Don't Lose The Story
Can you believe CBS is bringing back the 1960s police drama, "Dragnet?" I can't see how they expect to make it with that show. It was dry and slow; Joe Friday was always interested in just the facts. "Just the facts please," was his signature line. He reduced great tragedy, great drama to "just the facts." I think a similar thing has happened to our Bible stories. We've reduced them to "just the facts" as if there was no grand, wonderful story here. Take the text before us. We've reduced it to the facts heaven opened and the Holy Spirit came down like a dove as if it was an everyday experience for heaven to open and the Holy Spirit to fly down. In short, we've lost the story aspect of our Bible stories. They've become dry, well worn facts. Peter preaching in Acts hadn't lost it yet. Did you hear the story there? "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him."
Yes, there is a wonderful story in the Baptism of Jesus. You might call it the "The Prince and the Paupers." Jesus is a Prince. Mark 1:1 opens in a storybook way with this, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God." Verse 2 says that He is none other than the Lord, Jehovah. Jesus is not just a Prince of earth, but the Prince of heaven. Angels cannot look at Him in the brightness of His glory. Cherubim and Seraphim bow before Him. Jesus is the best, most wonderful, most glorious prince there ever was or will be. Jesus will later call John the Baptist the greatest among those born of women, but how does John compare himself to Jesus? John's a weakling compared to Jesus. John isn't even fit to be Jesus' lowliest slave whose duty it would be to remove Jesus' sandals.
The greatest thing this Prince of heaven and earth is able to do is to apply the Holy Spirit. John says that this Prince is able to apply the Holy Spirit to sinners as easily as John is applying water to sinners for the forgiveness of sins. Since John is forgiving sins through his Baptism, the Holy Spirit was present in it too even as the Holy Spirit had been present with him since He filled him when he was still in his mother's womb. It's not like the Holy Spirit wasn't around till Jesus sent Him. The Spirit filled people in the Old Testament, came upon Mary in the New, and led Simeon into the temple to see Baby Jesus. The big thing is that Jesus is the One able to send Him into all the world on Pentecost. In fact, the only reason the Holy Spirit could be in the Old Testament sacraments, in John's Baptism, or in our sacraments is because of Jesus.
You're missing the story if you don't think it's a great big deal to be able to apply the Holy Spirit. In storytelling, this is the equivalent of being the only one able to pull the sword out of the stone. We should be in awe and wonder at this Jesus in our text. We should have shivers up our spine as John announces to us what Jesus is able to do. No Man before could do such a thing as this.
Jesus is the Prince in the story of "The Prince and the Pauper." We are the paupers. Jesus is the brightness of the Father; Jesus is Pure Light. We are ragamuffins with dark, dirty faces and torn clothes. We have many sins to confess. Not a one of us fears, loves or trusts in God above all things. Not a one of us always "prays, praises, and give thanks" like we are commanded. Not a one of us "holds the preaching and the Word of God sacred and gladly hears and learns it." Don't picture us as little orphan Annies or precocious Oliver Twists. We're paupers with attitudes. We think we're right. We think we're justified to think what we do, feel what we want, and do whatever we feel like. It's not our fault our faces are dirty and our clothes ripped. It's not our fault that our hearts are filled with lust, pride, greed, and spite. And so we shake our tiny fists at heaven.
We shake our fists at a heaven that is closed to us. A heaven that is locked down like a bank vault. There's no place in heaven for sins; there's no room in heaven for sinners. We are paupers with attitude and we sit outside the castle of the Prince complaining how life is so unfair. How it's all His fault that we are out in this freezing, rainy weather. The castle is shut and our cries, our demands to be let in just bounce back to us.
The castle is closed to us and all the gifts, all the treasures of the castle are far removed from us. The greatest treasure of this castle is the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit comes all the wealth of heaven: forgiveness, peace, joy, self-control, hope, courage and every other good and perfect gift of God. But the Holy Spirit can't land on us. Think back to Noah and the Flood. The early Church always connected the Baptism of Jesus to the Flood. Remember how Noah first sent out a dove, and it came back to him. When he sent out the raven it didn't. That's because after the flood everything outside of the ark was dead. All there was to eat was dead things. A dove won't land on a bloated corpse, but a raven will because that's what it eats.
When the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flutters out of heaven, it sees nothing but us sinners who are dead in our sins. We are like the living dead in stories. We walk and talk but we are spiritually dead. Our flesh hangs off our faces; our eyes are sunk in their sockets. The Dove of the Spirit won't land on us paupers, but it does land on the Prince of heaven because He is life itself.
Perhaps I'm getting ahead in the story. The Prince of heaven comes to earth but He comes as a pauper. He comes as Jesus of Nazareth trained as a carpenter. He comes to one who is not even worthy to untie His sandals. He comes and stands in line with sinners. As a prince, surely He could have cut in line, but He didn't. He comes and gets baptized, literally, under John. John only baptized those confessing their sins which means Prince Jesus not only stood in line with sinners, He confessed sins just like they did.
Whose sins do you think Prince Jesus confessed? They couldn't have been His own. What sins did the perfect Prince of heaven have? Not a one. He had no sins in deeds, in words, or even thoughts. The sins Jesus confessed were yours and mine. Jesus confessed the sins of paupers with attitude. He admitted what we did. He admitted our constant worrying. He confessed the pride that won't admit when we're wrong. He confessed the lust that inflames our hearts. He confessed our profaning of the Word of God. He confessed our greed, our bitterness, our self-righteousness. This is why after His baptism John could point at Jesus and say to the whole world, "Behold the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world." By being baptized Prince Jesus publicly entered into His role as bearer of the world's sins. There go your sins on the back of that Prince who is dressed in the sinful, smutty rags of a pauper.
Can you sense the wonder of the story yet? The Prince becomes a pauper to bear our sins, to be punished like a self-righteous pauper ought to be punished, to suffer and die like a dead, damned sinner deserves to. Prince Jesus did this so us paupers might become princes and princesses of heaven. The result of the Prince of heaven standing in the Jordan like a pauper confessing that He did our sins was heaven being torn open. Heaven can be opened to sinners now that sins are carried out of the way on the back of Prince Jesus. Heaven can hear our prayer; watch over us, protect us, receive us because our sins are being carried away from us by Jesus the Prince who became a pauper.
Through the open doors of heaven the Holy Spirit flies as gentle Dove. Now it has a place to land. The Prince of Heaven is on earth; the sinless Son is on the sinful earth. Here is a place for the gift bearing Spirit to perch. What does the Prince/ Pauper do with the Holy Spirit? He baptizes, that is He applies Him to sinners. Receive Baptism and you get the Holy Spirit promises Peter in Acts 2. Jesus breathes on the disciples in John 20 and says, "Receive ye the Spirit." And from the earliest times the Church has said in the liturgy that the Lord was with the spirit of their pastors to forgive sins, to say their prayers, to celebrate Holy Communion, to put the name of the Lord on them. Finally, in giving us His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine He is also giving us His Spirit. Prince Jesus, standing as a pauper in the Jordan, is given the Spirit for our sakes not His.
Jesus the Prince of heaven becomes the most wretched pauper in all the earth. He comes out of His holy castle and takes on the rags and dirt and filth of a pauper. This pleases the Father, so much so that He declares from heaven, "You are My Son, whom I love, IN You (not WITH You) I am well pleased." What a wonderful thing to happen; through heaven's newly opened door the Father speaks. And He declares that in Jesus, He is pleased.
Are you in Jesus? What does Paul say your Baptism did? Clothed you with Jesus, buried you with Jesus, rose you with Jesus. I'd say in your Baptism you're very much in Jesus. Are you in Jesus? Your sins have been forgiven in Jesus' name. I'd say having His name on you and over your sins pretty much puts you in Jesus. Are you in Jesus? You who eat and drink Him in Holy Communion can't be any more in Jesus than to have Jesus in you.
Therefore, I can with great joy tell you that God the Father is pleased with you. He delights in you. He says, "Look at what my little prince or princess is doing today. I'm delighted that he got up today. I'm well-pleased that she is enjoying her meal. I'm just so happy with his most ordinary things or her plainest activities." In Jesus, you're no longer a pauper. You're a prince or princess.
In the story "The Prince and the Pauper" how does the marvelous switch happen? They change clothes. That's the story in this text. In Jesus' baptism, He clothes Himself in your sins. In your Baptism, Jesus clothes you with His forgiveness, His salvation, His works. The clothing is so convincing that Paul can say God the Father made Jesus to BE sin. The clothing was so complete that John could look at Jesus and say, "I see the world's sins being carried away." The clothing was so real that God the Father could turn away from the Prince of Heaven and leave Him to suffer and die the wretched eternal death we sinful paupers deserve.
Your princely and princessly clothes are that convincing, that complete, that real. While you see under your garments your sinfulness, while you still feel the wretchedness that is yours, God the Father sees no such things. He sees the clothing of a prince or a princess. Just as the clothing of a pauper brought Jesus directly to the cross and judgment, so the clothing of a prince or princess brings you directly to heaven and vindication. This is not only the story; these are also the facts. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The First Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of our Lord)
1-12-03, Mark 1:4-11