Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 31:20 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have entered into the time of the Epiphany, which means, literally, a “shining upon.” Jesus, the Light of the world, shines so that people will see who He is, and what He has come to do. Jesus appears. And He appears in strange places, like in a house in Bethlehem where pagan philosophers come to worship Him. He appears in Egypt, the place of Israel’s slavery: the Lord of all creation under the threat of death. And now Jesus appears again, this time at the edge of the Jordan River, moving through the weeping crowds who have gathered to confess their sins and be baptized by John. But why here? This is the last place we might expect Jesus to appear, and it is clear that John feels the same. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” (Matthew 3:13)? John’s baptism is a baptism for sinners, confessing their sins. Of what sins shall Jesus repent? What evil has He done? What sin is in Him? None, of course. And so John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized; He tries to prevent Him from entering into that water, black with the sin of Israel.
It is not only the last place we would expect Jesus to be, it is the last place He should be. Sinners should be coming to Him; not He to sinners. That river of repentance is no place for the Messiah. It is no place for the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But Jesus is not confused; He didn’t take a wrong turn on His way to Jerusalem. He knows where He is and where He’s supposed to be: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Allow it for now, John. It will not always be this way. But it is necessary now; it is good, right, and salutary for us to fulfill all righteousness in this way.
Maybe you’re a little like John. You don’t think that where you are is any place for God. So you try to prevent Jesus from going there. You try to keep Him out of your life. It would be too much to admit to God, which would also mean admitting it to yourself, that you don’t have everything under control. Maybe it is shame about your life. What does it have to do with Him that you have been abused, or raped, or taken advantage of, or had an abortion, or been beaten down emotionally? What does it have to do with Him that you are fighting with the little demons who tell you that you are a bad parent, a bad spouse, a bad person? What does He know about your depression, about how you cry yourself to sleep over nothing in particular; or how you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? What does He know about how you hate your body, or how you hate your addiction? No, your life is no place for Jesus, not with all that. The sinless Lamb of God should not be there.
Or, if it’s not shame, maybe it’s pride. God is sort of an afterthought to everything that keeps you busy. In all honesty, you’re getting on pretty well by yourself. If something occupies your time on Sunday mornings, does it really matter if you miss a service or four? How does it affect your relationship with Jesus if you don’t come to church? You know what you believe and you’re comfortable with that. And what does all this religious stuff have to do with your “real” life, anyway? What does He have to do with school, work, children, soccer, bowling, morning coffee, afternoon tea, hanging out with friends; you know, all the stuff that actually makes up your life? What does He know about how busy your schedule is? Jesus just doesn’t really fit in too well with all that. But surely He understands how things are. And, really, just between you and me, how much sin is there in your life for the Lamb of God to take away?
And so you stand in the foul water of your shame, holding Jesus at arm’s length, and you keep it all inside so that you look like the Christian you wish you were. Or you stand proud on top of your life, keeping Jesus safe in His Sunday corner, because you can’t find all that much in your life that really concerns God. And you do your best to prevent Jesus from coming in and cleaning it all out. But you and I don’t have any say in whether He enters His creation. Whether we concede it or not, Jesus has already entered into the midst of all the garbage we have in our lives. One thing is clear: He wasn’t baptized for His sin. He was not baptized for His repentance. He didn’t confess His sin. He was baptized in the same place with of a bunch of sinners, who had done things over which they grieved. They had done things that made their faces burn with the memory. Those sinners—like the sinners in this building—had lied to their bosses to get promotions. They had stolen from their parents. They had murdered reputations with words, even though they were true words. He lusts after his best friend’s wife. She refuses to talk to a sister who lives in the same town. They kneel and receive the Body of Jesus Christ next to people whom they hate, people to whom they would refuse the forgiveness of God, if asked.
And if you, like the crowds on the banks of the Jordan, have recognized your shame and your pride for what they are, don’t think too highly of yourself. Your sin is not special. It’s probably not too different from the sin of the person next to you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s enough to damn you. But it’s not so much that Jesus doesn’t want to take it away from you. Your shame, which no one else knows about or would even guess–Jesus wants it. Your pride, which makes you think that you don’t need God or His gifts–Jesus wants it. Your greed, your gossip, your theft, your lust, your stubborn refusal to forgive–He wants it all.
He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world, and that includes yours. Do not prevent Him. Don’t try to hide it or keep it for yourself. He will not break you, though you may be bruised. He will not extinguish you, though you may be burning ever so faintly (Isaiah 42:3). He wants you, His son. He wants you, His daughter. That’s why He went down into that dirty river; that’s why He comes down into your dirty life. He was baptized in water for it, but, even more, He was baptized in blood and pain for it.
That baptism, the one on the cross, is not a baptism with which you could be baptized. And, frankly, that’s the last place you would expect to see God. He should not be there. That wooden instrument of death is no place for the sinless Lamb of God. For what sins shall Jesus die? What evil has He done? What sin is in Him? None, of course. But Jesus is not confused; He did not take a wrong turn; He knows where He is and where He’s supposed to be: in your place. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Allow it for now. It will not always be this way. But it is necessary now; it is good, right, and salutary for Him to fulfill all righteousness in this way. And it is fulfilled. It is finished. Because only God could be baptized with water and blood, and have it make any difference for you. He understands better than you what your sin means, and what needs to be done about it. It’s God’s righteousness, after all, that Jesus is fulfilling. Only God in flesh could step into the swirling filth of lives gone wrong and make the water run clear.
And so it does. Filtered through the blood of Christ, the water runs clear, right through the middle of your life; right through the shame and the pride; right through all the garbage with which you and I dam up the river of life. Washed away in the flood, and buried in the baptism. “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” (Romans 6:4). For now, we see that new life only haltingly; it comes in fits and starts. But, by faith, we allow it for now, knowing that things will not always be this way. You will not always struggle with yourself in shame and pride. I will not always fight against myself. We will not always fail. “For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:7-11). You have already died, in the only death that leads to resurrection; you have been set free. You are dead to sin, which used to rule you, and alive to God in Christ Jesus, who is your Lord now. Your baptism has united you with Jesus; He is your brother, and His Father is your Father. Hear now, as His Father speaks to you: You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/3/23