Up the Down Staircase
Up the Down Staircase is a 1965 novel about an inner-city high school. The title comes from what any student in a multistoried school knows. It's against the rules to go up the down staircase. However, according to Christianity, the only way up is by the down staircase. Let me show you.
God the Son came down from heaven as a man. That's what we celebrated at Christmas. At His Baptism it's a public event. Not just shepherds are told, not just old Simeon and Anna, not just wise men, but the public in general. Our text is one sentence in Greek. The main verb is "You are." God the Father speaks from heaven and says, "You are My Son." Take this all in. Luke puts Jesus among all the people being baptized. We know John only baptized confessed sinners. This One standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, dripping wet with a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is declared by God Almighty to be His own Son.
Jesus is standing at the bottom of the down staircase, and God says this One right here born of a woman, having been baptized as a sinner is My Son. The actual bottom step isn't reached till the very last words. The Father doesn't just say, "You are My Son," but, "With you I am well pleased." This comes from Isaiah 42 which is the beginning of Isaiah's song about the Suffering Servant of God. That song culminates in the well known Isaiah 53. "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed."
The Father is well pleased that His holy, perfect Son, God of God, Light of God, Very God of Very God is taking responsibility for the sins of the world and will suffer for them. Where our Baptism washes sins away, the Baptism of our Lord put the sins of the world on Him. That's what John the Baptist said after He baptized Jesus, isn't it? "There's the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the world."
You can't get on any lower step than this one. It's like the convicted criminal having his mug shot in the paper. Jesus' Baptism makes Him the guiltiest sinner in the world. Jesus' Baptism starts him down the road of the Suffering Servant of God, and the Father is pleased as can be with Him for doing so. He's not ashamed to declare that this guilty Man standing on the lowest step of the down staircase is My Son.
I'm talking a lot about Jesus and not much about us. I said Jesus coming down the staircase is so that we may go up it. It is, and this is emphasized by the fact that it's about the Man Jesus the Father speaks, and it is on the Man Jesus the Holy Spirit descends. You have to be clear on this. There never has been a time that God the Son was without the Holy Spirit. There never has been a time in eternity that God the Father was not pleased with God the Son. There never has been a time when God the Son was not the Son of God the Father. These declarations by the Father and the descent of the Spirit are about the Man Jesus conceived in the Virgin Mary and born about 30 years prior to our text.
Jesus didn't need to receive the Spirit. We do. Without the Spirit we can't repent of our sins, believe the Gospel, be free of our sins, or go to heaven. Without the Spirit we are spiritually blind, spiritually dead, and spiritual enemies of God. Without the Spirit we are lost not just now but for eternity. We need the Spirit Jesus did not, but Jesus received the Spirit as a Man and kept Him in order to give Him to us.
Remember how Noah sent a raven out of the Ark and it never came back? Remember how he sent a dove that did come back? The raven didn't return because it had no problem landing on dead animals, dead people, carcasses. That's a raven's food. Not so the dove. It won't land on dead bodies. It doesn't eat dead bodies.
So as all the people are being baptized, the Father sends the Spirit fluttering out of heaven in the bodily form of a dove, but all the Spirit sees is dead bodies, sinners dead in their trespasses and sins. But wait, what's this? There's Jesus the perfect Man, alive, holy, pure, and He lands on Him. Now you know doves are skittish; one little rustle and they fly. Likewise if Jesus had sinned once: one bad thought, one curse word, one wrong deed, the Spirit would have fluttered away from Him and then Jesus couldn't give to us the Spirit we desperately need.
Jesus goes down to the depths of sin-bearer, sin-suffer to win the Holy Spirit for sinful men. Jesus goes down so we might go up the staircase He just came down on. Let me say it terms of the Book of Jonah. Jesus goes down to the depths that we might be spit up to heaven.
Why would I bring Jonah up here? It has to do with the Spirit coming in bodily form like a dove. Only Luke says it like this. Why specifically say it this way when it's hard to imagine how else a dove could come down other than in bodily form (Fitzmeyer, 485)? Luther points out that the name Jonah means "dove." Jonah was the prototype, says Luther, of the Holy Spirit and His office, which is proclaiming the Gospel unconditionally (LW, 19, 97). Remember how Jonah was sent to Nineveh, the archenemy, the cruel persecutor of God's people with the Gospel? Jonah was sent where the Gospel was never wanted and certainly never deserved.
At the bottom of the down staircase Jesus is shown visibly to have the same Spirit Jonah did by the Holy Spirit descending on Him in the bodily form of a dove, of a Jonah. Jesus will highlight His connection to Jonah later on in His ministry. He will give no other sign other than that of Jonah. As Jonah was 3 days in the belly of a great fish so will Jesus be 3 days in the belly of the earth. As the great fish spit Jonah out so death would spit Jesus out. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for his sins. Jesus was in the belly of earth for ours. Jonah was swallowed by the fish for disobeying. Jesus was swallowed by death because we disobey. Jonah was spit out on dry land. Jesus was spit out into everlasting life so that you might go up the down staircase to heaven.
The Man Jesus is the only ladder God ever let down out of heaven for sinful man to go up on. He's the only down staircase anyone can go up on. No one gets to heaven but by Him, specifically by the holy life He lived in the Body and by the innocent suffering and death He went through bodily. By His holy life and death in a flesh and blood Spirit filled body Jesus earned the right to pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh and blood.
Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can spiritually blind people see the down staircase that leads to heaven. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit do spiritually dead people have the strength to go up the down staircase. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit are spiritual enemies of God changed to friends who go up that down staircase as one going home.
Evermore give us this Spirit then. The Spirit is located for you where the Words of Jesus promise He will be. In the Waters of Holy Baptism that were poured on your skin. In the Words of Holy Absolution that enter your ears. In the Bread and Wine of Communion that is Jesus' Body and Blood for your body and blood to eat and drink. In these 3 things the Holy Spirit is present for sinners.
Jesus by His innocent life and holy death won the Holy Spirit for sinful mankind and then poured it out on them through Word and Sacrament. This Holy Spirit which is flying out of my mouth right down desires to place you in Jesus for only in Jesus is God the Father pleased with sinners. That's what He literally says here. Not "with You I am well pleased," but "in You I am well pleased." In Baptism, in Absolution, in Communion the Holy Spirit puts you in Jesus so you can go up the down staircase. Outside of Jesus the Father is not pleased with you and you are on your way down the down staircase.
How does one know whether they're going up or going down, whether the Father is pleased or not? You can and should go to your Baptism, your Absolution, and your Communion, but you can't do that if you're standing outside of them. You step outside of them and you step outside of Jesus. We all step outside of Jesus when we sin. We stay outside of Jesus when we defend our sins, excuse our sins. No one can be forgiven for what he or she doesn't consider to be sinful because who wants forgiveness for what they don't consider a sin?
But that's not you. You began the service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as a reminder that you've been baptized into their grace, mercy, and peace. You confessed this morning that you are nothing but poor miserable sinners and were once again absolved for every single confessed sin. Right after I get done preaching, you will plead for the Lord to create a clean heart in you because you know yours is not and for Him not to take His Holy Spirit from you because you know He should.
Then in answer to your prayer to restore the joy of your salvation I will invite you to lift up your hearts away from you, your sins, this fallen world and by the Holy Spirit who flies like a dove you will lift them to the Lord. Then the Lord according to His promise will come down with the same Body and Blood He gave and shed on the cross. Then eating, drinking, and believing you will go up the down staircase once more which is not against the rules but the only way to heaven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Baptism of our Lord (20130113); Luke 3:21-22