Believe it or not
I like 'believe it or not' books. Believe it or not: James Lanvier sneezed 690 times in succession, a house fly's wings beat 19,800 times a minute, the temperature in Siberia ranges from 154.4 below zero to 102.2 above. Believe it or not the Baptism of our Lord was at one time bigger than Christmas. You probably have an easier time believing in the sneezing man, the house fly's wings, and the temperature in Siberia than you do this. That's because you don't see how amazing our Lord's Baptism was. This event has several 'believe it or not' aspects to it.
Believe it or not, the holy Jesus is baptized by the sinful John. Our text doesn't just say Jesus was baptized by John, but literally under John. Under indicates a humbling of Jesus, a submitting to John's authority. This is amazing. John himself declares that he is so far beneath Jesus that he's not fit to do for Him the task of the most menial slave: remove His sandals. Matthew tells you that John tried to prevent Jesus saying, "I have need under you to be baptized."
Why doesn't this amaze you the way it did John? Why is it so easy for you to believe that Jesus was baptized under John? Because you don't realize that the only way for John to baptize Jesus was for Jesus to confess sins. Our text says that those who were baptized by John were confessing their sins. Now don't think Jesus was standing in the Jordan not saying anything. No, John can't baptize Jesus unless He like all the others confesses sins. Jesus did confess and John did baptize Him.
Baptism is for sinners, and Baptism gives the Holy Spirit to all who are baptized. This is no mock Baptism. The Spirit descended on Jesus as He does on all the baptized. The only difference is He made a visible entrance here coming down on Jesus in the form of a dove. Try to get your head around that. Holy Jesus is God the Son, one Eternal God with the Father and the Spirit. Yet, believe it or not, He gets the Holy Spirit in Baptism.
This is not the end of the amazing things. Believe it or not, heaven tears open. Only Mark describes it this way. Matthew and Luke report heaven being opened. Mark describes a violent tearing of the boundary that had been erected between man and God since man first sinned in Eden. What men have been trying to do since the Tower of Babel, open up heaven, God does decisively at the Baptism of Jesus. The Advent prayer which we take from Isaiah 64:1, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," is answered in the Baptism of Jesus.
People always look towards the heavens for help. Watch athletes who've made a good play, actors who receive an award, ordinary people rescued from harrowing circumstances. What do they do? They look heavenward, they point towards the heavens. Believe it or not those heavens which can seem impervious to our prayers, cold to our needs, frighteningly mysterious in regards to the future, tear open at the Baptism of Jesus.
And Who comes tumbling out? Believe it or not, it's the Holy Trinity. We see the Son standing in the water, the Spirit descending out of heaven in the form of a dove, and we hear the Father speaking out of heaven. I don't know what is more amazing: to see the Holy Trinity or to see the Holy Trinity on this wretchedly sinful earth.
People fuss over, stumble at, and ridicule the mystery of the Trinity, but there it is before our very eyes. At one and the same time and place are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This wasn't lost on the early church either. They would respond to those doubting the Holy Trinity with, "Go to the Jordan river and you will see the Holy Trinity."
Seeing the Holy Trinity is certainly a believe it or not type event, but so is, perhaps even more so, seeing the Holy Trinity on sinful earth. Why isn't the earth quaking and braking? Why isn't a fire raging? Why isn't something happening like in "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Why aren't eyeballs frying and heads melting? This is the One eternal God of whom the 4 beings in heaven say 24/7, from all eternity to all eternity, "Holy, Holy, Holy." Here is this holy God on earth in the midst of sinners, and His holiness that killed animals on Mount Sinai and Uzziah when he accidentally touched the Ark doesn't kill anyone, believe it or not.
All of these amazing things made the Baptism of Jesus a grand day in the early church, but we've yet to reach the most amazing thing, the thing that makes sinners cherish, relish, celebrate, and meditate on this event. Believe it or not, Jesus is baptized for our sakes, not His. When Jesus stood in the muddy, fetid waters of the Jordan confessing sins for all to hear, those sins were yours not His. Here Jesus takes responsibility for your sins, for their shame, number, and guilt. Say them out loud in your mind, because Jesus spoke them out loud in His Baptism. The embarrassment, the blame the pain, the filthiness you know and feel connected with your sins, see these as all being washed off you onto Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for your sins in His Baptism. Therefore, your sins could be washed away from you, off of you in yours. Randy Travis has a song that illustrates this wonderfully. It's called "Pray for the Fish." In it, notorious sinner Eddie Lee Vaughn is being baptized. The song describes what happened next. "The fish started jumpin. It was like they was swimmin in a lake of fire. Then Eddie's Momma stepped out of the crowd, and started yelling out loud, "Pray for the fish. They won't know what's coming when the sins start rolling off the likes of him. Pray for the fish." This is what happened in your Baptism. Your filthy, disgusting sins were washed away in a flood of water applied to you in Jesus' name, but that's only because Jesus took responsibility for your sins in His baptism.
The Son of God because He was sinless sanctified the waters of Baptism. The early church used this imagery frequently. By allowing His holy body to be baptized, Jesus transmitted His holiness to the water that would be used in Baptism. As the Baptismal waters running off us carry our sins away from us and into the water where the fish are, so His Baptism carried His holiness into the water making it divine water, rich in grace, a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
Now you know why heaven was torn open at the Baptism of Jesus. Before that the Holy Trinity had to remain separate from sinners lest sinner die. Now that Jesus takes responsibly for not only our sins but for fulfilling God's Law, it's safe for the Holy Trinity to be among sinners. The One eternal God can't wait to get back to us, like a father long separated from His beloved children, so He rips heaven open and comes down. The only sinner the Holy Trinity sees in all the world is the Man Jesus standing in the Jordan.
But then how can the Father declare this One covered with the filth, shame, and guilt of our sins His "beloved Son" and say He is "well pleased" with Him? Believe it or not, the Father is well pleased with Him because He's taking your sins away from you. Isaiah says a similar thing, "The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief." What a barbaric thing to say of a Father about a Son! But believe it or not, that testifies to how much Father, Son, and Holy Spirit want to redeem you! How badly they want to deliver you from the bondage of your sins! How much they want you to share everlasting life with them, even at the expense of the Son.
However, there can be no everlasting life without the Holy Spirit. It's not enough to have the breath of life in your body. You need the Spirit of God to live forever. But how could the Holy Spirit dwell with sinners like us? He can't. That's why Jesus was given Him in Baptism. As true God, Jesus is one eternal God with the Father and the Spirit. As true Man, however, He can be given the Spirit, and as the only holy Man that has ever lived, the Spirit could dwell with Him without destroying Him.
Now the Spirit of God dwells with a Man, the Man Jesus. But Jesus doesn't need the Spirit to be saved. We do. So the problem remains, how can sinners like us be given the Holy Spirit? Believe it or not, it's by Jesus taking our place under the Law's requirements and punishments. In our place Jesus does what we can't do. He doesn't lose His temper like we. He doesn't lust, mistrust, or lie. But then, believe it or not, the Father treats Him as if He did all these things and much worse. The Father crushes Him, punishes Him, as if He were you.
The Holy Spirit can only dwell with perfect people. In Jesus, what Laws of God have not been kept? In Jesus, what do you still need to do before God can see you as perfect, holy? Believe it or not, nothing. Jesus did them all for you. But there's more. In Jesus, which one of your sins has yet to be paid for? In Jesus, which of your sins was not completely covered by His blood? Believe it or not, there was not one sin of yours no matter how keenly you remember it or how pointedly it sticks in your conscience, that Jesus did not carry to the cross, pay for there, and bury forever.
The Spirit can land on Jesus because He's a perfect man, and Jesus can pour out the Spirit on men because He has completed the work of redeeming imperfect men. So once He ascended as a Man into heaven, Jesus had the right as a Man to pour out the Holy Spirit on mankind. He did this to the Church on Pentecost, and the Church went out distributing that Holy Spirit by Baptizing and teaching. We have the Holy Spirit because Jesus got Him as a Man in His Baptism and gave Him to us in ours. So, believe it or not, we have the Spirit that is always crying to God "Daddy, Daddy"; We have the Spirit that can do more than any man, medicine, or machine. We have the Spirit not of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind. We have the Spirit not of death but of life and not of mere earthly life but eternal life.
No wonder the Baptism of Jesus was such a big deal in the early church. They knew whether anyone believed it or not that something big had happened to Jesus which meant something even bigger to those in Jesus. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, TX
The Baptism of our Lord (20060108); Mark 1: 4-11