Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord, which was this past January 6. Every year, on this Sunday, our Gospel reading is one of the accounts of Jesus getting baptized. Epiphany is about the revelation of just who Jesus is, and our Lord’s baptism is a key moment in that revelation. Therefore we find it in each of the Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; John 1:29-34).
The story is well known to us. John is baptizing at the Jordan River and many people are coming to him to be baptized. One of those who come to John to be baptized is Jesus. After Jesus is baptized, God the Father speaks saying of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Also, the “Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form, like a dove.” Following this, Jesus goes into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil.
If we wish to stick with the general Epiphany Season theme, then we would focus on Jesus as the only-begotten Son of the Father. That he is God in human flesh. The text, though, also lends itself to the great mystery of the Trinity. Another major theme that the story easily leads us to is the Sacrament of Baptism. In considering Baptism, we can think about our baptism or the baptism of Jesus. These two themes are intertwined.
John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). As Jesus was without sin, it does seem odd that he would be baptized (Hebrews 4:15). John himself thought it was strange, which is why Matthew records John as saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). John did not recognize that our Lord’s baptism was to be a revelation of him as the Son of the Father and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit in his person. Not only is Jesus identified as the Second Person of the Trinity by his baptism, but Jesus also identifies with us sinners, thus revealing himself as a real human being.
While many of the ancient myths have stories of the so-called gods taking on human (or even animal) forms, they never really become humans or animals. The incarnation the Son is fundamentally different from such myths because the Son of the Father truly becomes the son of Mary. He has real blood pumping through his veins. If DNA tests had been possible in the first century, then the results would have shown real human DNA. As all humans are to be baptized in order to be made part of God’s people, so Jesus is baptized precisely because he is a real man (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15-16). Jesus’ baptism marks him out as one of us, as well as one with the Father and the Spirit.
Now, when we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Jesus, as we heard in our reading from Romans (Romans 6:3). As Jesus was baptized with a baptism like ours, he was also baptized into his death. Here we find revealed one of the mysteries of baptism, and another reason why Jesus was baptized. Jesus was putting his own death into baptism. In baptism, then, we are united to the death of Jesus, our Old Adam is crucified, and our New Adam comes forth from the waters of baptism, like Jesus came forth from the grave Easter morning (Romans 6:4). This is why Paul points us to our baptism when he encourages us to live our new life.
Another mystery of Baptism is that it is part of Jesus’ work to take upon himself the sin of the world. All of us who have been baptized have had our sins washed away, as Ananias told Saint Paul just before he baptized the Apostle (Acts 22:16). Jesus, though, had no sins to be washed away. Instead, when Jesus was baptized, he took our sins upon himself. Our Lord’s baptism, at the beginning of his public ministry, is part of him becoming our sin-bearer. We give him our sins and he gives us his righteousness. We give him our death and he gives us his life. When we pass through the waters of baptism, the Lord saves us (Isaiah 43:1-2). He does this because through those waters the Holy Spirit works in us a faith in Jesus.
Our appointed Psalm for today has many powerful baptism images. When we read, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty,” we can’t help but think of baptism (Psalm 29:3-4). Yes, the Psalm’s background tells about the many deliverances God has granted his people in the Old Testament, but the New Testament consistently leads us to see those Old Testament deliverances as pointing to our great deliverance by the hand of Jesus. So, when we hear the phrase “the voice of the Lord,” we think of Jesus who is the word of God made flesh. Then the Psalm reminds us that it is Jesus who commands baptism and puts the power of God’s grace into our baptismal water.
Baptism is a miracle. Part of the problem people have with baptism is that we do not see anything but water being splashed on a person’s head. We do not see our sins being washed away. We do not see someone being united with the death of Jesus. We do not see someone being united with the resurrection of Jesus. We don’t hear the voice of the Father declaring that this person is now his adopted child. We do not see the Holy Spirit descending on the person in the form of a dove, or a flash of flame. We do not see a mark mysteriously appear on the person, indicating that they are one of the redeemed (Revelation 7:2-3).
All that we have to assure us of the miracle of baptism are the promises of God. So many have rejected the clear teaching of the Bible and substituted for it fallen, human reason. They ask, ‘how can water do such great things?’ By asking such questions they omit the powerful word of God, which Christ attaches to the waters of baptism. It isn’t just water, but water and the word that makes baptism.
The next objection people have is that not everyone who is baptized endures to the end. They ignore the truth that faith needs to be fed. If it is not nourished with regular worship attendance, regular reception of the Sacrament of the Altar, regular time in the word of God, and so forth, it withers and dies. In this way, our faith is like any living thing. Life needs nourishment. So does our faith.
Another problem people have with what the Bible teaches concerning baptism is the scripture’s clear accent on grace. Baptism is not something we do, but something we receive. Therefore, it is not limited to people who have reached a certain age or I.Q. The church, from its very beginning, has baptized infants. Those who reject infant baptism think of baptism, not as a gift, but as a work of obedience. Therefore, they can pat themselves on the back for obeying God. But baptism is a gift of God’s grace, a means by which the Holy Spirit imparts faith, and not a good work on our part. Faith is always a gift, which the Holy Spirit works in our lives by word and sacrament.
Jesus steps into the waters of baptism and imparts to them supernatural power. Our faith does not create the gifts offered to us in baptism. Faith takes hold of the gifts placed in baptism by Almighty God.
We might think of it in terms of flying in an airplane. Our faith does not make the plane fly. It will fly whether or not we believe it will. But, because we believe it will fly, we step onto the plane. So, the gifts of God are in baptism, whether or not we believe they are there. Our faith receives the gifts God grants. Indeed, for many of us, our baptism was the very beginning of our faith life. For others, it was a strengthening of the faith created by the Spirit through the Gospel. Either way, it is a miracle we receive, not a good work we do.
As I said, there are many ways we could approach the baptism of our Lord. We could consider the Trinity. We could consider how Jesus is both true God and true man. But today we have considered baptism and the great gifts placed in those holy waters. And we have considered the role faith has in receiving those gifts.
It is because of those great gifts that Scripture urges us to keep our baptism in mind. Baptism is not just a one-and-done event for us. It is something we look upon daily in faith. It is a constant reminded that we have been washed of our sins, that we are united in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that we are children of God. It powers us to walk in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Baptism is the gift that keeps on giving. May it ever assure you that you are a chosen child of God, a forgiven sinner, a citizen of heaven. Amen.
May the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.