This is the second time I’ve gotten to preach on this text, and I think I did a better job this time. (The first time was over vicar year, so not a lot to expect there — although it was one of my better vicar year sermons.) This text teaches us so much about baptism and the Triune God, and it does it mainly the Old Testament way — by showing you rather than telling you in abstract propositions. For this sermon, I had the delight of rummaging through sermons by John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and of course Luther. The Book of Concord was also handy for this one. I didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked (I would have gone back and reread the section in the Large Catechism if I’d had time, and the rest of Lenski’s section as well) but I’m still satisfied with what I did get to do. Reading the fathers was a good kick-start for this one. They jolted my tired neurons and got them firing again. Their excitement and wonder at this text (particularly Luther, who’s practically ecstatic) helped remind me of its potential. Reading the fathers is so helpful, I don’t know why more preachers don’t do it. You can even find the whole set of church fathers’ writings available online, for free. There’s gold in them thar hills…
Along with preaching this sermon, I had the honor of baptizing triplets. What an object lesson, eh? Baptisms are always special, and triplets make the newspaper (or they should…they probably will in our town of 900.)
I hope I lead people to a greater appreciation of the treasures they receive in their baptisms. If you are curious why baptism is important, read and meditate on the beginning of Romans chapter 6. It lays out beautifully just what baptism is and means. God bless your contemplation, and may He bless all His baptized children!
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (matt 3.13-17 niv)
Imagine you’re sitting in your living room, watching TV, when your doorbell rings. You open your front door and Michael Jordan is standing there. “Hi,” he says. “I heard you had a good jump shot in high school. Mind helping me out with mine? I think I’m a little off.” That’s odd, you think. Or you’re sitting at your desk at work in front of your computer, and Bill Gates, the president of Microsoft, comes up to you. “Can you help me fix my computer?” he asks. “I can’t get it to do what I want. There’s this little box that keeps coming up and I don’t know what it means.” Hmm. Or your phone rings and it’s Warren Buffett, investment guru and financial wizard. “I need some help with my money – could you help me? What are you doing with yours?” he asks you. Huh.
If you had any of those things happen to you, you’d probably feel like John the Baptist in our Gospel for today. Here he is, in the wilderness by the Jordan, surrounded by sinners. All day long he listens to people confess their sins, and then he announces God’s grace to them and baptizes them. He is a sinner and he knows it. And now Jesus comes to him and wants to be baptized? Wait a minute, something’s backwards here.
Jesus Himself gives us the reason why He was there: “to fulfill all righteousness.” Okay, but what does that mean? We know Jesus wasn’t there for Himself. Jesus had no sin of His own. He was holy and perfect. Even His enemies were forced to admit that there was nothing they could hang on Him. He once asked them, “Who of you can prove me guilty of sin?”, and the silence afterward was deafening. Jesus isn’t there for the same reason as all the other sinners around Him – to be baptized in repentance for the forgiveness of His sins. He doesn’t have any. No, Jesus is baptized for your sins, and for the sins of the children we saw baptized this morning, and for my sins.
Jesus comes like a sinner, in place of sinners. He willingly submits to a sacrament that only sinners need, and He does so not for His own sake. He was our perfect Substitute. He submits to fulfill all righteousness for you. He wanted nothing to be left undone that was needed to save you, to provide you with the perfect righteousness God demands. Nothing would be overlooked, forgotten, or missed of all that the Father required. Jesus made sure that every last thing was done that was needed to present you holy and blameless in God’s sight. Everything you need before God, everything you aren’t but you should be, Jesus gives you – and His baptism is a crucial part of that. He willingly comes like a sinner to provide perfect righteousness for us before God, that we might become His own, His dearly beloved children, just as Christ was dearly beloved by His Father.
When John hears that Jesus is coming to fulfill all righteousness, he realizes why Jesus is here. He doesn’t try to argue anymore and does as he’s commanded. Then Jesus comes up out of the water, and something miraculous happens. God reveals Himself more clearly and plainly than He ever had before this, and as He has seldom done since then. God has only revealed Himself this clearly a handful of times. To Moses on Sinai – at the dedication of Solomon’s temple – on the Mount of Transfiguration right before Jesus began His great Passion – none of them are as complete or as visible as here. Here the Son is present as a man, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the Father’s voice of love is heard from the heavens. All three persons of the Triune God are unmistakably present and participating as Jesus is baptized. And what are they showing us? What do they teach us? What are we supposed to take away from this?
For one thing, what we’ve done here today in baptizing these babies is right and pleasing to God. We know for a fact that God is pleased by the fact that these babies are baptized. We don’t have to wonder. We don’t have to say, “Gee, I hope this is something God wants us to do but I’m not sure.” How could God not be pleased with this if He unites Himself so visibly with this act of baptism? How could God not approve of this if He chooses to show Himself to everyone there so openly and visibly? God is showing unmistakably that He approves of baptism and wants us to use it for ourselves and for our children by His revealing Himself here.
This also shows us that when we baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we’re not just using a formula of words. It’s not just the church’s way of inducting you into the club, like a new citizen taking an oath or a new soldier taking an oath of service to his country. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is as truly present and active in the baptisms we received, just as all three persons of the Trinity were when Jesus was baptized. The Triune God puts His name on us in baptism. We are His. We belong to Him. In the movie Toy Story, Woody the toy cowboy belongs to a little boy named Andy. To prove it, he looks on the bottom of his foot, and Andy’s name is written there. Andy put his name on Woody. He marked him as his own. Woody belongs to Andy; Andy looks out for Woody and keeps him safe. The same thing happens to us in baptism. The Triune God makes us His own. He puts His name on us, and when God does that, it’s saving. Heaven has opened for you, just as it did over Christ when He was baptized.
Today heaven has opened for these three little babies, and it stands open today for all who have been baptized. This is God’s great gift to us and to our children, that He would act to overcome our sin and bring us into His heavenly kingdom. When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came upon Him. This is more than just a bird landing on Him. In the Bible, when the Spirit comes upon someone, miraculous things happen. Samson tore apart a ferocious lion with his bare hands and struck down thousands of enemies by the Spirit of the Lord. The apostles fluently spoke languages they’d never studied. People could foretell the future and know things only God knows, when the Spirit came upon them.
The Spirit comes upon Jesus to equip Him for His ministry. This is to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Our first lesson from today is another prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus fulfills here. Our second lesson, from the book of Acts, describes how Jesus began His ministry after He was anointed by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit also does a miracle each time someone is baptized. We saw it happen already here this morning. He washes away the stain of original sin and leaves each of us with pure and clean souls. The Spirit also comes upon us when we’re baptized. He comes to kindle faith in our hearts and to live there, the One by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit brings God’s love to us by giving us the faith that makes us God’s children.
Because we are baptized, we each hear what Jesus did: “This is my beloved Son; with Him I am well pleased.” When God looks at you, He’s just as pleased with you as He is with Jesus. You are totally and completely pleasing to Him. Nothing and no one makes God happier, than that you are His child. And the reason for that? Not because of who you are to start out with. Not because you’re such an outstanding Christian. Only because God sees Christ when He looks at you. Everyone who’s baptized wears the robes of Christ’s righteousness. By faith their sins are covered and God no longer sees them! He only sees…Jesus, His perfect and beloved Son. The one who makes Him happiest and who delights Him entirely. God is that pleased with you because you’re baptized into Christ. You’ve been made a full partaker of His cross and resurrection, and that makes you holy in His sight. God’s love will never depart from you, nor will His covenant of love with you ever be shaken. It’s more enduring than the hills – more stable and reliable than the mountains. Nothing can take God’s love away from you when you’re baptized and beloved by God. Amen.