A knock-down, drag out Baptism
You don’t expect a fight at a Baptism. After all, it’s not a hockey game. You know the joke, “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.” You go to a Baptism and expect a Baptism. But at this Baptism, the biggest Baptism in history, a fight breaks out.
“No, Jesus, you will not come into this water. I can’t baptize you!” Can you imagine John manhandling Jesus? Pushing Jesus away from the water? Walking away from Jesus, trying to avoid Him? I don’t think you can or have.
Yet Matthew tells us that John “tried to deter him.” It’s possible John only used words to prevent Jesus from coming to be baptized. Isn’t that shocking enough? Imagine that at our font. Imagine an argument breaking out right here. The couple thrusts the baby at the water; the pastor pushes the baby away.
John identifies Jesus as the Son of Man, the Word made flesh, and says, “No, you can’t and shouldn’t be baptized here.” We know why John said this. He didn’t refuse to baptize Jesus because Jesus thought Baptism was a superstitious ritual that would earn Him favor and acclaim with God or the crowds. John tried to refuse to baptize Jesus because he found himself unworthy. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Like that tax collector bowing his head and beating his chest; like Peter begging Jesus to leave his boat; like Moses hiding his face “because he was afraid to look at God,” John demurs from doing to Jesus what he’d done to so many: pouring water on Him in the name of God for the forgiveness of sins.
Again, I don’t think we necessarily need to envision punches thrown, hair pulled, and teeth knocked out. Yet it’s enough that John tried to stand in Christ’s way to create tension, and now that the tension has been sufficiently ratcheted up, Jesus cuts through John’s doubts and fears: “Let it be so now.” “Let it go, John. Allow it. Drop it.”
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that John’s wrong. He doesn’t contradict John’s assertion that He has a problem and that Jesus should really baptize him. Jesus just says, “There’s something bigger at work here.” And John consents. He drops his objection. He allows Jesus to come into the water. John baptizes God.
No wonder John quaked in his camel hair suit. God the Mighty Maker asks to be baptized. God the Mighty Maker submits to a rite that implies sinfulness, uncleanness, need for repentance.
In our life it ought to be the reverse. We should quake. We approach God the Mighty Maker. First we approached him as a sleeping, or in some cases, screaming infant. We approach Him still. We come to Him in the Divine Service. We hold Him in our hands, taste Him upon our lips. We come to Him in Bible class and Sunday School, in Christ-Light lessons and family devotions. We dare to fold hands and say, “Father, hear me.”
Think about what we do, who we are. “I need to be baptized by you.” That’s who we are. Unclean. Dirty. Covered in sin. Filled with things of which we must repent. Like Moses we could at least hide our face and take off our shoes. Yet we manage to ask God to take off HIS shoes before coming into our homes. We make God make a case for why He should stand before us, rather than us making the case to stand before Him. We try to baptize God, to cleanse Him of things which bother us.
“God, you can come into my home, just don’t tell me to change my behaviors.”
“God, I’ll give you an hour on Sunday, just don’t expect me to mold my whole life around that stuff.”
“God, I’ll bring my children for baptism eventually, as long as you understand it’s more important that Aunt Marge is there and we get all the right pictures, and the stars are aligned just so.”
“God, I’ll eat your meal of forgiveness, but don’t think that I’m going to go out of my way to forgive others.”
“God, I’ll pray, just don’t expect me to be too patient.”
We struggle against God. Against every word He says. And we can’t even claim, as the Roman soldiers could, “to know not what we do.” We do know. We have God’s Word spoken to us. Read to us. Sung to us. We learned it from parents and teachers and pastors. From little on. We know. We just don’t like it. So we fight and scrap every inch of the way to the font. Because we are, as we confess: “poor, miserable sinners.” Like a vampire confronted with sun, like a child whose face mother tries to clean and nose she tries to wipe, we do anything and everything but submit.
Because to submit means to admit: “I need to be baptized by you.” No. I won’t say that. I won’t put my life into someone else’s hands. I will not deny the spark of good in me. I’m a good person. And even if I’m not, I’m not going to have someone, anyone, especially not some know-it-all Deity tell me so.
Now, imagine this. Imagine Jesus as John. Imagine Jesus deterring and stopping us. Saying, “I won’t baptize you.” Imagine for a moment God not speaking, refusing to say a word to you. Imagine God removing His body and blood from the bread and wine. Imagine God saying, “This isn’t for you.”
We think we’d like that. “Finally, some peace and quiet.” But imagine God withdrawing His presence. Imagine God completely withdrawing. He’s gone. Because that’s what you ask for when you fight and scrap against Him. When you refuse His will. When you treat His grace like it’s something to be had on your terms. When you try to baptize God.
But John got to baptize God. Of course, Jesus had no sin. Jesus stood there in the Jordan cleaner than a whistle. He needed to repent about as much as Bill Gates needs more money. Yet He came to the Jordan. He sought John. Listen to Matthew pile up prepositions: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.” Remember, Jesus lived many miles from John’s baptizing ministry down near Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t stumble upon John. “Hey, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, thought maybe I’d get baptized.” Jesus intentionally set out to do this.
So, when John puts up a fight, Jesus tells John, “Drop your objection. Allow this to be done. Let it be so now. It’s proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
By saying this, Jesus dealt with John’s need. And ours. “I should be baptized by you,” John said. Jesus does Him one better: “I’ll be baptized for you,” He says. “To fulfill all righteousness.”
No one. Not John, not Mary, not Moses, not Abraham, least of all you can fulfill God’s righteousness. We fall short, desperately short of God’s demands. We need to be washed, cleansed, reborn. That’s the only way to get into God’s kingdom: being born again.
And at this moment, in this water, Jesus completely identifies with that need. He wasn’t mocking us by receiving a Baptism He didn’t need. Rather, He publicly takes upon Himself the burden of our unrighteousness. “I am at one with these people. I will be sin for them.” The one man who had no need for Baptism, who was already God’s one and only Son, submits to the washing with water through the Word. The one, and only one, about whom God the Father can say, “My Son. Who pleases me,” lets John baptize Him. He is truly under Law. He really did become sin for us.
And it’s all part of the plan. John plays his part in getting us to “It is finished.” Since, as Paul says, the whole world is a prisoner to sin, Jesus brings Himself into the prison. Since we were far away from God, Jesus comes as near as possible to us, even into the same waters that were poured upon us. The big difference: we were dragged kicking and screaming. Jesus came because He desired to do His Father’s will. This fed Jesus, as He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
And that work publicly begins at this moment in the Jordan. The heavens open. The Spirit comes down as a dove, just as the Father told John to look for. The Father speaks, “This is my Son, whom I love, with Him I am well pleased.” Everything we heard Isaiah say stands right here next to John: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations…. [A] bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” That means you don’t have to imagine Jesus deterring you from the font, rather He says, “Come, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Because He finished what He started. He filled what was empty. The justice Jesus brings doesn’t settle some lawsuit in one of our federal courts; it resolves the case between us and God.
So here He stands. Our high priest, “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens,” and yet submitting to our Baptism, making sacred the same waters which someone poured upon us. He made Himself nothing, as Paul told the Philippians. He took our form and nature. He submitted Himself to death on a cross. Or, as Paul said even more strongly to the Romans: “For what the Law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.”
It pleased the Father to do so. To give His Son up into the waters of Baptism, and then into the baptism of death. And because His Son fulfilled all righteousness, He emerged from the drowning waters of His Baptism alive, not just in the Jordan, but from the tomb of death, our death, died for us.
In his Order for Baptism, Luther composed a prayer famously referred to as the “Flood Prayer.” Among other things he says, “and who through the baptism of thy dear Child, our Lord Jesus Christ, hast consecrated and set apart the Jordan and all water as a salutary flood and a rich and full washing away of sins.” Jesus didn’t just make a symbolic gesture. Nor did your pastor when he baptized you or your parents when they brought you to the font. In Baptism God killed you. Because you needed to be killed. And He brought you to life. Because you needed life. He did that, not on some whim, but because His Son Jesus didn’t give up when we struggled against Him. Instead, He fulfilled all righteousness. For you. Amen.