Homily preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Sunday 9 January 2011.
Text: Matthew 3:13–17
It really made no sense. John the Baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Messiah was coming and he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.
And so they came. Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. It was one mighty washing: the waters of the Jordan being stained with the crimson sins of the repentant sinners of Jerusalem and Judea, all of them eager to be found to be gathered as wheat into the Lord’s barn at the coming of His kingdom, not be burned up as chaff.
So what was Jesus doing, asking to be immersed in these same waters of the Jordan, to receive the sinners’ baptism? The pure lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, asking to be baptised by John, who has come to prepare the sinners of Israel for His coming? John’s reaction is not only understandable; it’s the only reaction that makes sense: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? ”
John, though a sinner, had been appointed by God to baptise other sinners. Jesus, the pure Lamb of God, not only had no need to be washed by John. By undergoing the baptism of John, Jesus, the Holy One of God, would place Himself under the ministry of John—the sinless one receiving a blessing from a sinner. So it really made no sense, and John’s only sensible response was to prevent Him and ask to be baptised by Him instead.
We can only give those things to others that we have and they don’t.
* * * * *
We can only give those things to others that we have and they don’t. What could John impart to Jesus that He didn’t already have? What gift could a baptism in the Jordan bestow to the Son of God?
Here Jesus’ reply: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” He doesn’t say, “to fulfil my righteousness”, as if His baptism was for His benefit, as if He was receiving something that He needed. Rather, it was to fulfil “all righteousness”—God’s righteousness, and ultimately your righteousness.
When Jesus stepped into the river Jordan and received the sinner’s baptism, He was washed with water that was running thick with the sins of others. In His incarnation, Christ shared with us our human nature. At His baptism, He shared with us our sins. The sinners of Jerusalem, Judea and the region surrounding the Jordan had their sins washed away, receiving through John the forgiveness they did not have. As it were, the water carried away the dirt of their sin into the river—and now Jesus had those sins poured on Him as He took on our guilt.
From that moment, Jesus was in His Father’s eyes ‘the greatest sinner’, to borrow a phrase from Luther. Not for any sin He had committed, but because He was bearing in His body the sins of all humanity. And from that moment onwards, He was headed for Calvary, where He was to nail those sins onto the cross. Left there, they would no longer burden Him—or you or me.
This great exchange—our sins for His righteousness—took place at first when Jesus was baptised. He received what He didn’t have, sin, in order to impart to sinners what they don’t have, righteousness.
Therefore, it was the beginning of the fulfilment of all righteousness.
By submitting to the sinners’ baptism, Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness. Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans: I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Contrary to what we by nature assume, God’s righteousness—His just and true nature—is not shown chiefly when He justly punishes evildoers, but when He seeks to free them from their evil. In Christ, God’s justice and love meet: His justice demands payment for sin; His love sends His only-begotten Son to make that payment. His justice demands that sinners should bear their own punishment; His love sends His only-begotten Son to take on our sins in order to bear the punishment for them.
And so at His baptism, Jesus began the fulfilment of God’s righteous-ness—God’s righteousness whose goal was your righteousness.
When Jesus was baptised, the heavens were opened to him. Humanity, homeless and fatherless since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, was once again being brought into communion with its Creator.
Ever since, the heavens have remained open to the man Jesus. In Him, God the Father looks on man and declares: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” At His baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on man, hovering over the waters of new creation, as He hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation.
* * * * *
And just as it was your sin that Christ took on Himself at the Jordan, it is to you that He brings His righteousness. In your baptism, Christ comes to you through water—water sanctified by His word and promise. As we heard in the Epistle reading, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”. In baptism, you enter Christ and Christ enters you. In baptism, the Father looks on you and declares, “This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with who I am well pleased.” In baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon you to begin the work of new creation in you. In baptism, the heavens are opened to you, as you are restored to fellowship with your Creator and you begin your journey back to your true home.
It is easy to be tempted to think of these gifts of baptism as something that happened once in the past. An event that got us started in our Christian lives—or perhaps before our Christian lives, years before we came to believe and trust in Christ. This is not how Scripture speaks, however. Baptism is always as a present reality: in baptism, you have put on Christ; baptism now saves you. Just as your life began when you were conceived and two sets of DNA came together, that DNA continues to sustain your life today—in the same way, your life in Christ began when you were united with Him in baptism, and the power of baptism continues to create, define and sustain your Christian life.
As we confess in the Small Catechism, baptism
“ indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity for ever. ”
This is the gift of Jesus’ baptism: He took on the sins of all repentant sinners on Himself so that, in our baptism, we may receive His holiness and righteousness. Our baptism, then, is a fount of blessing and sanctification throughout this earthly pilgrimage. As His baptism was the yoke He took on that would lead to His death on the cross, so our baptism is the wedding garment which gives us access into the marriage feast of the Lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world.
In the name of † Jesus.