Text: Luke 3:15-22
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel which was read earlier.
Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, asks the following question about Baptism: “What benefits does Baptism give?” He answers by saying, “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Those are indeed good words for us to remember about the gift of Holy Baptism that God grants to us, but something seems a bit off today. Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. When we look at how Luther defines the benefits of Baptism and Jesus, the two don’t make sense. Why would Jesus need forgiveness of sins, rescuing from death and the devil and eternal salvation?
When it comes to the Baptism of Our Lord, Luke has a condensed version of it. It begins with John the Baptist: “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ….” Once again, the emphasis is on John and whether he is the long-expected Messiah that had been promised from long ago. Naturally, John pushes the emphasis off of himself and onto the true Christ, Jesus: “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
One is coming, one who is mightier than John. John doesn’t try to steal the limelight, he doesn’t try to puff himself up, to make himself more important than what he is. He knows that it’s not all about him. He knows that he isn’t the focus. His job is to prepare the people for when the Messiah comes. And guess what, He’s coming. In fact, He’s already here and the people don’t even know it.
That’s what makes John the perfect forerunner – He knows there is someone who is more important than He is – Jesus, the true Messiah, the Son of God. He is coming with an important task, one that some of the people will like, while others will not like: “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.” In short, Jesus is coming to gather those who believe in Him unto Himself, while those who reject Him will be damned.
Up until now, there is no mention of Jesus getting baptized in Luke’s account. In fact, Jesus’ Baptism is more of a footnote in his Gospel rather than a main focus. Luke goes on to make mention of John’s preaching to the people and of Herod who had John imprisoned. It’s not until the end of Luke’s account do we even hear of Jesus being baptized: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying….” If you blink, you’ll miss Luke’s account of Jesus’ Baptism. Luke’s account is so short, it misses some of the highlights of Matthew’s account, namely, how Jesus comes to be baptized.
Matthew’s account records one of the problems with Jesus being baptized. Matthew records, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” Why would Jesus need to be baptized in the first place? John has already gone on record saying that his baptism is a baptism of repentance. John knows who Jesus is. He knows He is the Son of God, and since He is the Son of God, what does Jesus need to repent of? To be the Son of God means that you are without sin. Therefore, Jesus has nothing to repent of because He has committed no sin. Going back to what Luther said, baptism works forgiveness of sins. Again, Jesus has no need of baptism because He has committed no sin. For John to baptize the sinless Son of God makes no sense.
So if Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, then why is He? That is the million-dollar question, is it not? Baptism is for sinners and Jesus is not a sinner. Baptism rescues from death and the devil. From what death does Jesus need rescuing since He is the Lord of life? Clearly, this is all a mistake and must be an error in the Bible, is it not?
Jesus being baptized is no error. It isn’t something extra, something that’s not needed. Remember who Jesus is – Son of God but also Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, but Jesus needs to be baptized. He doesn’t need to be baptized for His sake but for yours. He says in Matthew’s account, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” You see, this isn’t done for Jesus’ sake but for yours. Man brought sin into the world and man must take sin out of the world. While you are man, you cannot take sin out because you are a sinner. Regardless of what you do, you will never be able to remove your sin. You are conceived in it, you are born with it, you are a walking sin machine. You need to keep the Law perfectly but you cannot. That’s your problem and that’s where Jesus’ baptism comes into play.
This is “to fulfill all righteousness,” that is, to keep the Law of God. That’s what you are called to do, but because you can’t, Jesus does it in your place. It is not for Christ’s righteousness but it is for your righteousness. In order for sinful man to come to righteousness and receive salvation, Jesus must be baptized. He stands in the place of and for the sake of the sinner to fulfill that which God requires of the sinner – perfect obedience to God’s Law.
Here Jesus begins His ministry. Here He stands in the place of the sinner. He takes the place of John. He takes the place of those gathered. He takes the place of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He takes your place and mine. He takes upon Himself the sin of the entire world, offering us His holiness. He becomes the greatest of sinners, not with His own sin, but with our sin.
St. Paul expands on this in today’s Epistle reading from Romans: “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.” 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 us. The eternal life and salvation that He earned becomes ours. It is this great reversal that fulfills all righteousness. It is Christ taking our sin and giving us His perfection. It is Christ taking our death and giving us life.
Jesus’ baptism identified Him with the world of sinners. Paul describes Christ’s substitution for sinners by telling us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Even though Jesus never sinned, God made Him to be sin. Paul then takes us back to today’s Gospel. Through baptism, we are joined to Christ. His life is for us. His death is for us. His resurrection is for us. Jesus came to John to be baptized for us.
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.