves you?  How deeply he desires your salvation?  For when his only-begotten Son comes out of the Jordan, both in solidarity with and in substitution for you, he visually and audibly declares his pleasure.  He is most well pleased, because - get this - he can now unleash his anger against and pour out the cup of bitter suffering and punishment upon his Son, who now bears our sins in his own body!

 

It’s really quite the paradox. God is a blood thirsty God, who will accept nothing less than blood as payment for sin.  And yet, Jesus receives his favor and love, because he, through his Baptism, has put himself in a position to face Gods’ wrath and punishment for us. 

 

Or, to express it in another way, Jesus begins his ministry with a Baptism in blood, so that he can end his ministry with a Baptism of fire.  That’s what he would later tell his disciples, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.  But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50).

 

Since God is a blood-thirsty God, Jesus, who became sin for us during his Baptism of water, must now undergo a Baptism of blood and then bring a Baptism of fire. Jesus must become God’s enemy, face God’s anger, and endure God’s punishment, that he might make atonement for your sin by his blood. Because he did, you could be baptized into him and live.  For unlike Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, your Baptism at the font was a bath in the positive sense of the word, as the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, was poured over you to “cleanse you from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7).

 

Not only was this so, but through this precious Sacrament Christ also bestowed upon you the Holy Spirit that had been given to Him during his Baptism, when he descended on Him in bodily form like a dove.  And the Holy Spirit created faith in your hearts, for that is his office, to put you into a new place as children of God and recipients of his grace.

 

Thus what happened at Jesus’ Baptism also happened at your Baptism.  Heaven itself was opened - for it had been closed to you by sin.  But it is closed no longer. For having been washed and cleansed in the blood of Christ and sanctified by his Spirit, “You should become heirs, Paul tells Titus, “according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  §

 

The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of Saint Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan. He will soon be making a homiletical contribution to The Bride of Christ: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgical Renewal.