Baptism of Our Lord
January 11, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Water has a special place in the work of God. Water was at the beginning. St. Peter writes that God formed the earth out of water and through water by His Word. He rescues with water, He delivers through water. He washes with water. Water comes from His pierced side.
God’s good pleasure is in the water. Because His Son goes down into the water. In the water is where Jesus reveals Himself to be Son of God and the savior of the world.
By Baptism, Jesus Takes His Place with Sinners, and He Takes His Place with You
It all begins with Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus came to the Jordan from Galilee, to John was preventing Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and You are coming to me?” (vv 13-14). There’s a disconnect here. Jesus, the Holy One of God wants to get down in the water where sinners are repenting for the forgiveness of sins. Does He have some hidden sin, some secret vice that’s eating away at His conscience? Does He need the forgiveness that John is preaching? John is confused. This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He should be the baptizer, and John the baptized. But Jesus responds, “Permit it now; for it is fitting for us to fill all righteousness in this way” (v 15).
Jesus’ baptism is where He takes His place with sinners. He goes to a place He doesn’t belong. He descends into water dirtied and muddied and mired with the filth of human sin. This is no place for God. John would have prevented Him, the Pharisees scowled at Him, the sinners stared in wonder at Him. The sinless Son of God gets down in the water with sinners.
The baptism of Jesus means that God is uncomfortably imminent. He’s close. Intimately familiar with every foible, every failure, every depraved thought, word, and deed that is manifest in our human flesh. And it’s not just that He looks on them like a divine programmer watching his simulation on a wall full of monitors. He gets close. And that’s terribly uncomfortable.
Not only is it uncomfortable, but it’s also offensive to human flesh. What’s offensive is that the holy God not only becomes flesh, but takes upon Himself the worst part of the flesh—its sin. Not just the little white sins that we think about when we prepare for confession—but the big ones as well. Especially the big ones. He takes upon Himself the swindling, the lying, the gossip, the slander, the theft, the adultery, the fornication, the murder, the abortion, the rebellion, every child’s disobedience, the hate for His Word and abuse of His Sacrament, the defamation of His name, the idolatry. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, says St. John the Baptist (Jn 1:29). That’s what Jesus shows when He dips Himself in the Jordan.
And this won’t do. We righteous ones spend ourselves trying to shield God from sin. After we come to faith, we get faith turned up on its head by insisting that sinners amend their lives before they’re welcome into God’s presence, instead of God’s presence causing them to amend their sinful lives. But to this false idea rings out Luther’s spiritual counsel: “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation.”
The fact that Jesus gets down in the water with sinners shows that to take away the sins of the world takes more than a wave of the hand or an, “Eh, it’ll be ok.” The severity of sin calls for something drastic. Jesus must put Himself among the sinners, He’s duty-bound to let that sin-soaked water wash all over Him. And He does so, so that He can take those sins with Him to the cross. The cross is laid on Jesus at His baptism, because along with the sins of the world, He must also bear the guilt and the punishment. And the Father looks down from heaven and is compelled to speak: This is My beloved Son; in Him I am well-pleased (v 17). The Father’s pleasure is His Son, who takes away the sins of the world.
At His baptism, Jesus takes His place with sinners, but He goes one step further. He also gives you a baptism as well. After He takes the sins of the world to the cross, suffers and dies for them, after He rises again, leaving that sin buried in the grave, He tells His disciples, While you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt 28:19-20a). Jesus extends baptism to all His disciples, including you. Your baptism is where Jesus takes His place with you.
If the work of Christ only remained in history, His death and resurrection would be no different from the conquests of Alexander the Great or the victory of the Allied Forces in World War II. We could recall the facts and draw inspiration from them, or find a noble example in them, but ultimately, the real work would be left to us to make something of that historical event.
But the Lord’s gift of baptism will not let us earn God’s favor by our own works. If we could, we would rob Christ of His glory and His death would mean nothing. But God still works today, He still works for you, and He does so by Holy Baptism.
The Large Catechism teaches, To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is still truly God’s own work. From this fact everyone may readily conclude that Baptism is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work can we do that is greater than God’s work? (LC IV.10). There is no more humbling and comforting word for us. Although we see human hands pouring water over a baby’s head, it’s not the human hands at work, but the hand of God. Baptism is His work.
But what power is there in water? The catechism continues, Understand the difference, then. Baptism is quite a different thing from all other water. This is not because of its natural quality but because something more noble is added here. God Himself stakes His honor, His power, and His might on it. Therefore, Baptism is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water, and whatever other terms we can find to praise it. This is all because of the Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word, which no one can praise enough. For it has, and is able to do, all that God is and can do (LC IV.17).
But isn’t just the Word that is important? So, and even much more, you must honor Baptism and consider it glorious because of the Word. For God Himself has honored it both by words and deeds. Furthermore, He confirmed it with miracles from heaven. Do you think it was a joke that, when Christ was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended visibly, and everything was divine glory and majesty? (LC IV.21).
But what about faith? Isn’t it faith in Christ alone that matters? The Large Catechism goes on, Our would-be wise, “new spirits” assert that faith alone saves, and that works and outward things do nothing. We answer, “It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any use but faith, as we shall hear still further.” 29 But these blind guides are unwilling to see this: faith must have something that it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. So faith clings to the water and believes that in Baptism, there is pure salvation and life. This is not through the water (as we have stated well enough), but through the fact that it is embodied in God’s Word and institution, and that God’s name abides in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as the One who has given and planted His Word [Mark 4:14] into this ordinance and offers to us this outward thing by which we may gain such a treasure? (LC IV.28-29).
Finally, the Large Catechism teaches us that baptism is not just a one-tie deal, but a baptism that goes with us every day of our lives. In this way one sees what a great, excellent thing Baptism is. It delivers us from the devil’s jaws and makes us God’s own. It suppresses and takes away sin and then daily strengthens the new man. It is working and always continues working until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.
For this reason let everyone value his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly. Then he may ever be found in the faith and its fruit, so that he may suppress the old man and grow up in the new. For if we would be Christians, we must do the work by which we are Christians. But if anyone falls away from the Christian life, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy Seat does not draw back from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. Therefore, if we have received forgiveness of sin once in Baptism, it will remain every day, as long as we live. Baptism will remain as long as we carry the old man about our neck (LC IV.83-86).
Water has a special place in the work of God. He creates out of water, rescues with water, and finds His good pleasure in water. Because Jesus takes His place with sinners in water, and He takes His place with you in water.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
 Martin Luther. Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Theodore G. Tappert, tr. and ed. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003, p. 110.
Large Catechism quotations taken from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.