Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord
Text: Matthew 3:13–17
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Old Testament testifies to Jesus. This is Jesus’ own claim to the Jews (John 5:39). Therefore, I would like to take you back before we move forward. That is, before we look at Jesus’ baptism and ask what this means for us two thousand years later, let us look back at the Old Testament and see how this event was foreshadowed among God’s people.
The Old Testament is full of stories from Israel’s history that serve as parables of sorts for what God is doing in the New Testament. There are numerous texts that we could consider: creation itself, which began with the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters, the ark being lifted up on the waters of the flood to save Noah and his family (Peter connects that story with Baptism). We could look at the crossing of the Red Sea, or the crossing of the Jordan, from our Old Testament Lesson, Naaman washing in the Jordan and being healed of Leprosy. But the parable that I think best applies Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan to our own lives comes from a short account of what happened after the crossing of the Red Sea. The joy and wonder of the Exodus were short lived. Moses describes what happens after the crossing of the Red Sea like this:
22 Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah [which means bitterness]. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log [or a tree], and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:22–25; ESV)
The Israelites wouldn’t drink the bitter water. It likely wasn’t even safe to drink. The Israelites show repeatedly that they had become used to their lives as slaves. Whenever they are faced with hardship, they long for what they had in Egypt, and gladly would have returned to slavery if they could have. That is one reason God led them out through the Red Sea, so they couldn’t turn around and go back! Now in the same week is which they crossed the Red Sea without getting a toe wet, they complain because the water is bitter. Had they stayed at Marah long enough, I’m sure someone would have become so thirsty that they would have tried the water. It likely would have killed whoever tried it, or at least tried to live off of it, but thirst can drive a person to desperation.
But God did not leave his people to choose between dying of thirst or dying from poison. He showed Moses a tree and had Moses throw it in the water and the water became sweet. What had been bitter was now refreshing.
So it is with Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan. To understand this connection though, we need to consider the entirety of John’s Ministry. You see. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. His preaching was a preaching of repentance: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Now everyone was coming out to be baptized, but not everyone could stomach the bitter pill of repentance. When He saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Repentance is an acknowledgment of guilt and a turning away from the offense. The Pharisees and Scribes did not bear the fruit of repentance. They did not turn away from their sin. They did not truly admit their guilt. For them the water of John’s Baptism was bitter, too bitter to really drink. Oh, they went through the motions, but they left with their same sins.
On the other hand, those who were truly desperate, who had endured the scorching heat of guilt and shame and who found their own efforts at righteousness to leave them parched, submitted to John’s Baptism and bore fruit in keeping of repentance. You see, you can’t repent without desperation. As long as there is another option for dealing with your sin, you can’t truly confess it and turn away from it. True repentance is the acknowledging that you can’t make up for your sin. You can’t undo your sin. Repentance is owning your sin. “I am a man of unclean lips,” “I have sinned against heaven and against you,” “In sin did my mother conceive me.” “I have sinned by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.”
It is a bitter pill, but those whom Scripture calls sinners, those who have nowhere else to turn but to repentance and God’s mercy, will drink the bitter water of confessing their sin and turning from it. That is whom John was seeking to Baptize. Soldiers who had used their position to oppress others, but now became content with their wages; tax-collectors who had cheated, but now were content with what they were authorized to collect; neighbors who had refused to help those in need, but now shared the shirt off their back. Those who bore the fruit of repentance were the fruit of John’s ministry. John baptized them unto the forgiveness of their sins, but the self-righteous were warned, being children of Abraham did not make them children of God.
Now John is ready for the self-righteous. He’s prepared to call out that brood of vipers who listen to Satan’s deceit which says, “You can be like God, by stretching out your own hand.” What John is not ready for is the One who is not only like God, but is God. The One who has no sin, the Righteous One. What is John, the preacher and baptizer of repentance to do with the one Man who doesn’t have any sin to repent?
Jesus has come to stand with sinners in their dirty bath water. John would rather have Jesus baptize him, but Jesus says it must be the other way. The righteous one tastes the bitter water of repentance. Water that reeks of the sins of the people—the greed, the lust, the lying, the cheating, the stealing, extortion, robbery, idolatry, adultery, anger, hatred, murder—is poured on Jesus. He is buried in all the sin that is confessed in John’s baptism. Jesus brings all of Himself into the Jordan. His love, His mercy, His humanity and His divinity, His life, His body, His Blood, His joy, His sorrow, His death, and even the tree of His cross are cast into the bitter water of the Jordan polluted by the sins of men.
It is the Baptism of Jesus along with His cross that makes the bitter water sweet. For without Jesus’ Baptism John’s ministry is all wet. John could have a Baptism of repentance without Jesus’ Baptism, but without Christ there is no Baptism unto the forgiveness of sins. Thus it is necessary for Christ to join us in our baptism in order to make that which is bitter sweet. In order to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus must join sinners in Baptism so that sinners can join Him in salvation. It is Jesus’ baptism and His cross that turn the admission of guilt into repentance unto the forgiveness of sin. Repentance is owning your sin, but it is also giving up your sin to Jesus.
For us today we can’t say that repentance is fun. Nobody enjoys needing to stand before God and saying, “I have sinned against you by my thoughts, words, and deeds.” Nor do we like to go to our neighbor and confess our fault to him. But what Jesus’ Baptism shows us is that the real bitterness is not in our repentance, but in our sin itself. The sinners who were baptized by John went home in peace and joy. The Pharisees and Sadducees who refused to bear the fruit of repentance went home stuck in their self-righteous bitterness—bitterness that led to a rejection of John, a rejection of Christ, a rejection of the Resurrection, a rejection of righteousness.
You can see this in people who refuse to admit that they are wrong. They end up being less happy than those who are ready to admit their fault. On the last day the depths of true bitterness will be revealed to those who refuse to heed John’s call to repentance. But those who confess their sins will be saved; they will enter the fulness of God’s joy.
That joy is already ours in true repentance that looks ultimately not to our sin, but to the mercy of God in Christ. Those who complain that confession is a dreary way of beginning a worship service miss the point. We confess our sins because if we are honest life is dreary. Life is full of guilt and shame and disappointment and all manner of suffering. We confess our sins to leave that behind us. The absolution is a refreshing shower of the water of Baptism made sweet through the tree of the cross. Where Christ’s cross is, there is His grace, His merit, His forgiveness. Knowing that makes confessing our sin a joy, because it means that forgiveness follows, not because of our work, but because of Christ.
Our own Baptism connects us with Christ. We bring what is ours and Christ gives what is His. We daily return to our baptism not by the application of water, but by the application of Christ’s cross drowning the old Adam in repentance and rising to new life in Christ.
The cross of Christ has made your baptism sweet. For by the cross of Christ, baptism washes away your sin and joins you to the resurrection of Jesus. What is yours becomes His and what is His becomes yours. Even the Spirit descending as a dove is yours as is the testimony of the Father: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria