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For this week’s bulletin, click here: First Sunday after the Epiphany — Baptism of Our Lord 2012

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15Jesus 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.”

— Matthew 3:13-17 (niv84)

Did you get what you wanted for Christmas? By now you know what was in all those boxes and paper and ribbons under the tree. You’ve probably taken the gifts you didn’t want or didn’t need back to the store and gotten what you really wanted. Some of it was wasn’t very useful or special. Some of it you wonder why the other person gave it to you. But some of it was just what you wanted, and if you were very good, some of it was something that you didn’t even know you wanted, but that you love. The paper comes off and reveals the gift underneath. Today we see something revealed by the Jordan River as Jesus is baptized: God’s own Son is revealed to us. The beloved Son’s baptism washes us clean.

John the Baptist had already been drawing crowds for some time. They were there for the Word he preached: repentance from sin and faith in the coming Christ. They were also there for the baptism he gave. In the Old Testament, God commanded people to wash objects like pots or furniture to make them ceremonially clean. This was a familiar idea for them, and now they were receiving the same thing for their souls when they were baptized by John.

Now someone else comes with the crowds to be baptized. Jesus is among those who go out into the desert of Judea to the Jordan. Something doesn’t seem right here to John, though. It doesn’t make sense to John that Jesus has come to him. He tries to talk Jesus out of being baptized.

He says, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” John knows that Jesus has no sins to be forgiven, nothing to be repentant for. He understands that Jesus is wholly sinless. Jesus has nothing to wash away – no sin stains His soul.

John is thinking, “This is kind of backwards, don’t you think, Lord? Why are You coming to me to be baptized? I’m not worthy to untie Your sandals. You’ve already surpassed me because You were before me. I don’t get why you’re here, Lord. This makes no sense to me. You being who You are, and asking for what You are – something’s not adding up here.”

Now add to this the fact that John knew what he was like himself. He knew the sin that lived in his heart. John could preach repentance so well because he knew what he was like on the inside. He wasn’t like the Pharisees, who loaded people down with heavy burdens grievous to be borne and then didn’t help them carry them. John knew what sin was and what it did to people because he knew what it did to himself, how it controlled his life at times and warped his thoughts and actions – so he attacked sin in people the best way he knew how: he did what he was called to do — preach God’s grace and offer Holy Baptism to all who were repentant of their sins.

That’s why the whole situation felt so backwards to John the Baptist. Here was Jesus — who was obviously holier than John was, because without a doubt the lesser is baptized by the greater — coming to be baptized like any other sinner. He doesn’t need what baptism gives, but He’s here anyway.

So why is Jesus here at the river Jordan? Two reasons: one reason for us, one reason for Himself. Jesus was baptized not for Himself, but for us. He willingly takes the place of sinners and receives a sinner’s baptism so that we who are sinners might become in Him the righteousness of God. All of Jesus’ life was designed to swap His righteousness for our sin, and His baptism is no exception. That’s why Jesus says He is baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.”  By saying this, Jesus is telling John, “It’s okay, it’s fine. We should be doing this. This is how things are supposed to go. You know and I know that I don’t need this for Myself. It’s not for My sake that I’m here, but for the sake of everyone in this fallen world. I’m going to take on all their sin and their shame and their guilt, and I’m going to carry it all the way to the cross.”

Jesus was also baptized for Himself, in a sense, so He would receive the Holy Spirit. This had been prophesied in passages like Isaiah 42 — which we heard this morning – and in Isaiah 61. Also, every passage in the Old Testament that talks about Christ being anointed can be referred to this day. In His baptism Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit for His work of saving God’s people. Think of all the things Jesus was going to do in His ministry. He defeated the devil and destroyed his evil work, preached the good news and drove out demons, raised the dead and encouraged the faint-hearted. Those are all things for which He’d need the Holy Spirit. In our baptisms we too receive the Holy Spirit, although not in the exact same way Jesus did. We receive the gifts of the Spirit as the Spirit decides to give them to us, while Jesus by contrast received the Spirit without measure. This was because He was true God, and all three Persons of the Trinity share one essence intimately and their works toward the outside are indivisible. Scripture distinguishes the work of the persons of the Trinity from within the Trinity, but toward the world it’s just described as God working.

By being baptized when He doesn’t need to, Jesus is instituting Holy Baptism for us here. He is making it clear that God wants all sinners to be baptized and be saved, and that God is serious when He makes promises about baptism. God promises that baptism guarantees us life after death, because through it we take part in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. God promises that all our sins are forgiven through baptism, because the sinless Son of God placed His body that suffered and died for sin under the water. The Father is there too, speaking from heaven, saying that all of Jesus’ obedience counts for us when we’re baptized, and when we’re baptized God the Father loves each of us and looks at us just like He looks at His only Son. When we are baptized we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, which means that God no longer sees our sins when He looks at us. Instead, all He sees is…Jesus. The Holy Spirit is there at Jesus’ baptism, and He’s present at our baptisms too. We could almost picture Him hovering over the waters like He was in Genesis chapter 1, about to make us new creations in Christ, as we’re baptized. The triune God is truly present and works through Holy Baptism.

Now, if all of that is true, why would we ever take our baptisms for granted? Why would we ever be lackadaisical about getting our children or ourselves baptized, if we never have been? Why would we ever tolerate it when someone purposefully withholds baptism from their little child or teaches that children should not be baptized– |children that have a real sinful nature and really need what Jesus gives through baptism? Why would we ever think it’s okay that someone would deny the saving power of baptism? God Himself has placed all His power and love into baptism to give us heaven and comfort us. Why wouldn’t we treat that as one of the most precious possessions God can give someone?

Jesus’ baptism reveals something else too. God is broadcasting his approval of his Son and delight in his work. God is putting his stamp of approval on who Jesus is and what he’s doing. Think of the last pair of pants that you bought, or a child’s toy. Oftentimes there will be a tag in the pocket or on the bottom of the item that says, “Inspected by #59.” That tag is there to tell you that the thing you bought has been checked over to see that everything’s in order. It has everything it should and nothing is missing. It’s complete and ready to be used. That’s what the Father is doing here with Jesus. He is telling everyone there, and everyone who hears these words now, that Jesus is his very own Son, the one he loves the best, and that he delights in all he’s done. God is putting his stamp of approval on Jesus and letting everyone know that he is greatly pleased with him. If you wanted any more conclusive proof that Jesus is God’s Son, it’s hard to beat this.

It seems that John hadn’t known Jesus’ full identity as the Son of God prior to this. John had known Jesus personally, and John had been waiting for the Son of God to appear, because God had told him that the Messiah would be pointed out to him, but John didn’t seem to know fully that Jesus was the Messiah. He may have had his suspicions that Jesus was the Messiah, but it takes what happens here to reveal Jesus as the Son of God to Israel and to provide the proof that John’s faith was willing to wait for. The fact that John proclaimed Christ’s coming so fearlessly without the God-given certainty he gets here makes his preaching all the more remarkable. John preached fearlessly and ignited faith in the hearts of his hearers – and it’s only when the skies open, the Father speaks, and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove that John is given divine certainty.

God’s full favor and love shone on Jesus when that voice from heaven spoke. Sometimes a look or a word will contain all the love that a person has and make it visible to the whole world. An aged mother looks at her grown child with a lifetime of love in her eyes. A wife looks at her husband like he’s the greatest thing she’s ever seen. A young mother bends over her sleeping baby and studies him intently with a gaze full of love. Such love expressed in a glance or a word says: I love you, I’m so happy with who you are and what you’ve become. It’s a stamp of approval, one of the greatest you’ll find – that of love. That’s what you can think of God the Father doing here, as He declared with great delight, “This here is My Son, and He pleases Me most out of anyone and everything.”

And you have pleased God that same way. You have God’s stamp of approval on you and your life. The Father loves you just as much as if it had been you all along. All of the love that the Father has for His Son comes to you now. God is well pleased with you, finally. He looks at you and he sees Jesus’ holiness. All your righteousness is fulfilled – completed – in full bloom. God approves of you. Heaven stands open for you, just as it opened above Jesus’ head when the Father spoke. That’s why Jesus’ baptism matters – because the beloved Son’s baptism washes us clean. Amen.