“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this day, 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, a man stands in a river, a baby is held over a font. Both are gifts; the first is the gift of the Christ child, given to the entire world, the child that was born to us, the son that was given to us now grown and mature, standing there in prayer. The second is the gift of new life, bestowed upon loving parents, one of the greatest gifts that our Creator gives, squirming in his or her mother’s arms, maybe even crying out. Both witness that our God is a God of life, a God who delights in giving life, who in His great kindness and grace gives parents children when and where He pleases, just as He gave the Christ child to the world in the fullness of time. But there is a difference between the man in the river and the baby at the font. The ages don’t matter; we all become children when we are brought to the font, no matter our age, and to God all life is precious, no matter how young or old. Only one difference matters: one is sinless, one is sinful.
It is this difference that is a stumbling block, that kept Christ from the water and keeps children from the font. One is sinless; one is sinful. John understood this all too well, and so he tried to keep Jesus out of the river. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” The Christ child is held back from baptism, John keeps Him from the water, for He has no sin. John knows that he baptizes sinners, those who are in need of forgiveness, who repent. The perfect, sinless Son of God has no need for repentance or forgiveness, He has no need for baptism.
Baptism is for sinners, and so baptism is for all, even children, even infants. Every gift of life that God sees fit to give is to be brought to the font. This is the most important task of a parent, given to each and every parent on this planet: the gift of life is to be brought to the font. There is no more vital task than bringing your child to Baptism. The death of a child before he or she can be brought to the font is a tragedy, and we trust in the mercies of our God who is love, knowing that His grace is greater than we can even comprehend. But actively keeping them from the font, even to the point of deliberately taking unborn life, is a denial of the vocation God has given, an abandonment of the task that comes with every pregnancy. Baptism is a command to parents because it gives great promises to their children. “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.” The taking of unborn life is an act of disobedience against that command, an act which despises those promises.
But baptism is despised in many other ways as well. Even if parents do bring their children to the font, they can keep them from learning about their baptism by not taking them to church or refusing to teach them at home. We adults, moreover, despise baptism by treating it as something that has no bearing on our lives, as simply a ‘get out of hell free’ card that we’ve moved beyond. We see baptism as something that happened long ago, that has little significance today; because I don’t remember it, because I cannot recall that experience or my emotions on that day, it has little power for me now, and my life resembles the life of the unbaptized around me. This should not be. If we truly understood the power of Baptism, we would run with our children to the font, and we would return to the font every day, yes, even every hour in repentance.
For Christ Himself shows us the power of Baptism; every gift given to Christ at the river is given to us at the font. He will not let John deter Him from the waters, He will step into the baptism of sinners. “Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” Jesus’ baptism fulfills all righteousness—God’s righteousness and our righteousness—because He is baptized into His own death. Baptism always means death; the water always drowns. What does such baptizing with water indicate? “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Baptism is always into Christ’s death. Even Christ was baptized into His own death; He was baptized as the Lamb of God, the sacrifice offered up on the altar of the cross to fulfill all righteousness, He was baptized in order to die.
A righteous and holy God cannot simply overlook sin, nor can a loving God leave His creatures to die eternally under His wrath. His righteousness could only be fulfilled in punishing sin yet sparing the sinners, and so Christ submits to the baptism of sinners in the place of sinners, and the voice of the Father declares that this One is the sin-bearer. God’s righteousness is fulfilled in fulfilling our righteousness, because God declares us righteous, justified in His sight for the sake of Christ, who went from the river to the cross to die in our place, bearing our sin and its punishment. As Christ was baptized into His own death, so we are baptized into that same death; we are put to death in the font and raised up righteous in God’s sight, able to stand before our heavenly Father redeemed and forgiven. Saint Paul declares that God offered up Christ, “To show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
There is nowhere else to look for our salvation, for our righteousness, than Christ. Do not look to your sins, your failings, but to Christ, in the river and at the font. In between the two stands the cross, which gives your baptism its power; the waters are joined with the promises which are all ‘yes’ in Jesus. How can water do such great things? “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trust the Word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.” The Word, the Gospel, gives Baptism its power, at the river and at the font. The Word was joined to the water in Christ’s own baptism, as the Trinity was revealed, manifested before the world: “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.’”
Christ is anointed as the sin-bearer, as the One who stands in the place of sinners, who submits to the Law, not because He is a sinner, but because He carries all sin. God declares Him a sinner, the sinner, when He stands in the baptism of sinners, and He is anointed for the task of taking that sin to the cross. He bore your sin, inherited from Adam and committed since, even the sins against life, and He paid the price in your place, as your sin-bearer. In your baptism, all that was given to Christ is given to you, for He stands in your place. Heaven is opened to you; you are no longer barred from God’s holy presence; you have access to God through Christ, heaven remains opened to you because you are baptized. Your baptism isn’t a past event, it is a present reality, your identity forever. The Holy Spirit continues to descend upon you, creating faith which clings to the promises given in Baptism, and the Father speaks to you every day as you return to the font what He said on the day of your baptism: “You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased.”
The Father is well-pleased; He is well-pleased with His Son and with you. On Christmas the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” His pleasure rests upon you, because you are His dear child through your baptism into Christ’s death. He is pleased with you because He is pleased with Jesus, and He is pleased with Jesus because He went to the cross. He showed that pleasure by raising Christ from the dead, and He shows that pleasure to you by promising your resurrection. What benefits does Baptism give? “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” The water of Baptism cannot be mere water, for The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are present there, giving the gifts of the cross and empty tomb in abundance; there is no holier water on this earth than the water that pours over our heads at the font. Our God is a God of life; He not only gives life through natural birth, but He gives eternal life through the new birth of water and the Word.
A man stands in a river, a baby is held over a font. Both are gifts; the first is the gift of the Christ child, given to the entire world, the child that was born to us, the son that was given to us now grown and mature, standing there in prayer. The second is the gift of new life, bestowed upon loving parents, one of the greatest gifts that our Creator gives, squirming in his or her mother’s arms, maybe even crying out. One gift is given for the sake of the other; one life is laid down so that the other will live forever. Our God delights in life, all life; if we are to be a people of life, we cannot be defined simply by what we are against, we cannot be those who only speak the Law. We rejoice to speak the Gospel, the Gospel that declares to us that every pregnancy, every birth, and every life, whatever the age, is a gift from the God of life, and the Gospel which declares to us that God gives eternal life in abundance to all who believe, who are baptized into the name of Christ, His beloved Son. We know this because Christ Himself was raised from the dead; He lives, never to die again. Every baptism is a celebration of life—temporal life and eternal life, all gifts from God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. In His Name, Amen.