January 9, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. . . . Jesus answered [John]: ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.’”
Many came to the wilderness to hear the Forerunner’s voice. The Evangelist tells us: “Then Jerusalem and all the region about the Jordan were going out to [John], and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” John’s baptism accomplished a purpose—the purpose given to him from before his birth, the purpose prophesied by Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” That was John’s task. He was preparing the Lord’s way. That preparation required people to acknowledge their sin and guilt and to revive their faith in the Lord’s promises about salvation.
John was good at this task. Many came and received his admonitions. They believed that John was the Forerunner of Christ. So they went into the Jordan River to be baptized. This baptism was a sign that they believed the message that John brought from the Lord about sin and salvation. It was an act of piety, demonstrating that the people were participants in the Covenant that the Lord had made with them. Their sins were forgiven, as they believed in the Lord’s actions that He would accomplish for them.
But one day, as John was preaching and baptizing, another Man walked to the river’s edge. That was not out-of-the-ordinary. But the identity of that Man was. And that led to an interesting confrontation: “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?’” John knew what his work was: preparing people for Christ’s appearance. That preparation was done by preaching about sin and righteousness. John led people to acknowledge their guilt and to seek forgiveness. His baptism was part of that process. But what sort of preparation did the Christ need? The people were being made ready for Him! What does He need to receive from John, His servant?
Jesus has an answer for John. He knows the questions that are racing through His Forerunner’s mind. But the act must take place; Jesus must be baptized, because it is part of His mission as the Christ. It is essential to what He must accomplish: “Jesus answered [John]: ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” John’s duty was to prepare the Lord’s way, as Isaiah foretold. Jesus’ task was to fulfill all righteousness, just as Isaiah declared: “He will bring forth justice to the nations. . . . He will not grow faint or be discouraged till He has established justice in the earth. . . .” When the Lord Himself puts that statement to John—“for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”—the Lord’s servant does as instructed.
And what happens when Jesus was baptized? He does not go to confess sins and acknowledge guilt. No, He goes to be identified as the One who would bear the world’s sins and remove guilt from humanity. He enters the water to be anointed as the Christ, the Promised Servant and Savior: “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.’” Jesus is declared to be the Christ, the One whom the prophet had foretold: “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.”
Now Jesus goes to fulfill all righteousness by substituting Himself for you and the world. His work is to take upon Himself your guilt and to pin it to the cross of Calvary. It is a task that He accomplished. The Father’s Voice identifies Jesus as the One in which you can believe and hope. His statement about pleasure and delight is not valid for those who are unrighteous and sinful. But the Father speaks no lie about Jesus! He is without blemish, without fault, without guilt. Jesus has nothing contrary to the Divine Law that He has to confess. So He can act to bring righteousness to those who lack it. He has what no other human being possessed since the Fall into sin. And He goes into the world, not hording it for Himself, but bringing it to others to have.
This is what the Lord declared about Christ through the Prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord; I have called You in righteousness; I will take You by the hand and keep You; I will give You as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” That is the righteousness which Jesus into the Jordan and out again to fulfill for John and for you. The Father gives His Son as a Covenant to you, so that you may receive divine benefit. He is well pleased with Jesus on that day, but will be even more pleased with Him as Jesus fulfills the prophecies spoken of Him.
So what does Christ achieve for you? Salvation and deliverance. It is accomplished by His death and resurrection. Those are the actions that save you. They are the acts that the Apostle Paul extols: “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. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That is the accomplishment of Christ for you: to liberate you from sin and to give you new life. It is the deliverance described poetically: “to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
But how do you receive what Christ earned for you? The answer is through Holy Baptism. That is how you enter the Covenant that the Lord has given to you through Christ. Like those who came to John along the Jordan River, you are made to know your sin and unrighteousness. You are led to confess it. But you are also given to know what Christ has achieved for you. It is not a secret. No, the crucifixion of Christ and the accounts of His resurrection are always put before you. For you in this sanctuary, the portrayal of this is so large that it is impossible to miss! But you are not just directed to look at a sculpture. No, you are given the opportunity to be united to the same Christ who died and rose again to fulfill all righteousness and make it yours. That is what Holy Baptism achieves for you.
This Sacrament that Christ instituted does more than the act of piety that John promoted along the Jordan River. Listen again to what the Apostle Paul says about it: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” You go into the baptismal waters to die, but you come up out of them alive in Christ. You go to drown your sin and to be raised in righteousness.
Why is this so? How can water do such great things? As our Small Catechism says: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.” Just as people believed the words of John spoken along the Jordan, you believe the words of Christ spoken over the font. You believe more than just a Forerunner, you believe in Him who is the Father’s Beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. Your faith is in the words of the Incarnate Word and Emmanuel—“God with us.” Your trust is in the Lord’s glory and strength. The One who fulfills all righteousness places His words of promise in Holy Baptism, and you believe and receive what the Lord Jesus Christ has sworn for you to receive.
The psalmist said: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters.” That is true, even in the waters of Holy Baptism. The voice of the Lord sounded over the waters of the Jordan River when Jesus stepped out of them. He revealed Jesus’ true identity as the Christ. That same voice speaks about you. When you were placed into the baptismal waters, the Father also spoke about you: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Since you have been united with Christ through Holy Baptism, that statement is also true for you. The Father looks at you and does not see your sin or unrighteousness; instead, He sees the holiness and righteousness of His Son who took your place.
Cling to the words of the Lord. Hold on to the promises and statements that the Father makes about His Son and His work. Trust and rely on the promises and statements that the Beloved Son makes to you. He speaks about forgiveness, and so your sins are forgiven. He makes a Covenant with you, and He fulfills it. He unites you with Himself, and so you have died and risen with Him. And He prepares you for His arrival, so that you also may see the heavens opened and hear the Father welcome you: “Come, My Children, and receive your place in My house that your Elder Brother has made ready for you by fulfilling all righteousness. I am well pleased with Him, so I am pleased with you.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.