Among the many mysteries of Christmas is that God was born. This was something that many—trying to use their reason—couldn’t wrap their heads around. God fully embraced our human nature in Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14).
Another is that God revealed this great news of salvation to the lowest of the earth—unknown Mary and Joseph, descendants of David but nowhere near the class of royalty. Then it was first announced to shepherds keeping watch over the flocks, not kings or prophets. As His ministry grew, it was not received by the well-to-do religious people of pedigree, but by tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners (Matt. 21:31-32).
Standing among those mysteries that is offensive to our human nature is that God, who became flesh and associated with sinners, was ministered to by men, by human hands.
John would have prevented Christ from receiving a baptism for sinners. What is this?! Surely there must be a mistake that God’s Messiah needs to receive a sinner’s baptism? “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John has been sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make His paths straight” (Isaiah 40). But is that to include baptizing the sinless, holy Lord Himself?
Now, this isn’t the first time that the holy Son of God was cared for by human hands. Just last week we heard of the flight to Egypt: It was Joseph and Mary’s hands which carried Him to Egypt. It was Mary’s breast at which God’s Son nursed. Later in His ministry, Luke 8 tells us many women, including Mary Magdalene, among others, provided for Him out of their means (Luke 8:2-3). Our reason says this is far too earthy for God to be born, to be weak, to depend on human care.
But God doesn’t say this. God says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It is part of His eternally wise plan to stand in the Jordan with sinners, to humble Himself and make Himself one of us.
God did amazing things by the hand of John. God had said through the prophet, “Prepare my way before Me,” but who imagined that it would look like this! John’s feeble hand—subsisting on locusts and wild honey—would bring Jesus down into the water and out again. With this simple act, God displayed the sign of all signs: “Behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
The Son of God, even though He is almighty in power, made Himself weak to accomplish our salvation—all righteousness. But again, it comes down to the judgment of man versus that of God. Man thinks that righteousness depends on something we can do to “do our part.” But fulfilling all righteousness is completely a gift. Let it be so now, because this is gaining for sinners exactly the kind of salvation they need: One that doesn’t depend on their contributions in the least.
Rather, it’s a righteousness for all these unrighteous gathered here—the prostitutes, the tax collectors, all who are waiting for God’s consolation. It’s a righteousness to cover your unrighteousness. Your filthy, hateful intents and desires; your words both scathing and callous; what you’ve done and what you have left undone and made excuses for. God has seen it all. This is the fitting way to bring righteousness to you: for the Son of God to be baptized into your sin, so that you can be baptized into His righteousness.
But it wasn’t finished that day with John’s baptism, and neither was God done using people to fulfill His saving plan. Soon enough, the hour came where human hands carried out the wrath of God against sin—your sin—the soldiers seized and bound Him, they blindfolded and slapped Him and spit in His face, the clothed Him in a purple robe and then struck Him on the head, and finally as the soldier’s hands pounded the nails into his hands and feet and hoisted Him into the air. Just hours later, human hands took His lifeless body down from the cross and laid Him into a tomb.
Then, it was complete—God had used these people for His saving purpose. On the Third Day, Jesus rose from the dead and on the fortieth day ascended into heaven—His hands extended in blessing upon His Church (Luke 24:50-53).
Now let’s return to the marvels that God does through humble instruments. We’ve heard about the people in the immediate life of Jesus. But what can we do to be doing God’s work today?
I’ll name the most contrary-to-reason work first: prayer. If you want to do something important in God’s kingdom, put your own hands together and call on the Lord. Truth be told, we often neglect prayer and think little of its ability to turn a hopeless situation around. We confuse thinking and worrying about a person with prayer, but it’s really a different thing. Circling around the small orbit of our understanding can do very little. And maybe that’s where part of the confusion lies, in our ability to affect things versus God’s. If we’re merely worrying, it’s because we are nearly helpless to make anything better. But if our hands are asking and open to the Lord to take over, that’s where we will be amazed. That’s where, after calling on Him in the day of trouble, we will glorify Him for His deliverance (Ps. 50:15).
And that’s not all that God does through us. He works through each of us in serving our neighbor—doing His will in our families, our community, as citizens. Now when we’re doing God’s work, sometimes the things we do make a great impact—as if the heavens were opened and everything changed that moment—like when you have just the right words to save someone’s life. Those are nice, and we really like to see our actions make a big impact. But that’s not always going to be how it goes.
More often than not, the work is long and hard, and the reward is seen much later or maybe kept as a surprise in eternity. Like raising children to believe in and follow Jesus, it takes years of care and attention. Like being a friend to someone who’s a religious skeptic, it’s wondering if you’re getting through. Or like praying for God to get through to a drug addict, you see his many foolish decisions and backsliding and might even lose hope that he could ever change. Yet even in these, God is working through you—your prayers, words, and actions.
This is the God in Whom we believe, who is able to do all things, and who does holy and awesome things on earth as it is in heaven. And the confidence we have before Him comes through His birth among us, His Baptism in the Jordan, His death and resurrection, and our being baptized into Him. And our Baptism is just one more example of God’s work among us—not putting our confidence in the man who did it, but in the Word of God, which says: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.”