The First Sunday After the Epiphany - The Baptism of Our Lord
January 15-16, 2011
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Dear Friends in Christ,
The Baptism of our Lord is one of the two events that frame the season of Epiphany. The other is the Transfiguration. This is a season that is needed more than ever. For is a season that is dedicated to the proposition that a man if revealed to be God. In this it is the opposite if the Christmas, the season that precedes it. For Christmas is dedicated to the proposition that God is revealed to be a man. The coming of the Magi, serves as the hinge. They mark then end of the time when we focus on God becoming flesh. They focus us on the idea of this infant as King. And this sets the stage for Christ’s public ministry in which He revealed as fact all that the shepherds and Magi had seen and proclaimed.
Matthew records a curious exchange between Jesus and John. John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus. In fact he suggests that he cannot baptize Jesus. This goes to the relationship of the two men. They were cousins. We don’t know what degree of cousins, but probably second or third cousins. Their mothers were cousins, so they were not first cousins. John knew who Jesus was. He had known this from infancy. He is a prophet. The Holy Spirit had revealed this to John. Beyond this, we don’t know a great deal. Jesus would have likely been disciples to a rabbi. Perhaps that was John. It would seem most likely. In the Gospel of John, the Baptist states that One who comes after him is greater than him. John could be making a reference to Jesus being one of his disciples. But the reference is not clear and could be taken more than one way. In any event, Matthew makes it clear that these two men knew one another. John knew that this was the Christ. He knew that this was Holy God. He knew that this was the One who would unleash the fire of the Holy Spirit to purify the believers and consume the unbelievers. This is why John said that Jesus should baptize him. In this John is saying that He is a sinner who also had to be made holy. He is also saying that Jesus is the One who make him holy. Yet, Jesus is asking to be baptized by John.
What is Baptism? Is this the same as Baptism today? Baptism is simply a ritually washing. This is the meaning of the word. The Jews Baptized all sorts of things including animals. It is not a literal washing. It is a symbolic washing. Now we want to dance around that word symbolic very carefully. In this case we are talking about a symbol that conveys what it symbolizes. We could call this an empowered symbol. So it is not a literal washing but a ritual where water is applied to something. This symbolizes that it is being washed clean in some deeper way. And in baptism, there is a very real, deeper washing. Human baptism was common among the Jews. It was normally done when a pagan converted to Judaism. They were said to be reborn. Water is understood to symbolize the womb. They often took a new name - a Jewish name. This has created no end of confusion for us today. Often when we read about people in this era, men with Greek names were born Jews and men with Jewish names were converts! They were baptized because this was understood to show that God now had washed them clean. They are washed and reborn to now live in the presence of God.
Baptism always carried with it the idea of being washed clean of sin. So Baptism was used in another way. It was often used as a ritual of repentance. When one had committed some terrible sin, they would be baptized for repentance. This would show that they were again clean before God.
Now Christ is God. He is Holy. He is sinless. So to what is Christ being reborn? He is being reborn as a sinner. It is just as St. Paul explains: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:21) Christ, at His Baptism, is beginning His work of redemption by taking our sins upon Himself. In this way, all righteousness would be fulfilled. We would be counted as righteous before God’s judgement, because Christ took our sins upon Himself and paid the price of those sins. And what do we hear when Christ comes out of the water? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It pleases God the Father that the Son has taken our sins upon Himself. The Trinity speaks and acts in total unity.
This then for us, means that we can trust in our Baptism. We can take comfort in our Baptism. One of the problems for modern Christians is that we reduce our trust in God to vague and nebulous forms. We have sort of a general trust that isn’t very specific or and does mean very much. Rather, we are to place our trust in the things that God gives us. One of those things is Baptism. In the water, we are united with Christ. We come out of the water alive and clean, because Christ came out covered with our dirt, and died in our place. Baptism alone accomplishes this great exchange of places. This is why we clearly teach that one cannot be saved apart from baptism. There might be the odd occasion where someone dies before they are baptized. And certainly we would trust in the grace of God that they are indeed saved. But one cannot reject Baptism and be saved. So one can be can be saved before they are Baptized, but they cannot be saved outside of Baptism. Pastor Ron Mueller and I have sometimes spoken in this way. Some things are necessary and some things absolutely necessary. Baptism is necessary for salvation. On the other hand, Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, would be examples of something that is absolutely necessary for salvation. Since Baptism is a direct act of Christ, wherein He gets right into the water with us, we can and must trust in these holy waters. Here in the water, is Salvation. We need look no further than that.
Christ came to John to be Baptized. He entered the Jordan River to take our sins upon Himself. He makes Himself the scapegoat for our sins. Then, out in the wilderness He declares His power to overcome them. In this we can place our trust. For Christ, in entering the water, makes it a holy water that now cleanses us from sin. It does this not just once, but it is an ongoing flood of cleansing that makes us pure and holy each and every day. In this way Baptism becomes one of the physical, tangible means through which God acts. It becomes a place where we can trust. We can’t look up into the heavens. But we can, each day, look into the water, and there see Christ, our Savior.