As we turn to our Gospel reading for today, we meet John the Baptist again. As Luke records, “the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ….” It must have been a good feeling that John the Baptist had for the people to think of him so highly that they would see him as the Christ. Someone other than John might have let this go to their head, maybe play along with the thoughts of the people. However, John would have none of this. His ministry was to prepare the way for the Coming One, One who would be infinitely more powerful than he was, One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, One who would ultimately be the judge of the living and the dead. John did not feel himself worthy of any of this, not even to untie the sandal strings of this Coming One.
Instead of being the Christ, John was merely the final Old Testament prophet preparing the way for the Messiah, the Christ. His work was to make the final preparations pointing the world’s attention to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the ultimate and perfect solution to all the sinful acts of Adam and Eve, their descendants, and all the way down to you and me. But people, asking their own questions and inventing their own answers, had their own ideas of what the Christ should be like. They needed the correction that John’s preaching provided.
John responds to the people, “‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” The correction John’s preaching provided came in his famous exhortations to repent of all one’s sin and thus also to receive God’s forgiveness.
Ultimately, that is our problem: sin and forgiveness. If you sin, you need to be forgiven. But if you do not sin, then you do not need to be forgiven. It must be good if you are the person who does not need to be forgiven because you have not sinned. What a good feeling that person must have knowing that they are so righteous before God and not like the lowly sinner. Sadly, there are many who think that way, both Christian and non-Christian alike. But we confess with St. John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
John came to preach a message of repentance, a message that the Church needed to confess then and one which the Church needs to confess today. The Church is full of sinners. That fact has never changed. John recognized that fact and that was the message that he was preaching and he didn’t hold back any when it came to that preaching. Jesus will come and separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. He will separate those who are true believers from those that are not. The Christian receives eternal life while the non-Christian receives eternal damnation. That is the work of the Messiah and that is what Christ comes on the scene to do. All of that begins today.
John the Baptist has done a good job up to now of preparing the people to receive Christ and today marks that day when Christ begins His ministry. Jesus is baptized. Luke doesn’t record much of the details but Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus came to John in order to be baptized. John was leery of baptizing Jesus but does so at Jesus’ request. Following the Baptism of Jesus, the entire Trinity presents itself. Luke records, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.””
God the Father and God the Holy Spirit acknowledged the sacrifice Jesus made as He took our sin onto Himself and clothed us in His righteousness. 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 that of 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.
This is not an everyday event. Heaven, where God dwells, opened its door to earth, because there, on earth at the Jordan River, Christ the Son of God stood. Did the bodily form of the Spirit leave Christ immediately? We do not know. Scripture is silent on that. For all we know, there was a dove, the Holy Spirit, perched upon the shoulder of Christ throughout His ministry. But more likely, the form of the dove disappeared soon after the Baptism. Yet, although the bodily form of the dove disappeared, the Spirit remained. He did not depart from Christ; not then, not ever. The Spirit remained on Him so that Christ could baptize His own Church with the same Spirit.
Therefore, Christ’s Baptism was not for Him – it was for you. He received the Spirit so that He could give it to you. The very same Dove descended on you when the waters of Baptism touched you. And so the same Father’s voice was for you. He tells you that you are His child. Everything that is His now belongs to you: forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Here at His baptism, Jesus took our place under the burden of our sin. As our substitute, He carried out God’s plan perfectly. The mission that Jesus began at His baptism was successful. He opened the way to heaven. He offers to join us to Himself through baptism. The Holy Spirit gives us the faith that receives that offer. God the Father adopts us into His family by that faith. When the time comes for us to leave this world, the heavens will open, the angels will carry us home and we will hear the Father say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.