Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Sometimes you need a pair of pants in a hurry. Or, at least, I do. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you really need a pair of jeans or dress pants, but the ones you have on hand smell like lutefisk? You need your pants in a hurry, but they smell fresh, so you quickly throw them in the wash. You give them the time to wash, but then time itself starts to crunch when you put them in the dryer. You just hope and pray that it will all come out alright when you have to take them out before the cycle completes and leave for wherever you need to be. As you sit in your vehicle, you realize that your pants are still wet. They’re not full-on wet, but they’re soggy enough to irritate you every passing second.
Soggy pants remind me of Baptism. Wearing soggy pants can be quite unpleasant, but they remind me (most of the time) that what I’m wearing has been cleaned. But, in order for something to be cleaned in the wash, there needs to be a cleaning agent, a soap, a detergent – something that takes the dirt out. In Baptism, it’s the blood of Christ that purifies us from all iniquity, from dirtiness. Being washed in the water in the Word is being cleansed in the raging flood of Jesus’ blood.This blood covers us all life long and is a reminder of the new life we have in Christ. Every time we wake up in the morning, every time we begin the service with the Invocation, we are putting the soggy pants of Baptism back on.
Today is a Church holiday. Today we remember and commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ Baptism is not the institution of the Baptism we have all received, that will come later in Matthew; but it does mean some important things for us. At His Baptism, Jesus united Himself with us and our sins. He became our substitute by taking our sins upon Himself. There in the Jordan, Jesus was marked was the one who would go forth and fulfill the Law in our place, and then die on the cross as payment for all sin. At His Baptism, Christ was marked as our substitute, becoming one with us in our sin, so that through our Baptism, we may become one with Him in life.
Our text today is from St. Matthew’s Gospel and comes towards the conclusion of John the Baptist’s public ministry. It wouldn’t be long before John would be thrown in the king’s prison. We’ve heard a little about that already from Matthew 11. You might recall that John is the one who testified that his ministry must decrease so that the Christ’s may increase; that turns out to be true, since Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin until John is in captivity. But, remember as well, John’s ministry. John’s ministry, his calling, was to prepare the way of the Lord. He did this by preaching God’s Law, His Words about the coming Messiah who would purify the world with fire, and by calling people to repentance and faith. This was the reason for the Baptism of John. After people were convicted of their sins through the preaching of the Law, they would repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of those sins.
This Baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and being forgiven your sins means that you come out of the fount resolving with the help of the Lord to be changed from what you once were. John taught the tax collectors to take no more than what they were authorized to, the soldiers to be content and not extort money, and everyone else to share what they have with their neighbors in need. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to be baptized, they who already pronounced themselves to be without sin, John chastised them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
After this, Jesus came to be baptized, and John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Before, John stopped the ones who came to him presuming already to have no sin, but now here is Jesus – who really does have no sin. Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing fork is in His hand. John has need to be baptized by Him, we have need, so why would Jesus come to be baptized for repentance and forgiveness of sins?
Jesus answered John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John rightly recognized that Jesus is the mighty Savior of the world, who had come to rule with justice and equity and purify the children of Israel, but his mind was set on the future. All this purification and justice and equity was the future to John, but Jesus brings his head back out of the clouds. “Let it be so now.” Now something is happening. The fulfillment of all righteousness is not just something that will happen off in the distance, but it is something that being affected even now at the Baptism in the Jordan River.
Scripture shows us that righteousness of God consists in showing mercy. This is what Jesus’ Baptism is all about. At His Baptism, Jesus becomes one with us in our sin. He goes down to the river to repent not of His own sin, but ours. Jesus goes down in humble repentance and submission to God’s will as a substitute for all the times where we are not and do not. At His Baptism, Jesus is marked as one with us in our transgression, just as He would become one with us in our death later on the cross.
Then the text says, “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.’” At Jesus’ Baptism, not only does Jesus become our substitute and take upon Himself our sins and the sins of the whole world, but we also receive the testimony of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. This is a passage where the Triune God is described to us: One God in three persons. God the Father is the Father, the creator and preserver of all things. He testifies to us that Jesus is His Son, and what Jesus is there to do pleases Him. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove, fulfilling His role to point to and lead us to Christ.
Both the Father and the Holy Spirit testify that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Scripture tells us that Christ came to do and fulfill the Father’s will, which is to have mercy on sinners and shower them with His grace. These come through the work of Christ, beginning with His birth, His circumcision, His presentation in the temple, now at His Baptism, and later in His crucifixion for our sins. When God the Father and the Holy Spirit speak at Jesus’ Baptism, they show that this is the will of God: that Jesus become one with us in our sin and death, so that we can become one with Him in life.
We’ve now talked about Jesus’ Baptism, where He received John’s Baptism for repentance and forgiveness as our substitute and to become one with us in sin and death. But now we should talk about the Baptism we’ve received, where we were united (and are united) with Jesus in life. The closing stanza of the hymn, “Jesus, Once with Sinners Numbered,” speaks this way, “Jesus, once with sinners numbered, full obedience was your path; You, by death, have consecrated water in this saving bath: dying to the sin of Adam, rising to a life of grace; We are counted with the righteous, over us the cross You trace.” In Jesus’ Baptism, He was united with our death, so that in our Baptism we are united with His life.
This is what Jesus intended by instituting the washing of Holy Baptism in Matthew 28. He also promises in Mark 16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” The Small Catechism teaches us what benefits Baptism gives: “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.” All of this hinges on Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, all the will of God, including bearing our sin and repenting of it in His Baptism, He who knew no sin.
What does it mean to be united with Christ as He is with us? It means wearing soggy pants. It means living the Baptismal life. By daily sorrow and repentance for our sins, the Old Adam is drowned and dies within us, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit the new Adam daily arises in righteousness and purity. The Catechism points us to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “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.” So Baptism is like wearing soggy pants. Every time we wake up in the morning or go to bed, every time we speak the words of Invocation we are reminded that we are baptized and forgiven our sins. At Jesus’ Baptism He became one with us in our sin and carried it to the cross. On the cross He became one with us in death, so that through our Baptism we are one with Him in life.