Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why Jesus Was Baptized; Why You Are Baptized

The Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 13, 2013
To get an understanding of why John was so puzzled when Jesus came to him to be Baptized by him, listen to what Matthew had said earlier in chapter 3, right before today’s Gospel reading: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”’” Matthew goes on to say that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Furthermore, Matthew tells us that John said “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The very next thing that happens is what we heard in today’s Gospel reading, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” No wonder, as Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

Baptism is a treasure. It is a rite and a Sacrament the Church has cherished since our Lord Jesus Christ instituted it. We cherish it because it is the very means by which a child of wrath becomes a child of God. It is the blessed way in which a sinner is forgiven; in which a person who is dead in sins is resurrected to new and eternal life. John was rightly puzzled. “I’ve been paving the way for You. I’ve been preaching repentance and Baptizing people. I’ve been pointing people to You and now that You’ve come, You’re not going to preach, You’re not going to Baptize, You’re not going to take over for me… You’re going to be Baptized?”

I have to imagine John trying to keep his hands steady as he Baptized Jesus, having just proclaimed to everyone their need for repentance and Baptism, and now the sinless Son of God was requesting Baptism at his very hand. Like John, we know our need for Baptism. Also like John, we don’t understand why it is that Jesus needs to be Baptized. He had no need for repentance. He hadn’t sinned. He wasn’t dead in sins and in need of being made a new creation. He came to save us from sins.

John acquiesces, however. It’s only right that when Jesus says, “Here’s the thing, do it the way I’m saying it,” that you do it. John in this regard truly is what he had said he was, he was not worthy in comparison with Christ. He came to be the one to prepare the way for Jesus and when he does what Jesus says to do, namely, Baptize the one he has been preparing the way for, he is humbly submitting to that one, Jesus, the Messiah.

Jesus’ reason is that it is to fulfill all righteousness. Baptism is a passive thing. It is something done to you. One does not do anything in order to be Baptized. You are washed. You are forgiven. You are brought into new life. It’s similar to birth. You did not do anything in order to be born. Your mom was pregnant with you and then gave birth to you. You came out of her womb by the working of her and the doctor. This was passive on your part. You were the one receiving. You were the recipient of life. That’s the way it is in Baptism.

So when Jesus came in order to do—to forgive, to save, to restore, to create anew—it’s odd to John that Jesus would be the passive recipient of John’s Baptism. In Baptizing Jesus, John would be the one doing the doing, Jesus would be the one receiving. This, Jesus says, is what will fulfill all righteousness. We think of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness for us in terms of His acting, His working, His doing. What He is saying here is that it is in terms of His receiving. He is being a passive recipient, just as we are to be.

John may not have understood what this meant, this Baptizing Jesus in order to fulfill all righteousness, but Jesus certainly did. He knew that this Baptism He was receiving was connected with the other Baptism He would undergo; the Baptism by fire; the receiving of the wrath of God for sinners upon Himself. God was most certainly doing the work in this act of accomplishing salvation, or, as Jesus says it, fulfilling all righteousness, but He was doing it by Jesus being the passive recipient of the punishment and wrath for our sins.

Think of it. Jesus on the cross, suffering what we human beings rightly ought to suffer, namely, the wrath of God poured out on sinners. We are the ones who need to repent, not Him. And yet, He went humbly to the cross to suffer in our place. When Jesus shows up on the scene at the moment John is making his case that people need to repent and be Baptized, and Jesus, instead of Baptizing, as John said He would, is Himself Baptized, we see what Jesus was doing. He was receiving. He was receiving what we ought to receive. When you’re Baptized, you don’t do anything. You receive. God does something to you.

When Jesus was Baptized, it was the same thing. He was receiving. But He wasn’t doing it because He needed it. He was doing it to fulfill all righteousness. In other words, He was doing it for us. He was already accomplishing His work of salvation for us in receiving what we ought to receive, namely, a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Often in the New Testament when the word ‘fulfill’ is used it’s in terms of fulfilling prophecy. Isaiah 53:11 has this prophecy: “by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities.” This prophecy connects Jesus’ Baptism, as He said of it, in order to fulfill all righteousness, with the cross, bearing the iniquities of all sinners. The theologian Leon Morris makes this great statement about what it was Jesus was doing when He turned the tables upside down on John the Baptist: “Jesus might well have been up there in front standing with John and calling on sinners to repent. Instead he was down there with the sinners, affirming his solidarity with them, making himself one with them in the process of the salvation that he would in due course accomplish.”

Isaiah 53 is the clearest passage in the Old Testament of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah who came to suffer for the sins of the world. We rightfully see this passage as pointing to the cross. With Jesus’ rationale here at His Baptism, perhaps we should see that prophecy, as well, as encompassing all of His work of salvation, as Isaiah 53 also says that “He was numbered with the transgressors.” There Jesus was, in the Jordan River, with a bunch of sinners who needed to repent; who needed to be Baptized; who needed Jesus. And there was Jesus, with them in those waters.

There was Jesus, the one Matthew earlier in his Gospel account said of His birth, that this was Emmanuel, God with us. God was with those people on that day. They had come out to hear an itinerant preacher and in John heard a message of repentance, and a call to be Baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. What they got was Jesus coming into the water with them, being Baptized, fulfilling all righteousness.
It would be one thing to talk about Jesus’ Baptism as the historical event it is and leave it as that. But the Baptism of Jesus actually means something for you. It affects who you are and how you live. When you consider what those people got when they heard John and were Baptized by John, that they received Jesus having the water poured on Himself also, that He was joining with them in this, you begin to see what Paul in Romans 6 was talking about when he said that in Baptism we are united with Christ. Our Old Adam is drowned, our New Man is raised up, as we are joined with Christ in Baptism in His death and resurrection.
This is how Paul says what he does in the Epistle reading today: “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

It might seem that having water applied to you and words spoken in connection with that water is too simple of a thing to be the major thing it is. But this is how God works. He uses the simple, the lowly, the foolish. The Catechism even asks this question, “How can simple water do such great things?”, in response to the question, “What benefits does Baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” And so the question: “How can water do such great things?” And the answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

In the Epistle Paul brings home the purpose Jesus said John should Baptize Him: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” God is the source of your life. How? In Christ Jesus. God has made Him our wisdom, and in light of Jesus’ words about why He was Baptized, in order to fulfill all righteousness, our righteousness, and our sanctification, and our redemption. When you are Baptized He joins Himself with you. You are united with Him. All righteousness is fulfilled for you. You have purpose. You have new life.

And as Paul said in the Epistle, consider your calling, continue to pray as we did in the Collect of the Day, “Father in heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children and inheritors with Him of everlasting life.” Amen.


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