What is Jesus doing here? Every year this reading comes up we seem to face the question again. Why is Jesus getting baptized?
As we all know, the chief blessing (or purpose) of baptism is the washing away of sins. So what is sinless Jesus doing in the Jordan river, being baptized?
John, the baptizer himself, balked at the notion. “Wait, wait, wait, Jesus. Shouldn't you be baptizing me?” Oh John knew who Jesus was. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of th world”. He knew Jesus would come with a greater baptism – bringing the Holy Spirit and Fire. He knew he wasn't worthy to touch Jesus' sandal.
Moreover, John knew he was a sinner. Yes, this man, of whom Jesus said, “Among those born of women there is none greater than John”. He too confessed his need for baptism, his need for cleansing of sin. Even a “holy man”, when standing before the Holy One is exposed as not so holy after all.
And if John needs to be cleansed, then we need to be cleansed. If John needs forgiveness, so do we. If John the Baptist needs baptism, then we need the gifts of our baptism all the more.
Sure we have been baptized. Most of us as little babies. But do we live that baptism? Do we, as our catechism says, drown the Old Adam daily by repentance, so that the new man emerges in faith?
Do we even think about our own baptism? Unless someone points it out to us, like the pastor, or unless there's a baby being baptized in church and we have to go through the baptismal vows one more time.
But what a comfort baptism has been to many families in the darkest hours. When a loved one dies, and all other hopes are shaky ground – how many Christians have looked to God's promises in baptism for comfort and peace. How many on their own deathbed have been reminded of the baptismal grace God bestowed on them, and the promises made at the font that never expire.
So Baptism is a wonderful gift, which, though we have received, we can appreciate more. A gift we, like John the Baptist, need, because we are all sinners. A gift that only Jesus can give – a cleansing of sins and lavish flood of blessings from him.
But that still doesn't answer our question. What is Jesus doing knee-deep in Jordan river water, asking John to be baptized?
Jesus has a way of turning things upside down, doesn't he? He the Lord of the universe, comes to serve all. He brings life through his death. He makes the first last and the last first. And the greatest one in his kingdom is the servant of all. Well, that would be him, of course. He came to serve us. To bring us all the blessings of righteousness. And here, in his baptism, he begins to “fulfill all righteousness”. It's part of the plan.
For just as Jesus came to identify with us, to take our place in human flesh, to take our place on a cross of condemnation and death, so he also takes our place in the waters. And here's the answer. Why is Jesus baptized? To publicly identify with the sinners whom he is now about to save. To take all sin upon his own shoulders, just as he would soon bear a cross on those same shoulders. And, as Paul says in our Epistle today, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” And also in 2 Corinthians 5, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Just like everything Jesus does, he does it for us. He is born for us. He suffers for us. He dies for us. He rises for us. He ascends into heaven for us. Yes, he is baptized for us.
There is much more in this passage.
His baptism serves as Jesus public inauguration. Sure, Jesus was the Messiah even from his conception, but now his public work on our behalf was to begin. From here, everything Jesus did would be to “fulfill all righteousness”, with an eye on the goal – the cross, and the empty tomb.
In Jesus' baptism, God the Father declares him to be his Son, and expresses his approval. Not only does this declaration assure us of the Father's pleasure with Jesus, but also with us through Jesus. For in Christ, all may approach the Father to receive the same blessing. In Christ, we are children of God, with whom he is well pleased.
In Jesus' baptism, heaven is opened, and God speaks. In our baptism, heaven is opened, and God speaks. Heaven is opened and accessible to us sinners, as our sins are washed away and we receive his own righteousness. God speaks to us, through the humble voice of the pastor, calling us by name, forgiving us our sins, and placing his own Triune name upon us.
In Jesus' Baptism, the Holy Spirit descends. And so too in our baptism, we receive the gift of His Holy Spirit, to enlighten and sanctify us our whole life through.
In Jesus' Baptism he identifies himself with sinners. In our baptism, we are identified with him. In Jesus' baptism, he takes our sins upon himself. In our baptism, he takes our sins away. In Jesus baptism, he undertakes the fulfillment of all righteousness. In our baptism, we are declared righteous for his sake.
It's all connected, you see, in this wonderful mystery of water and word. And it's all for us. And it's all from him.
Ponder deeply today the blessings of baptism. Think on Jesus' baptism, and how he who had no sin identities with us who have plenty. And how in Jesus Christ, and in our baptism, we are cleansed and righteous, and with us, too, God is well pleased. Amen.