The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 3:13-17;
Isa 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43
Today is a good day to talk about baptism. Most of our experiences of baptism are with infants. You have brought your tiny babies to this font, or ones like it, to be sprinkled with some water for the promise of forgiveness and new life. As a pastor, I was privileged to not only have my infant sons brought to the font in my wife’s arms, but to do the sprinkling and speak the words myself. Precious memories.
Working with other parents, preparing them to bring their babies to the font, there is one question that has come up more than others when baptizing infants. Parents have asked something like, ‘We talk about washing away and forgiving sins in baptism, but my daughter hasn’t really sinned yet, has she? What has she done that she needs her sins washed away?’
Actually, this question is not unlike the one John the Baptist asks Jesus when he comes to be baptized in the Jordan River, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus answers him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all justice.” John is baptizing people to ritually wash away their sins. He is seeking to make everyone pure for the coming of the Messiah. But if Jesus is the Messiah, then he’s not the one who needs to have his sins washed away. He doesn’t need purifying; he’s the one already pure, whom God has chosen. He doesn’t have sins that need to be forgiven and washed away.
Do you see how it’s a bit like the question of parents bringing their infants to the font? What sins does a baby have that need washing away? Now, when they’re teenagers, that’s different! But week-old, or month-old babies? Shouldn’t we wait a little while before washing them clean of their sins? At least until the ‘terrible twos’ when they start saying “No!” to everything. John the Baptist sees the sinlessness of Jesus in a different category than the rest of us, but he asks his question for the same reason. Like a newborn baby, Jesus doesn’t really have sins to wash away.
As we revitalize the Gospel message, I think we need some fresh ways to think about baptism. That’s what Jesus’s answer to John implies. Baptism will have new meaning when the Messiah actually comes and shows us what justice really means. St. Paul, too, signals to us this new meaning. He doesn’t really talk about baptism as a washing away of sins. It’s something much more radical than that. It’s a drowning! In baptism we die and rise with Jesus the Messiah!1 We die to the old way of being human, exemplified by the injustices of our human reigns, and we rise to the new way of being human according to God’s loving justice. As we’ll say again in our liturgy in a few minutes, “We are a new creation!”2 We are born into the governments of our sinful humanity, and in baptism we are reborn into the just and loving reign of God. Baptism isn’t just a washing. It’s a rebirth. A transformation. It’s Human Being 2.0.
That’s what Jesus’s later answer to John is all about. Here at the baptism, Jesus simply says, “Let it be so for now.” But a month ago, on the Third Sunday of Advent, you might remember that we read from Matthew 11, where John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and sends his disciples to Jesus with another question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John, you see, is having doubts about Jesus’ Messiahship. We know from the verses before this morning’s Gospel message that John’s preaching features the fire of Malachi and Elijah — fire that God rains down upon evildoers. Jesus veers away from the fire of Malachi and Elijah to another prophetic source. In his answer to John in Matthew 11, Jesus features the servant we’ve come to know as the “Suffering Servant” as prophesied by Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples of John. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” — which includes some of the vision we see in the second part of today’s First Reading.3 In other words, the fulfillment of all real justice (Matt 3:15). Justice is not so much about punishing the bad as it is about restoring the weak. Justice is about serving the least of the Jesus’ human family. “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” he would say at the end of ministry, just before dying on the cross. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:35-36, 40).
In Matthew 11, after John’s disciples leave to go back and report to John, Jesus references today’s First Reading, the First Servant Song from Isaiah, when he says to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matt 11:7). In other words, they didn’t go out to listen to a softy, a weak person, a reed shaken by the wind. They wanted to hear about a strong Messiah who would rain down fire on their enemies. But in Jesus they get a completely different Messiah, one who would let his enemies rain down fire on him in the form of being hanged on a cross. Again, Jesus has chosen the Servant of Isaiah as his model, not the fire of Malachi or Elijah. The true and just servant of God will precisely tend to the least of God’s family: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isa 42:3-4). Like he tells John himself in this morning’s Gospel: ‘until all justice is fulfilled.’
Jesus has come to fully reveal to us what the justice of God’s reign is all about. It’s not so much about raining down fire on the bad people as it is helping to restore the weak — which is all of us to the extent that we see the power of violent punishment on enemies as strength. Our false view of strength is our weakness. Real power, Jesus shows us, is the power to love even our enemies so that humanity might be cured from its obsession with punishment on others to instead work towards abundant life for all of God’s creatures. God’s justice gives faith even in the power of death because the power of God’s love is the power of life itself. The power of love is the ultimate power to restore and heal that which is broken.
So, with one last reprise to the Third Sunday of Advent, let’s conclude with the most important part — the last part of what Jesus tells the crowds about John the Baptist in Matthew 11: “Truly I tell you,” he says, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From now on, since the days of John the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven is about exposing violence, as the violent attack it” (Matt 11:11-12). ‘Yes, John is great,’ Jesus says in other words, ‘but now that God’s reign is coming from heaven to earth, he’s the least. He’s the greatest of what came before him but the least of what comes after. All those who follow the true Messiah will be greater than he.
And one more thing: the true power of God’s reign is being revealed by choosing to suffer the violence rather than inflict it.’ Do you see how radical a change this Gospel message is talking about? There’s a revolutionary break that happens with Jesus, so that baptism is not so much about being washed clean from our sins, though that remains part of it. Rather, baptism is more about drowning so that we die to all the injustices of our human reigns and rise to the fulfillment of all justice in the reign of God brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus radically changes the baptism of John. It goes way beyond washing to a participation in the dying and rising of the Messiah. Baptism is about being empowered to live into nothing less than a new way of being human.
I want to leave us where we began, with the picture of bringing our babies to baptism. First, let me add just one element to that picture — one still fresh from our Christmas celebration. When the angels sing to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to the earth and to the people in whom God is well pleased,” the last word — eudokia in the Greek, “well pleased,” is the same as the last word in today’s Gospel, when the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Well pleased. The bottom line for God is the same for us with our children: no matter how badly our children might try and come up short in life, we will never stop loving them. Right? We will always think well (eudokia) of our children. We will always want what’s best for them. We will always cheer for them to succeed and support them in any way that we can — even if that’s sometimes letting them suffer the consequences of their actions. We will forever think well of them, be well pleased that they are our children.
So it remains somewhat of a mystery how the Gospel message in recent centuries has come to dwell on a God who is apparently always wanting to punish us for our sins. So much of our Gospel message has focused on avoiding God’s punishment. So here’s how our experience of baptism can change in light of a revitalized Gospel message. When we bring our children to the baptismal font, may we learn to think of God as loving them at least as much as we do. God is as well pleased with them as we are. God wants what’s best for them. God will always cheer for them to succeed and support them in any way that God can — even if that’s sometimes letting them suffer the consequences of their actions. In fact, God has sent Jesus the Messiah to not only signal the washing away of their sins when they do wander down the wrong path, but also promises their rebirth from sinful, violent, unjust human reigns to loving and reign of God where all justice is being fulfilled. God means to teach our children, and us, how to bring about that reign by serving the least of God’s family. So, yes, as we continue to bring our children to baptism, may we truly hear in the words of the pastor a voice from heaven, both for them and for us, that says, “This is my Daughter, my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 8, 2023
1. See Romans 6.
2. On the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month we use the “Service of Word and Prayer” from With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource for Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 1995), pp. 46-53. In the “Response to the Word” dialogue after the Sermon and Hymn of the Day (p. 49), the liturgy quotes 2 Cor 5:17:
L: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
C: Everything old has passed away; behold, everything has become new!
3. Isaiah 42:7: “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”