Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord. During these Sundays after Epiphany, we consider the various ways that God shows Himself. The traditional Gospel for this Sunday focuses on the "Baptism of Jesus." Since we are in the first year of the three year cycle, the narrative of this Baptism is from the Gospel of Matthew.
God showed Himself in many ways at Jesus' baptism. The Spirit showed Himself hovering as a dove hovers and landing on Jesus. The Father made His presence known with the words from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Both the Father and the Spirit put their seal of approval on Jesus as the true Son of God. God opened the heavens themselves in order to provide these revelations to John, to those who waited for John's baptism, and to us who read and hear the eye witness accounts of those who were there.
Jesus' Baptism along with His ascension into heaven formed the bookends of Jesus' visible, earthly ministry. We learn this from the Apostle Peter when the disciples were in the process of calling a man to replace Judas the betrayer. They wanted a man who had witnessed Jesus' work - who had witnessed Jesus' public ministry. Peter said, [Acts 1:21-22] 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." So we see that John's baptism of Jesus began Christ's public ministry, and the ascension into heaven ended His visible, earthly ministry - the ministry that opened heaven.
How is it that the perfect God-man begins His public ministry by standing in line with sinners in order to be baptized? This is the predicament that presents itself to John as this perfect, holy creator of all things now stands as a man in the Jordan. How can John baptize this perfect Son of God into repentance for the forgiveness of sins? John hesitated because he didn't understand why the holy, sinless Son of God needed baptism. Furthermore, even if this holy, sinless one needed baptism, he himself was certainly not worthy to do it. He said, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" With these words John confesses that he, John, is the sinner. He is the one who needs forgiveness. He is the one who needs the baptism into repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Now, if John calls himself a sinner, then what chance do we have? John leaped for joy in his mother's womb at the approach of his savior in Mary's womb. Our savior comes to us in Word and Sacrament. Do we leap for joy? Are we willing to confront people who lead others astray from God's Word as John did when he labeled the scribes and Pharisees as a brood of vipers? Are we willing to give our lives for our faith as John did? How do we stack up compared to John? If John is a sinner in need of Christ's baptism, then who are we?
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." If Jesus were to explain himself, He might say it this way, "In order that poor sinners might come to righteousness and receive salvation, you must now baptize me. I have become a sinner for the sake of sinners and must fulfill the things that God requires of sinners. In this way, sinners may become righteous through me."
Here Jesus begins the work of salvation by taking the place of sinners. Here Jesus takes John's place - your place - my place. Here Jesus takes up the sin of the world and offers us the gift of His holiness. He becomes the greatest sinner of all not with His own sin, but with our sin. Here He takes up our burden for us. As John performed the simple act of pouring water on Jesus, God poured on Him the iniquity of us all.
St. Paul expanded on this in today's Epistle: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Here Paul tells us that our baptism joins us to Christ and His baptism. Our sin becomes His and His perfection becomes ours. His innocent suffering and death are credited to our account. The eternal life and salvation that He earned are already ours. We will rise from death to live in eternal joy just as He rose from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. Through His Son, Jesus, God has done everything needed to secure our salvation for us.
As Jesus submitted to the next phase of God's plan of salvation, God tore open the heavens. In this revelation God affirms that Jesus is fulfilling the office of the Christ.
Here the Holy Spirit acknowledges and praises the Son for submitting to this baptism that takes Him one step closer to the cross. Here the Spirit descends and hovers over the water just as He did at creation. Here He hovers ready to take up the job of re-creation by conferring the gift of faith on us and so enabling us to receive the gifts Jesus earned for us with His suffering, death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. As the Holy Spirit hovered over the water, He came to rest on Jesus and revealed Him as the Son of God.
The Father also praises His Son with His voice from heaven. The Son has been obedient to the Father's will and submitted to the baptism of water that will ultimately lead to the baptism of blood on Calvary. Here the Father acknowledges that the Son is indeed living a life of perfection and fulfilling the promises given through the prophets. In this way, the Father also reveals Jesus as His Son.
There is great wonder in these words from the Father. The Father tells us that Jesus is the cause and target of His good pleasure. He tells us that Jesus is His beloved Son. Since Jesus stands in our place, the Father's pleasure with His Son is also His pleasure with you and me. Because the Father is pleased with His Son, Jesus, He is pleased with us.
As the Father and the Spirit point to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, they also reveal themselves. They show us that Christ's mission to open heaven is the will and work of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit puts in a rare appearance in physical form - like a dove. The Father declares His pleasure with the Son. While Jesus is the member of the Trinity who became flesh and died on the cross, we see in this reading that all three members of the Trinity are actively involved in opening the way to heaven.
Since God has done all things in order to save us and there is nothing we can do to secure our salvation, does that mean there is nothing left for us to do at all? Is there not a way for us to even say thank you to God for the salvation He has so generously prepared for us? Indeed there is. When Jesus asked John to baptize Him, He did NOT say, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for ME to fulfill all righteousness." But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus made John a participant in the plan of salvation.
We too have the privilege of sharing our salvation with others. God can share His Word with others as He speaks His word through us. In thanksgiving, we can share the story of our salvation. We can tell how Jesus took our sin upon Himself, carried it to the cross, and died on our behalf. We can tell how He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. We can tell how He will one day return to take us and all who believe in Him to live with Him forever. We can tell how God saved us without any merit or worthiness in us.
The mission that Jesus began at His baptism was successful. He opened a way to heaven. He offers to join us to Himself through baptism. The Holy Spirit gives us the faith that receives that offer. God adopts us into His family by that faith. When the time comes for the believer to leave this world, the heavens will open and the voice will say, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Amen.
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