“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you 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 Luke. Dear friends in Christ: of all people, surely Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Dirty people need to be washed, not the clean. Baptism is for you and me, people who are sinful, filthy with corruption. John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is for those who lie, who cheat, who lust, who hate, who rebel against God. John baptizes those who see their sin, this scum that clings to their skin and bones, and in repentance cry out for cleansing. The ones coming to the river to be washed by that desert prophet are those who see the needs of their neighbors and ignore them. Yes, John’s baptism is even for the self-righteous, if they could stop gazing at their own navels long enough to listen to his call for repentance. We need to be baptized because God is not pleased with us, not in the least.
John’s baptism is for you and for me, poor miserable sinners, it isn’t for Jesus. Jesus is perfect, clean, pure, and holy. He is more than simply a nice guy, a great teacher; He is God Himself in the flesh. The first two chapters of Luke teach us that Jesus is the last person on this planet who needs to be baptized by John. The Baptist himself says it: Jesus is the coming one, the one who is mightier than he, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” A perfect man, a holy man, a man who is also true God, has no need of baptism.
But yet, Jesus is baptized. He walks into the Jordan, the river where the people of Israel were washing away their sins, and submits to the baptism of John. He is baptized, with the multitude of others, sinners all, and He is praying. Then all heaven breaks loose; the heavens themselves are opened, the veil is torn, the curtain pulled back, the great divide between earth and heaven, between God and His creation, is done away with, if only for a moment. And something comes down from the opened heavens: “The Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove.” If that wasn’t enough, the Father, the Lord, the Creator of the universe preaches a sermon: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” With this sermon, we have Epiphany; the entire Trinity is revealed to us at Jordan’s stream. The Father speaks from heaven, the Spirit descends as a dove, and the voice of God tells us that this Jesus of Nazareth, this man standing in the river, is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, the one with whom He is truly well-pleased, and He has been anointed for salvation.
John declared about Him, “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.” The Father’s voice proclaims that this Jesus has come to gather in the harvest, to burn the chaff of sin away. He has come to do battle with sin by carrying it within His own body and doing away with it. Most people wash in order to become clean; Jesus washes so that He can become dirty. He washes, identified with sinners, as the sin bearer, the One who will carry all sin. His baptism by the Holy Spirit anoints Him for the task that is ahead of Him; it prepares Him for another baptism that is yet to come.
The Father is well-pleased with Jesus because He willingly became the sin-bearer, to take the heavy weight of humanity’s sin upon Himself. But Jesus carries that burden only so that He may be rid of it; the Father is well-pleased with Jesus because He willingly submitted to another baptism: a baptism of fire upon the cross. At the cross, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan found its fulfillment in Christ’s suffering and death under the fires of God’s wrath. At the cross, the Father who declared, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” abandoned that Son to the very fires of hell. There the Son, so gloriously anointed in the Jordan, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He who was baptized with water, identifying with sinners, with you and me, is baptized with fire, in your place. He dies under God’s fiery wrath, God’s righteous judgment, as the sin bearer, as the One carrying your sin and mine upon His beaten and bloodied shoulders. This was the only path of salvation, the only way that you and I could be delivered from sin, death, and hell. And so in love Jesus submitted to a baptism by the Holy Spirit in the Jordan, and in love He submitted to a baptism by fire upon the cross. There was no voice from heaven that day, but as Jesus cried out “It is finished!” the Father said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
God proved the truth of those words three days later, when Jesus came forth from the tomb. He had passed through the baptism of fire and had left sin behind, burned and consumed by the Father’s righteous wrath. Now the crucified one was the risen one; as He came up out of the waters of Jordan’s stream to an opened heaven and the Father’s voice, so He came up from the tomb to an opened heaven and the Father’s approval. Jesus ascended into that opened heaven, to take His rightful place at the right hand of the throne of God. Now He commences the work that the Baptist prophesied He would do: “John answered them all, saying, ‘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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Jesus Himself was baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire; at the Jordan and at the cross. He sends forth the Church to baptize you and me with the Holy Spirit and with fire; at the font you were baptized into His fiery death, as Saint Paul declares: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Our sinful nature was crucified in a baptism of fire. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” In baptism you died to sin! It was drowned in those waters, consumed by God’s holy fire. And make no mistake; you needed to die. You needed to die to all of your sinful desires, your desires to satisfy your own needs above those of all others, your desire to place other things ahead of God. You needed to die to your rebellion against your Creator, your disregard of His Law, your lack of love for Him and for your neighbor. Your sinful nature cannot be reformed, it cannot be better trained, it cannot be improved; it must be put to death! Sin cannot be dealt with in any other way.
Every baptism includes death, but every baptism also includes resurrection: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” Christ died in His baptism of fire on the cross, but was then raised up on the third day victorious over death. You, too, die in your baptism, and then you rise. “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.” Your old nature is put to death in the fire, and from those fires emerges a new nature, a new man or woman to live before Him in righteousness and purity. Death and resurrection is the pattern of your life; each and every day Christ returns you to the font in faith, putting your sinful nature to death once again in repentance and raising up in you a new nature. Death and resurrection is the pattern of your life; as you have died and risen in your baptism, you will rise, to newness of life, forever. You will follow the pattern that Christ set, in His death, in His resurrection, in His baptism.
For at your baptism, the heavens were opened just as they were at Christ’s. No one could see it with their physical eyes, but as your head was held over the font and the pastor applied water “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” heaven itself was opened to you. The division between earth and heaven, between God and you, was erased, done away with, forever. Heaven was opened to you never to be closed again. Christ has torn down the curtain, He has opened up heaven, for all the baptized. From that opened heaven came the Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to you, come to dwell within you, come to create and sustain faith. You were anointed with the Holy Spirit, anointed as God’s own beloved child, adopted by His grace through Christ. And then the Father preached. He preached as powerfully as He preached that day when Jesus came up from the Jordan, saying now to you: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” He is well pleased with you because of Christ, because Jesus has joined you with His death and resurrection. He is well-pleased with you because He is well pleased with His Son, who submitted to John’s baptism in your place, who submitted to the baptism of fire for your salvation. You are His beloved child; with you He is well pleased!
You hear these same blessed words whenever you receive the Absolution. When your sins are forgiven by the pastor as by Christ Himself, God says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” You hear them when you receive the Lord’s Supper. When you depart from this altar, having partaken of Christ’s own Body and Blood, God says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” And you will hear it once more; on the Last Day, when your crucified and risen Lord appears, you will stand before your Creator and He will say to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” And then your baptism will be brought to its completion; your sinful nature will be completely destroyed, and you will follow Christ’s pattern in glory, in honor, in resurrection, forever. In the Name of the One baptized for you, who baptizes you into His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.