If you grew up in the golden-age of television you grew up watching black and white TV, and you know how important contrast is. With no color everything on the screen is black, white, or some shade in between. Contrast is essential to seeing the picture. It makes it pop into focus.
If ever a picture needed clarifying it's that of Christ being baptized by John in the Jordan. What's going on here? Why is this event so significant? Why do we read this account each year? Why until the 11th century was this account read each Epiphany instead of the visit of the wise men? By contrasting Christ's baptism with ours you'll get a clear picture of why this account has been so important to the Church.
What's going on in Christ's baptism? In terms of the Introit, we have One who loves righteousness and hates wickedness standing in line with sinners. We have One who is without sin coming to a baptism for sinners. We have "the most excellent of men" allowing Himself to be numbered with the most worthless. Jesus comes to be baptized by John because He publicly steps into the office His Father elected Him to in eternity: that of sin-bearer. He is publicly starting the work He came to do: pick up and carry away the sins of the world. That's why it's only after His baptism that John points to Jesus and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the world."
Christ's baptism means He has all the sins of the world on His shoulders. At His baptism every last one of them was poured on Him. Being the Holy God He was born with none of His own. Being perfect He never committed a sin. Nevertheless, as the waters of Baptism run down His back the sins of all people stain Him.
With sin always comes guilt. At His baptism Christ was not only given the sins of all, He was given the guilt of all. Think what that means! How bad do you feel when you've done something wrong? How ashamed are you when you realize you've sinned horribly? You know what a guilty conscience is like. Well imagine what it would be like to have the guilt of all people's sins. No wonder the Scriptures call Him a "Man of sorrows" and say that He was "acquainted with grief." Sorrow and grief from your sins were His constant companion. They did everything together.
At His baptism Christ picked up the sins of the world and therefore all its guilt. Christ felt bad because He was a poor mother. Christ felt guilty for being a lousy father. Christ was ashamed of being a worthless child and of being a bad church member. In short, from after His baptism on Christ felt guilty for everything. If it rained, He felt His sins caused it. If there was sickness, He was to blame. If there was disaster, He was the reason.
If someone bears sins, then they have guilt, and if they have guilt, then they expect punishment. After His Baptism, Christ came out of the Jordan river with the dread that something terrible was going to happen to Him or His family. The sins He bore, the guilt He felt, drove Him to this conclusion.
By His Baptism Christ is identified as the One who will be crushed for our sins, bruised for our iniquities. That's how Isaiah described it, but maybe these words are so familiar that they've come to mean little. Well how about: abused for our sins, tortured for our iniquities? How about crushed for our temper, bruised for our pride? How about beaten to a bloody pulp because we curse, tormented without mercy because we worry?
As the waters of Baptism run down His back, Jesus knows that He bears the temporal and eternal punishment you and I confess we deserve each Sunday. He knows that He deserves to have every illness, suffer every tragedy, endure every heartbreak that can happen to a person. Is that in focus for you? Maybe not. Let me turn the contrast button a little bit.
Your baptism means the opposite of His. There. Do things pop into focus now? Your baptism means you don't bear yours or anybody else's sins. As the waters of Baptism ran down you, they didn't pour sins on you; they washed them off. That's why Paul calls Baptism "a washing of the water with the Word." In another place Paul calls it "a washing of rebirth and renewal."
Christ comes up from His baptism with the weight of the world on His shoulders. We come up from ours without it. It's as if there is a backpack at the edge of the Jordan heavy with the sins of the world. Jesus slips it on; it hunches Him over; it all but drives His precious face into the dirt. At our baptismal font there is also a heavy backpack. It's on us until the water connected to the Word washes that backpack off; look there it is in the bottom of the baptismal bowl.
Our Baptism means we bear no sins, and therefore, we need feel no guilt. There is no condemnation, absolutely none, says St. Paul, to those who are in Christ. No one is more in Christ than one baptized into Him. Christ's baptism gave Him a guilty conscience; our Baptism frees us from one. Actually it gives us a clean one. Peter says that Baptism saves us not by washing dirt from the body but by giving us a good conscience before God. One translation says Baptism is the "answer of a good conscience."
Baptism is a great stain remover. It removes the dirt of sin and takes away the stain of guilt that sin leaves behind. The answer for all of you who are chased by guilt from your past sins isn't found in the power of positive thinking, the sedation of drugs, or the forgetfulness of alcohol. The answer you're looking for is in your Baptism. Baptism gives you what no positive thought, no drug, legal or illegal, can give you: a clean conscience. Because of Baptism you can say: My conscience doesn't bother me.
Being freed from the weight of your sins by Baptism, you need feel no guilt, and therefore, you don't need to expect punishment. You're covered by the perfect life of Christ, so no one, not even God the Father, can find fault with you. You don't have to walk around expecting something bad to happen. You don't have to think, "Things are going too good; something bad has got to happen." In Baptism you were given a get-out- of-punishment-free-card. Christ, in His Baptism, was given a go-directly-to-hell; do-not-pass-go; do-not- expect-one-good-thing-in-life-card. We are to expect only good things from God. He, because of our sins, expected the opposite.
Has Christ's baptism and your Baptism jumped into focus yet? Can you see they're as different as day and night? What happens to Christ doesn't happen to you; what should happen to Christ does happen to you. But what about the last verse? "With you I am well pleased." If God is well pleased with Christ at His baptism, how can He be pleased with me in mine?
At Christ's baptism the heavens that had been locked because of our sins were suddenly torn open by God who sent His Spirit flying down as a Dove. The only human being the Holy Spirit could land on was the Holy Son of God. Once Christ went to the cross and paid for the sins of the world, He could send His Holy Spirit into the unholy world. "Go into all the world baptizing," He commanded. Ten days after receiving this command Peter preached, "Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit." The Baptism of Christ opens heaven and in our Baptism we receive the benefits of heaven. God is pleased to open heaven and to give us its benefits for Jesus' sake.
This is powerful stuff. God is pleased that His Son takes on Himself the sin and guilt of the world. It makes God happy to see His Son standing in the Jordan dripping with sin and guilt. Why? Because God loved the world more than He did His Son. God loved the world so much He gave up His only begotten Son rather than it. God is happy to load His Son with sin, cover Him with guilt, and punish Him with temporal and eternal punishment for your sake. That's what Isaiah 53:19 says, "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief." Don't you see how much then God must love you? Don't you see what Paul concludes in Romans is true? "If God spared not His only Son, how will He not with Him give us all things?"
Whatever God is withholding from you now He is not doing it because He doesn't love you enough or because your sins are somehow in the way. He loves you more than He does His only beloved Son, and He punished His Son just to get your sins out of the way. So whatever God is not giving you now He must be withholding it out of love for you.
When the Father declares from heaven that He is well pleased with Christ, He literally says, "In You I am well pleased." Outside of Christ, God is not well pleased with anyone or thing. Think of Mt. Sinai. Think of 1 Timothy 6 or Hebrews 12. There you see God outside of Christ. There the mountain shakes, the smoke billows, and all you see is blinding light and consuming fire. Anyone coming to God apart from Christ is struck dead.
In Christ, God is approachable. He is the infant who doesn't mind the smell of shepherds, the touch of foreign wise men, or the arms of aged Simeon. In Christ, God is well pleased to give you heaven. He doesn't make you work for it, be holy enough for it, or be worthy of it. He says, "Anyone can come to the Father by Me. I'm the ladder that reaches all the way from heaven to earth. On my back, which bears the stripes your sins deserve, you can climb all the way into heaven itself."
The Father is pleased in Baptism with both His Son and us sons and daughters, but don't miss the contrast. He is pleased with His Son because of what He will do for us; The Father is pleased with us because of what His Son has done for us.
May the richness of your baptismal Waters jump into focus, so that you dive daily into them and swim joyously around in them! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas