Readings: Joshua 3:1–3, 7–8, 13–17 | 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 | Matthew 3:13–17
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
You’ll meet people who are skeptical about God and consider confident Christians arrogant for saying they know so much about knowing what God’s will is or what’s right and wrong.
This plays out in two main ways. The first is the approach of the atheist, who says there is no god because there’s no empirical evidence to support the claim. They argue that it’s not reasonable—even foolish—to put your trust in and be convinced of something that can’t be reached by the scientific method. That isn’t proof for the non-existence of God; but an arrogance that existence hinges on human perception.
The second is the approach of the mystic, who believes that God exists, but is unknowable and cannot be constrained by human thoughts or even the words of the Bible. They, even if they claim Christianity, remain unsure about what God says is right and wrong, whether the history of the Bible is factual, and may even consider it going too far for a Christian to be sure they are forgiven and will enter paradise when they die.
In both cases, a personal God is placed out of reach. The result is that people are left unsure and alienated. But God would not have us unsure about His existence, so He is the One who makes Himself known. And He does this in the way that we are able to perceive Him: through words and through the tangible element of water in Holy Baptism.
But to us, doubters and skeptics, to mystics who get lost in the darkness of our own reason, a light has shone. The Holy God revealed Himself in the flesh, here on earth at the water of the Jordan in the Baptism of John. Here, He revealed Himself in a Name, in the flesh of His Son, and in the Spirit’s appearance as a dove. To those who are seeking some firm experience and sighting of God, a voice came from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.” This man, Jesus, standing there in the water, humbled in the form of a servant like us, is where God appears to us. And what could this appearing to man mean, but peace, as the Spirit of God descends and remains on Jesus. Where is peace following judgment, but in Jesus who was born for us, whose heart pumps holy, sinless blood, and who will deliver His peace to the dead in trespasses and sins, those who like the rest of mankind are children of wrath [Eph. 2:1-3].
The Small Catechism says that “Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.” (Small Catechism, Part IV, “What Benefits Does Baptism Give?”)
Where is this great promise written? Mark 16:16 says: “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16). Peter echoes, “There is also an antitype [to the Flood] which now saves us—baptism” (1 Pet 3:21 NKJV). Furthermore, St. Paul says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5-8), and “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” (Rom 6:4). We believe what God’s Word says about Baptism. We trust His promises—the Word that has been spoken to us and confirmed by the Holy Spirit’s testimony. We live by faith in that. Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to us by naming us as Christ’s own and delivering the power and benefit of His death and resurrection to us.
Baptism does what God says it does. Its glory is hidden from the eyes of the world for it is glory like that of our King and His Kingdom. It is rejected by the proud, the wise, the knowledgeable, the mighty [1 Cor. 1:26-31]. But it is honored by those who know they need saving and know Christ.
The Baptism of Jesus institutes and empowers our Baptism. His Baptism is the beginning of the great exchange. It is a kind of reversal of our Baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation. In His Baptism, Jesus is anointed as our King. He doesn’t have any sins to be forgiven, but Baptism doesn’t heal Him. Instead, it infects Him. Baptism gives Him our sins. It marks Him as guilty. We step into the clean waters of Holy Baptism filthy in our sins, and this heavenly washing washes our sins off of us for it is a washing of rebirth and renewal. Jesus steps in clean and pure, without sin, into the dirty water we left behind, full of scum. When He steps out, He is dirty. He is anointed for His Office with our disease and death. The Christ is the priest who acts on behalf of sinners.
He is most certainly not rescued from death and the devil. Immediately after His Baptism, the Holy Spirit will drive Him out of the promised land and into the wilderness in order to hand Him over to the devil [Matt. 4:1]. Baptism sets Him as the scapegoat who takes our sins away and as the Passover Lamb who shields us from the angel of death by His death. The Lord doesn’t remove our sins by simply dismissing them. He ingests them. He becomes them [2 Cor. 5:21]. Thus, the Father and the Spirit won’t help Him. He is a worm and not a man [Psalm 22:6]. He suffers in the desert without manna. Rather than receiving eternal salvation in Baptism, He is marked for the cross and condemnation. There, He will suffer hell in our place. As our substitute, He will be betrayed by His friends, stripped naked, humiliated, and tortured. He will know and endure all of our sorrows and then some, and He will be forsaken by His Father [Ps. 22:1].
This is what empowers Baptism for us, and makes it for us a saving water. Christ inaugurated and instituted Baptism that saves by being Baptized, by making the exchange. He takes what is ours and in exchange gives us what is His. Our Baptisms joins us to Him and His Baptism. Baptism makes us the beloved sons of the Father in whom the Father is well-pleased. Christ takes our sins and gives us, in exchange, His holiness. He suffers His Father’s wrath so that we would enjoy His Father’s blessings. He accepts the devil’s accusations so that we might have the angels’ praise. What the Father says of Jesus, He says of us. We are the beloved and in Christ He is well-pleased with, even proud of, us.
How much God has revealed Himself to us! No wonder St. John marvels, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!” And why can’t our fellow men, who carry the same infection, are under the same sentence of death, receive this? John says, “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Without receiving the testimony, the Gospel of Christ, people remain in darkness.
Thanks be to God that He has called us out of this darkness! But our heart aches for our unbelieving neighbors. We want them to be saved and not sent to perdition and eternal fire! We know that no matter how pleasant and nice they may be, it is only by having Christ as their substitute that they can be saved. But what can we do?
We share Christ: how He has created us, how our lives belong to Him not to ourselves, how we are weak and have failed God and one another but God being rich in mercy has taken our punishment away, and how we look forward to a world that truly is perfect and bodies that are free of the bondage to decay. It is Christ who is able to save them, and His Holy Spirit who reaches them through this. No amount of our cajoling or persuading has the power to bring them to the light; only God can do this and He truly does as we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”
Dear saints, keep on believing in your God, and keep on praying that He would keep you through the trials of this world and by His Spirit-breathed Word bring us to where faith gives way to sight, and time gives way to eternity, and thorns and thistles give way to Sabbath rest. Amen.