The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
If there’s one thing we Lutherans are known for, it’s that we generally hold strong to the status quo. “This is what we’ve been doing for years” is the fighting mantra of many a congregation in our dearly beloved LCMS. “This is what we’ve always done.” Them’s fightin’ words! I’m reminded of the joke that asks how many Lutherans it takes to change a light bulb. Answer: Change? Status quo is the way to go!
As we look to our Gospel lesson for this morning, we can see a little bit of “Old Lutheranism” coming out of John the Baptist. Remember: John had been preaching a strong and brutally honest message of repentance out in the wilderness, far away from all the trappings and happenings of “civilized” life. This message of confession and repentance was joined together with baptism. People were coming to John, receiving baptism by him because they heard the cutting words of God spoken through this man wearing camel hair clothing, and they recognized the absolute necessity to have those sins washed away in the eyes of God.
In this way, we can certainly understand why John sounds so “Lutheran” when Jesus steps out of the crowd of sinners and enters into the Jordan River to be baptized. “Jesus, what are you doing here? This is a place where sinners come to have their sins washed away. Don’t you know that this is how this is supposed to work? You’re supposed to be dishing out a baptism of fire and judgment; not receiving a simple baptism of water from the likes of me.” And how does Jesus respond? Notice: He doesn’t cite some loophole in the bylaws of the constitution. He doesn’t get angry and blow-up at John because John is clearly ignorant as to what’s taking place, nor does He tell John that he’s had it all wrong up this point in terms of his preaching and teaching. No! In fact, Jesus validates John’s preaching and teaching by instructing John to allow this to take place this one time because His baptism is a necessary fulfillment of all righteousness.
So now comes our Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” What does it mean that all righteousness is fulfilled? What is righteousness, and whose righteousness are we talking about? Let’s face it: We don’t usually use this term in our everyday vocabulary unless we’re talking bad about someone; e.g., calling them a “self-righteous” fill-in-the-blank. In the way that we typically use this word to degrade a person for their thinking that their perfect and without blemish, Scripture repeatedly uses this same word positively to speak of God and His life-giving promise of forgiveness and salvation. Here at the edge of the Jordan River in the middle of the Judean wilderness God is keeping His promise that He made in the Garden of Eden that He will send a Messiah who will crush the heads of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus’ baptism is fulfilling God’s righteousness. It’s showing and proving that God does not make empty promises or bites off more than He can chew. The promise God makes in our Old Testament lesson for today (Isaiah 42:1-9) is being fleshed out in the person and work of Jesus.
So this still doesn’t answer WHY Jesus was baptized. Isn’t baptism for sinners? That’s what God tells us in His Word. Did Jesus have any sin that needed to be washed away in the waters of baptism? No, and John knew that. However, notice where Jesus comes from to be baptized—out of the midst of sinners. Jesus steps into the waters of baptism as one of us, though He Himself was without sin. Jesus was not being washed clean in the waters of Baptism, but was instead sanctifying these waters for us; consecrating them and setting them aside as His means of bringing all people into His victories over sin, death, and the grave. God’s plan and promise of salvation for all mankind was being “epiphanized,” that is, it was being manifested, revealed, and made known in the person of Christ, and we see this in the fact that upon Christ receiving the waters in our place, God the Father rends the heavens and speaks as He sends His Holy Spirit down in the shape of a dove so that all could physically hear and see that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed God’s righteous promise being fulfilled; a plan and promise begun in the waters of baptism, which flow directly into His substitutionary death and resurrection three years later.
In this way, we can recognize the sanctified waters of Christ’s baptism as all part of God’s plan to physically and tangibly “break in” to halt man’s status quo of sin and damnation. We can rightly recognize that God’s real and tangible action for our salvation begins in the womb of a virgin, entering into the waters of baptism, flowing from His own baptism, through His cross and His resurrection, and into our lives this very day. This is what St. Paul is talking about in the Epistle lesson for today. The victories of Christ’s death and resurrection continue to flow into our lives and are made ours through the waters of Holy Baptism. Christ’s victories are, in God’s eyes, our victories. For the faith that clings fast to the promise and Word of God in baptism, there is nothing to fear on this side of eternity; not sickness, not suffering, not even death! We are baptized into Christ, who overcame and crushed all of these things for us in His victorious and vicarious sacrifice. “It is finished” once and for all.
Dear friends: This is the reason that this Epistle lesson for today is also rightly included in our funeral liturgies. This is why we make use of the funeral pall in our funerals. It’s all baptismal and speaks to the life that is completely baptized into Christ, from birth to death! That little white cloth that is given to us in our baptisms; the little white cloth that symbolizes Christ’s perfect righteousness and looks like it barely covers even a portion of the infant being baptized, is finally recognized in death as completely covering over and hiding everything under that pall from our view. Notice: From God’s perspective, this is how it’s always been—completely covered in Christ. However, we’re a bit more stubborn. We’re a lot like Doubting Thomas in the sense in that we need something to see and behold; something to wrap our brains and our faith around. In that little baptismal handkerchief, we recognize a little life and little faith in Christ that is just beginning; a life of faith that will ideally grow and mature in Christ, just like that little handkerchief “grows” into a huge funeral pall at the end of life. Folks: Baptism is an ever-present reality in our lives, from cradle to grave. Our lives before God as completely forgiven and redeemed children of God are always recognized by Him as lives that are soaking wet in the realities and promises of our baptism, because in our baptism we were joined with Christ; joined in His perfect life which He led for us because we can not; joined in His perfect and all-atoning death, and joined in His resurrection to life eternal.
Now before I close, it’s also important to point out that baptismal faith also can’t help but freely share this Good News with others. The season of Epiphany is traditionally a time in the life of the Church that focuses especially on mission and evangelism and the sharing of the Good News of Christ. Dear fellow baptized believers: Jesus Christ is still speaking to us, “It is fitting for us in order to fulfill all God’s righteousness.” God has chosen to use the simple and “ordinary” means of the faithful confession of each and every baptized person to share His wonderful news that all mankind is forgiven in the completely substitutionary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That’s what true mission and evangelism means. From the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “gospel” or “good news of Christ,” we are called to simply “gospelize” the nations. Through you, God is still “epiphanizing” and manifesting and making Christ known to a world buried in sin and darkness. Notice: God doesn’t call you to simply be a “busy worker bee” or a good-deed-doing boy/girl scout who wears themselves out with their constant activity and busy-ness. He doesn’t call you to simply give money or raise funds or to be a part of a country club with tax-deductible benefits. He doesn’t call you to travel the world on “holy pilgrimage.” “If you want to be a really good Christian, you have to go to these particular holy sites.” He doesn’t demand that you become impoverished or celibate or a pastor or a deaconess or a foreign missionary. He doesn’t even call you to give a grand PhD-level theological dissertation, or to even offer up your own opinion to the world regarding His working of salvation in Christ. Your opinion doesn’t save anyone! He doesn’t call you to do or to speak about anything other than what He has already done for you and for the entire world in the work and person of Jesus Christ. That’s the simple, humble and privileged God-given vocation and purpose of every baptized child of God!
Freely sharing and faithfully confessing (with our words and our deeds) this life-giving, life-saving Gospel of Christ is actively fulfilling God’s righteousness; that is, it is actively participating with Christ in God’s righteousness as it ever moves closer to complete fulfillment on that last and glorious day.
May God grant you the strength, the courage, and the peace that comes with sharing and living in the blessed realities of the life that has been baptized into Jesus Christ.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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