Crowds came to see and hear John. And not just to see and hear him, but to buy what he was selling. Droves run out into the desert from all over the region and let John baptize them while they confessed their sins, like the masses at a revival, or a Billy Graham crusade, or a Sunday morning. Then what?
Let’s not pretend like we don’t have to ask. Certainly some came honestly and sincerely, but just as certainly some gave in to the mob mentality. How many hundreds and thousands haven’t come forward during an awakening or a revival, made their confession, got their baptism, and then gone home and returned to life as normal? What about those just interested in getting the latest spiritual fix? Just as some follow and try every new diet fad, so too some sample every spiritual fad. “Ooo, fasting, let’s try that.” “Oh, marathon prayer, we should do that.” “Oh, rock ‘n’ roll worship, I’m in.” “Tongue speaking? I haven’t tried that yet.”
Or, more prosaically, since Lutherans aren’t known for such excesses and excitement as revivals and tent-meetings and crusades, or even baptizing down by the river, we think of those moments in church life when our version of the droves come. It’s a children’s Christmas service where kids and family come out of the woodwork. It’s confirmation season when suddenly someone is in church and class for a bit to get through the examination and make some promises. It’s that pre-marriage time when couples submit to some counseling, maybe take an instruction class, so they can have it all in church. Or a Baptism, when extended family, or maybe the baby’s mom and dad, make a big production of getting here for the washing and the pictures that come afterwards. Then what?
We know what. We have a name for it: Christmas and Easter Christians. Confirmation, marriage and baptism are church rites that must be submitted to because Grandma gets royally ticked or because I had to go through it when I was a kid. Many hundreds and perhaps thousands came to John and then transferred their allegiance to Jesus. But within a short time all but the twelve and a few other friends had pretty much abandoned him, fully prepared to shout, “Crucify him!” on a Friday that people call good for different reasons depending on the side you’re on.
No wonder John got so harsh with some. “Brood of vipers!” he famously called them. Like when Joshua spoke to assembled Israel and said, “You need to serve the Lord completely,” and the people said, “We will!” and Joshua said, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and sin.” Today we heard God’s servant, the Messiah, the Christ, speak through Isaiah about his ministry and say, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” Or, as Jesus asked, “When the son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?”
We’re so eager to get baptized, but so quick to forget what it is and what it means. It’s not a membership card. It’s not the cool spiritual fad. It’s not a cultural thing. It’s not a family occasion. It’s not following the mob. It’s God beginning repentance and forgiveness of sins. That’s what John drove the droves to do, whether they intended or not. He baptized them, and while they were baptized they confessed their sins, because that was John’s baptism: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
We’re so used to talking about forgiveness and grace and the taking away of and forgetting sins, that we forget that repentance is a part of things too: repentance towards God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the general summary of the Church’s work given to us by the Spirit and Jesus and the apostles and prophets.
In other words, it is true that God forgets sins, forgives them for the sake of Christ, lifts them up and away and places them upon Jesus. It is not true that we need never speak of sin again. Part of the new life, part of being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ is the taking off and drowning of the old, which requires verbalizing, which requires acknowledging that sin drowns us, that we are, like John, not fit to tie Jesus’ sandals. In other words, that we continually need what God gives the Church to offer and distribute: the forgiveness of sins. What I mean to say is that we do what John’s baptismands did: while being baptized we confess our sins and produce fruits in keeping with repentance.
That’s what the catechism teaches about baptism. After describing what baptism is – water connected to God’s word that makes disciples – what baptism does – gives forgiveness, life, and salvation – and where baptism gets its power – from the word of God he attaches to it, then Luther reminds us what baptism means for our daily lives, daily lives! Baptism means, you recited, that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance – daily – and that a new man should daily arise – daily – to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
In other words we go back to baptism continually. We confess continually. We repent continually. God forgives continually. Daily and fully as we explain the third article of the Apostles’ Creed. Which leads us, as Jesus said, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, to follow Jesus and give up loving the world. If you were stealing, steal no longer, Paul says. If you were extorting and discriminating, John tells the soldier, stop it. To that adulterous woman Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you. Now, go and sin no more.”
That’s quite a load to put on people. No wonder so many bop in and bip out. Easier to be baptized and disappear than to get baptized while confessing your sins. It seems also to put a whole load and burden on baptism that seems completely un-Lutheran. “What happened to all that arrow-down talk you give us all the time, God acting upon us, giving us grace?” Even in baptism we need a Savior, eh? No wonder Jesus said to John, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
We bring our sinful baggage even, and especially, to baptism. And so Jesus too comes to these waters. He sanctifies and sets apart water for this holy and cleansing purpose. And he did it while seeming to behave exactly as the rest of the baptized ones did: he was baptized while confessing sins, though he had no guilt or sin of his own. So he prayed in those waters, as Luke tells us. And he became one with us, became of our family, became our brother, as we heard in Hebrews 2 last week. To suffer, to taste death, to taste sin. And not just taste it, but to devour it, to completely take it in and upon himself, to become sin for us. This is Jesus the hidden secret that Isaiah described: “in the shadow of his hand he hid me….and concealed me in his quiver.” Completely unsinful, completely not in need of baptism, yet he receives the washing of rebirth and renewal for himself. Like us in every way. Our sins laid upon him by his Father, whose will it was to crush him and cause him to suffer as a guilt offering for my sins, and not only mine, nor only for the Jews, but, again, as Isaiah said, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
God hid and concealed this about Jesus for thirty years. Until the heavens tore open, as violently as that temple curtain would rip later. The skies went schizophrenic; they divided into two and down came the Spirit, and down came the voice of the Father: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased!”
Right there, at that moment, God the Father put our baggage behind us and onto His Son. He brought him out of hiding. His Son fulfills all righteousness, even as he receives a washing that explicitly requires unrighteousness. And it’s all in the context of baptism. Some use this text to prove that baptism is just a symbol, “water baptism,” and we need look beyond it to a baptism by the Holy Spirit. But that’s not how John or Jesus talk. At the end of Mark Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
This is how God operates. It’s always been a means of grace thing with him, using instruments to deliver his gifts. From circumcision and the Passover in the Old Testament until today. This is how God operates. He delivers repentance and forgiveness. By a wild-eyed preacher crying out, “Repent!” and “The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world!” By a water that cries out: “You are dirty and I must kill you!” By a food that cries out: “I must purge you and fill you!” Which in the end is always about what God wishes to deliver: the forgiveness of sins. The one thing that the Christian Church has and no one else can offer: Jesus, who won and accomplished the treasure of God by taking sins not only into the Jordan but onto the cross, shedding and pouring out his blood there, before seeing the light of life again and being satisfied that sins are paid for, death conquered, devil destroyed: resurrection: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
So the crowds came to John, just as a young family comes today, to this water set apart and made holy by Jesus, who, as in everything, took this water upon himself for us, in our place, to make it not just a ritual or a gesture, but a gift from God, who, through Jesus, says in this very water, not just to Jesus, but to you, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am pleased.” Amen.