“Heaven Torn Open”
Some have argued that apart from his death and resurrection, Jesus’ baptism is his most important work for us. And you can argue that or not if you want, but since everything Jesus does is for us, everything he does is important.
But it’s also something that puzzles Christians. Why did he do it? Did he have to do it? What does it mean? Even John objected to it at first, “wait a minute, Jesus, this is backwards. You should be baptizing me!”
But it is fitting for them to do so, just this once. It is proper and it is vitally important to Jesus’ mission.
There is much we could say about Jesus’ baptism: For starters, it begins his public ministry. Up until now, he was the Messiah, but did not take center stage in his preaching and teaching. He had been a dutiful son. He had been growing in wisdom and favor with God and man. But now at 30 years of age – the traditional minimum age for a Jewish Rabbi, he comes out of obscurity. His baptism marks this shift.
His baptism is also a recognition and proclamation of his identity. “This is my son”, or here in Mark, “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased”. What other human has ever had that happen? What other human can claim the favor of the Father like this? Surely none, for all sin. Surely none, for only Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, the Living Word made flesh. Of course he knew it, but now the voice of God proclaims it for us to hear. God testifies of his Son so that we would know him, listen to him, and believe in him.
The Spirit also testifies. By coming bodily – he whose very name “Spirit” denotes he does not exist in bodily form – but now he comes in the form of a dove. A bird of peace, not war. Evoking the peace of God that followed the flood of Noah. Now the Spirit comes at the flood of Jesus’ baptism in the same form. And this, too, testifies that he, Jesus is the one, the anointed one, the singular savior who would bring peace between God and man. The one, who in bodily form, in the flesh, would suffer and die to make it so.
But there’s more. Jesus has no sin. So why should he be baptized? That is the heart of the matter here. That is John’s objection, really. That is what puzzles so many Christians. But Jesus knows what he’s doing.
He’s taking our place. He’s taking our sin. He’s ushering in the great exchange. Here at the Jordan Jesus takes his first step toward the cross. Here he shoulders up, not the wooden beams, but the load of sin. Here he identifies with sinners, so that sinners would be identified with God. Here the Father declares his favor, so that in Christ, we may enjoy that same favor, and God would consider us also his children.
In his baptism, Jesus is identifying with us sinners. He’s uniting himself with us. He’s not just showing us a good example of what we Christians should do (though there is that, too). But he’s powerfully stepping into that water to become our substitute. He’s doing it to fulfill all righteousness – to win for us the righteousness of God.
Soon, he would be our substitute in the wilderness, fasting and battling sin and devil alike, and coming out victorious. He did what we couldn’t do – resist temptation, defeat the devil. The Second Adam to succeed where the First Adam failed.
Then, he would minister. In the course of his preaching he would heal all manner of disease and affliction, cast out demons, even raise the dead. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. But these signs and wonders were rooted in the ultimate sign and wonder of the cross, where he would take all our griefs and sorrows in full, and leave them in the dust of death.
And when Jesus rises from the dead, he also does it for us, in our place, and as our fore-runner. His resurrection is part and parcel of our own resurrection. He’s the first fruits of the dead, we’re the rest of the fruit. He’s the firstborn of the dead, we are the little brothers and sisters of the dead who will follow. By his death he has destroyed death – not just for himself, but for all who are in him.
Paul explains this part of the great baptismal mystery in our Epistle reading. Romans 6 shows how in our baptism we are united with Christ, buried with Christ, raised with Christ. Whatever Jesus has, he gives to you – his righteousness, death, and his resurrection. And whatever you have – only your sins – go to him, he takes them away, all the way to the cross. But this only happens because of Christ’s baptism, by which he unites himself with us.
And finally, concerning Jesus’ baptism, we observe this detail in Mark’s telling of it – heaven is “torn open”. Not just a crack or a peek into heaven, but heaven is torn open. With reckless abandon, the place of God becomes open in the baptism of Jesus. Not just so that the voice of God may speak, and not just so that the Spirit may descend as a dove, but also that we may have access to God once again.
The door to paradise was slammed shut long ago, after Adam and Eve sinned. They were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword barred the gate. What a bitter day when sin exiled our first parents and all their children to the wilds of a world now broken. What a harsh reality they faced, as the effects of sin continued to grow and spread like a kudzu through their family, through the generations, and death reigned ever more fully.
But not anymore. The Second Adam is on the scene. The exile is over. Heaven is open again in him. Even better than the Garden of Eden. Now by baptism and Spirit, by the promise of the Father and the cleansing blood of the Son, heaven is torn open once again. Like the temple curtain that is torn from top to bottom, inviting redeemed sinners into the holy of holies. Now the dwelling of God is with man, and the man who is in Christ will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Now, what can we say about our own baptism?
Heaven is torn open in your own baptism, too. The blessings shower down like rain. The Almighty Triune God comes down to the font and places his name on your in those waters. Therefore your baptism isn’t a one-time-deal, a historical footnote, just a nice ceremony to remember but something you really outgrow and move past. No! Heaven is torn open and it remains open to you. God’s name is placed upon your and remains upon you. The blessings of baptism shower down in a never-ending flood, overflowing your whole life through, so that even when you face death, your baptism is a great comfort to you.
There, God says of you, this is my son, my daughter, with whom I am well pleased. It is the seal of God’s approval on you. You are marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, and that mark doesn’t rub off. All new-born soldiers of the crucified bear on their brows the seal of him who died. And that’s us – all new-borns, reborn in the waters, brought forth from death to life in Christ. In that blessed sacrament, you receive faith and life and righteousness. You go into those waters with your sin, but come through them a new creation in Christ Jesus.
And in Christ, heaven is now open to you. No angel with a flaming sword can bar the way. No sin or shame or guilt disqualifies you any longer. You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. He took your place to give you a place in the Father’s house. Thanks be to God that Jesus was baptized for you. And thanks be to God that you are baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.