“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Baptism of our Lord, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, I have always loved rivers. Not far from where I grew up, the Platte River flows wide and shallow, a ribbon of life cutting through the dry prairie. In Fort Wayne, the St. Joseph River flows slow and muddy behind the seminary, and more than once it tried to swallow downtown with flooding. Out in New York, we lived close to the source of the Susquehanna River, which flows clear and beautiful all the way through Pennsylvania on its course to the sea. Now, we live near the mighty Boyer River, which follows a beautiful valley from here to Omaha. Rivers give life, they shape the terrain, like highways they move things from one point to another. But anyone who has visited a big city or a developing country knows that a river can also be a dump, a plays to dispose of all matter of waste and filth.
There was once a river, a filthy river. God had created it, as He created all rivers, and He created it to flow clear and wide, taking life-giving water from one point to another. It provided for His creation, watering plants, animals, and humans. But then John showed up, and he had another use for this river. He cried out from its banks: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” As the crowds gathered, he began to baptize. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” They washed their sins into this river, and the waters darkened. As more and more people came to John, the river quickly became a depository for sin. Like toxic waste from a chemical plant, their sin corrupted the waters, as our sin has corrupted all of creation.
Raw sewage couldn’t make this river more filthy than sin, because man’s sin is the dirtiest substance imaginable. It corrupts us, it makes us unclean, even though on the outside we may look great. That’s because more often than not the filth of sin is only found within our minds and hearts. Violations of the sixth commandment such as lust and pornography more obviously make us feel unclean within, but rebelling against the other nine commandments can make us just as dirty. Anger and hateful thoughts against others, even if these thoughts never result in words or actions, consume us within and make us filthy with sin. The ninth and tenth commandments both deal with ‘coveting,’ something that is internal, a desire of the mind for the things of others that may not even lead to action but leaves us dirty all the same. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface, for we all have the grunge of original sin clinging to our bones. Original sin covers us like mud, like the muck that you dig out of a flooded basement, like the grimy oil that inhabits the corners of an auto shop. It is the dirtiest substance out there, and it makes us completely filthy, corrupting us to our very core. It was that kind of filth that was corrupting the river, making it toxic, a cesspool of corruption and sin.
As John continued to stand in the midst of all that waste and filth, Jesus appeared. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” John waded to the edge of the water, protesting. There is no way that Jesus should come here. He is the sinless one. He has no sin of His own to wash away or to repent of. Jesus Himself would someday say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus wasn’t sick, He wasn’t dirty. In fact, He was the only clean one to ever live. What need did He have to step into that filthy river and be baptized? “John would have prevented Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” John knows that he is sinful himself, that he is in need of the same washing that he is giving to others, but not Jesus. He doesn’t need to be washed, because there is nothing to wash.
But Jesus will not be deterred. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This action is fitting, it is proper for the fulfilling of all righteousness. And so Jesus, the sinless One, steps into the river where men are washing away their sin, into a river literally flowing with sin, and He is baptized with the baptism of sinners. He is baptized with the baptism of repentance, even though He had no sin to repent of. And yet, this is fitting for the fulfillment of all righteousness. It is fitting for the sinless one to stand in filth of our sin. In fact, that is what He has done since His birth in a grimy stable in Bethlehem. He came to dwell amongst His dirty people, sharing their filth but yet remaining clean. It is fitting that the righteous and clean one would then stand in that toxic cesspool in the place of sinners. Think about it: the sinless One submits Himself to the baptism of sinners. What clearer sign could there be that this one is our sin-bearer! He has come to take our sin upon His own shoulders, to stand in our place for our salvation. It is fitting that God would send His Son to bear our sin. It is fitting because this was the only way that God could cleanse His beloved people from their sin.
Jesus comes forth from the waters, and all heaven breaks loose. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’” The entire Trinity shows up at this great event: the Father’s booming voice, the Son standing in the waters of sin, and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. Here Jesus is declared to be the sin-bearer, here He is commissioned to go forth from those filthy waters to destroy the source of that filth. When the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased,” He is recalling the words of Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson for today. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Father placed His Spirit upon Jesus to bring justice to the nations, to take the filth of mankind’s sin and do away with it. Jesus is declared the sin-bearer, and He takes on all the sins floating in the river, and all sins ever committed before or since by every person who has ever lived, and He takes them upon His shoulders. The clean one is made dirty for our sake. He is appointed not just to bear our sin, but to be rid of that sin; He is anointed by the Holy Spirit to go- all the way to the cross.
His baptism in the place of sinners points to His death in the place of sinners. At that filthy river He is anointed as the sin-bearer; at the cross He pays the price for that sin. After John baptizes Him, Jesus is called God’s beloved Son; at Calvary, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The voice sounds forth from heaven that the Father is well pleased with His Son for His baptism in the place of sinners; no voice booms forth, but on Easter morning, the stone rolls away from the tomb to declare that God is well-pleased with His Son’s death in the place of sinners. Jesus was baptized with your baptism; Jesus died the death you deserved. He stood in your place, He did it all for you.
From the cross flows forgiveness, life, and cleansing. Because of what He would do on the cross, the Baptism of Jesus cleanses the filthy river, and indeed sets aside all waters to deliver the cleansing that Jesus won there. The pastor prays in the baptismal liturgy: “Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” When Jesus stepped into that toxic cesspool of sin and corruption, He cleansed the waters from their corruption by bearing that corruption to the cross. And now He uses water to bring the cleansing that we all need. Baptism is how Jesus cleanses the grime and filth of your sin. Baptism is how Jesus purifies you and makes you holy in the sight of God, so that for you, death is defeated.
If Jesus died in your place just as He was baptized in your place, then Paul draws the conclusion in our Epistle lesson that your Baptism is into His death. The cross of Jesus stands in between His Baptism and your own. His baptism was in your place, pointing forward to His suffering and death in your place. Your baptism looks back, incorporating you into His death and bringing you all the benefits He won there. But we do not have Good Friday without Easter. “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. If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” Your most important death was in your baptism, for there you died to sin, and therefore for you, death is defeated enemy, and Christ will complete your baptism by raising you from the dead on the Last Day to live before God, cleansed and pure forever.
Having been cleansed by the washing instituted by the clean One, having been incorporated into His death and resurrection, we hear the same voice that Jesus heard: “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” You are God’s beloved child through your Baptism into Christ’s death, and He is well pleased with you. Not because of anything you have done, for like all people you still fall into sin, but because of what Jesus has done for you in bearing your filth and corruption to the cross. You are His; His beloved child, His forgiven sinner. You are baptized into Christ; you are a child of paradise! In the Name of the One who stands in the place of sinners, Amen.