We have worshipped the Infant in the manger with shepherds. We’ve worshipped the Child with the Persian astrologers who followed the star. Today we make a huge leap – thirty years later. We are on the banks of the Jordan River with John the Baptizer. Today is the Baptism of our Lord.
This is a big day. So big that the Eastern Orthodox give it the name Epiphany or Manifestation and celebrate as a major festival day. It’s the Lord’s epiphany, His manifestation, His coming out party. It’s so important that this is where Mark begins his Gospel. Mark needs just nine short verses to get to Jesus’ baptism. This is the beginning of Jesus’ visible ministry. The Christ who was hidden from the ages, who was before all things, through whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together, is now seen. Until His baptism, Jesus was recognized and worshipped only by a handful of people. Shepherds at His birth. Simeon and Anna in the temple when He was 40 days old. Wise men from the east when He was a toddler. The neighbors in Nazareth probably didn’t have a clue. To them He was the carpenter’s son, working in his father’s shop. He grew up like every Jewish boy of his day. Attended the synagogue with his family. Went to Jerusalem for the feasts.
And then one day, He stood in the water of the Jordan River, shoulder to shoulder with the people who came to John confessing their sins to be baptized by him. There was Jesus, God in the Flesh, coming to be baptized by John with a sinner’s baptism, a baptism for repentance into the forgiveness of sin. Here, for the first time, Jesus goes public. He is seen for who He is. The Spirit and the Father testify to Him. Here, in the water of Baptism, Jesus is revealed to be the Servant-Son of God. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The spotless Lamb of God stands shoulder to shoulder with sinners – with adulterous prostitutes and crooked tax collectors and the whole of sinful humanity.
What a day this is! Christmas joy becomes baptismal joy. No longer do we celebrate the birth of a baby, now we rejoice in His baptism. And rejoice we must, because Christ was baptized in the Jordan to save us.
We won’t fully apprehend what this baptism means, until we understand the place of the Jordan River in the history of Israel. The Jordan was the borderline between the wilderness and the promised land. You’ll recall that Moses was not permitted to cross the Jordan. Moses and the Law cannot bring you to the promised land. They can only bring you to the edge of the wilderness, the threshold. Joshua was the one who lead the people across the parted Jordan into the land God promised them. God had Joshua mark the place with twelve stones as a memorial, so the people would never forget that they entered the Promised Land through the water of the Jordan. Joshua, by the way, is the name Y’shua, Jesus. No coincidence there. When Jesus stood in the Jordan, He stood as the new Joshua, leading the world to the promised land of eternal life through the Jordan River.
The waters of the Jordan parted again for the prophets Elijah and Elisha when Elijah ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot. Again in the water of the Jordan we have a picture of Jesus being lifted up in glory, drawing all men to Himself, opening heaven to earth.
The waters of the Jordan brought healing to Naaman the Syrian, the commander the enemy army. You’ll recall that Naaman was healed of his leprosy by dipping himself seven times in the Jordan at the command of Elisha. And here we have a picture of Christ’s universal reign of salvation, that His healing of the leprosy of sin and death extends over the whole world, even His enemies!
Oh, what a day it is! God in the Flesh is baptized! Humanity is cleansed, reborn, restored. The new Adam, the new head of humanity is baptized for the world, and in Him the whole world covered over in a gracious Flood. As God once baptized the earth in the Flood, and promised with the rainbow never to destroy the earth with water again, so here God immerses the whole world in the Person of His Son. Jesusis the world reduced to one Man. The new and second Adam whose headship means life for the world. When Jesus was baptized, the world was baptized in HIm.
This day demands that we unpack Baptism. What does it mean, that Jesus, God in the Flesh is baptized? Baptism is a sacrament of creation. It reveals that in Christ, a new creation has come. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the old creation in the beginning, when the Word created everything at the Father’s speaking, so the Spirit now swoops down over the waters of the Jordan where the Word made Flesh is baptized. The Word that created all things now makes all things new. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Behold the old has gone, the new has come.”
We seek fresh starts, a new beginning. Some people move to new places looking for a new lease on life. Some change jobs, homes, even spouses looking to start over. Every new year brings resolutions. A new start, a new beginning. We’re going to be better, thinner, smarter, happier, whatever. But it always ends the way it begins. The new job is no better than the old. The new marriage no more satisfying than the one you left. The new year more or less like last year. The drive for a fresh start and a new beginning is the drive to be reborn, created again. And it’s something we can’t engineer for ourselves. Our new birth, our new creation is in Christ. He is our fresh start, our new beginning. He is the new person we want to be, and in Jesus we are everything God intended us to be. In Christ you too are virgin-born. Not by your choice or decision, but by God’s will. You are born in Christ to live as a new creature.
Baptism is a sacrament of cleansing, a washing of water with the Word. In Jesus’ baptism, the Word is washed with water for the world’s cleansing. Jesus had no need of repentance. Nor did he have any sins to confess. But He was baptized for the world’s cleansing, that in Him we might be washed from our sins, that by His blood shed on the cross, our sin would be washed away as far as the east is from the west. The Spotless One was washed in Jordan’s water so that in Him we might be spotless.
Again we are driven. Driven to wash away the filth of our lives. We wash religiously. Not a day goes by where we couldn’t use a good bath at the end of the day. But no amount of scrubbing can reach the depths of our sin. We can clean the surface, but we can’t cleanse the person. We can change our habits, but we can’t change the person. Christ can and He does. He is washed for the world, and in Him the world is washed. Christ is your cleansing. He takes up your sin and gives you His perfect, unblemished righteousness. He takes off your filthy clothes, covered with dirt – the dirt you’ve put on yourself, the dirt others have put on you. He takes off those filthy rags and covers you with the spotless robe of His righteousness. In Him (and only in Him) are you spotless and perfect.
Luther called it a “happy exchange.” Jesus swaps our sin and death for His righteousness and life. His Baptism makes the exchange known and visible. He willingly submits to a sinner’s baptism in order to save sinners. He voluntarily takes a bath in the world’s sin, He immerses Himself in the bitter water of our death, and makes it sweet with His presence. How was Naaman the Syrian cleansed of his leprosy by Jordan river water? Christ did it. How did the water of the Jordan part before Joshua? Christ did it. And now in His baptism, Christ is revealed to the world, made known and visible. We see His face. We know His name. Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, the son of Mary is God’s Son, the eternal Word. And He shows that He stands with us. We don’t have to become like Him to be saved. He becomes like us to save us.
Baptism is a sacrament of death and resurrection. In baptism you are buried under the water, and you rise up from the water. Jesus’ baptism points directly to the cross and His death and resurrection. Mark signals that by saying the heavens were torn open (scizomenoß), literally ripped in two. It’s the very same word he uses for the curtain in the temple that was torn from top to bottom at Jesus’ crucifixion. Heaven is opened violently, not peacefully. It is laid hold of by violence, as any OT Jew could tell you. He witnessed the bloody sacrifices of the temple. The throat of the animal slit, the blood poured out. Peace with God comes with violence and blood. Heaven is opened by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Heaven is entered by the narrow road of dying and rising. Jesus calls His own bloody death a baptism which He must undergo. In His death His baptism is completed: “It is finished.” The Spirit that came upon Jesus at His Baptism is dismissed in His death. His work of salvation is done.
Christ died for all, and therefore all died, said St. Paul. His Baptism shows this, that in His dying and rising, heaven stands open to earth, the kingdom of heaven is opened, God is reconciled, at peace, with the world in the death of Jesus. Through the violence of the cross comes peace, life for the world.
A new creation. A cleansing from sin. Death and resurrection. All of this is proclaimed, made manifest, epiphanied in Jesus’ Baptism. The Spirit and the Father bear witness to Jesus. Exclusively so.
Only in Jesus is there a new creation.
Only in Him is the world cleansed from sin.
Only in Him does the world die and rise.
On no one but Jesus did the Spirit of God descend like a dove.
To no one but Jesus did the Voice from heaven say,
“You are my beloved. I’m pleased with you.”
For no but Jesus was heaven ripped open.
Like Naaman, the Syrian commander with leprosy, we might be inclined to dip ourselves in other rivers. Rivers that appear holier, purer, more religious, more to our liking and our needs. Can’t we be washed in some other river and be clean? And God’s answer is, “No.” Only through Jesus in the Jordan do we enter the Promised Land. Only in the Baptism of Christ are we reborn, renewed, raised up.
Your Baptism and Christ’s Baptism are not two different baptisms. They are one and the same baptism. Your Baptism is your personal epiphany, where God manifests salvation in Christ to you personally. You often hear people speak of Jesus being their “personal Savior.” And that’s fine, provided you understand it like this: He is the world’s Savior revealed to you personally – in Baptism, in the word of forgiveness, in the Lord’s Supper. He doesn’t leave you generically saved as “the world.” He is not only the Savior of the world, He is your Savior. He is not simply the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, He is God’s Lamb who takes away your sin. Your Baptism adds nothing to Christ’s Baptism or His death on the cross which saved you. “It is finished,” means just that. It was finished. Baptism adds nothing to Christ’s “it is finished.” Baptism reveals, makes known, applies, and personalizes Christ to you. The spotlight falls on you and God says, “I meant you.” On you the Spirit descends so that you might serve the world as a priest to God. On you the Father’s voice speaks in blessing, “You are my beloved child. I’m pleased with you.”
But it’s all one and the same thing – your Baptism and Jesus’ Baptism. In Him you were baptized, and your baptism tells you so. “Jesus loves me this I know, and my Baptism tells me so.” You are loved in the Beloved Son. You are elect in the Elect Christ. You are chosen in the Chosen Servant named Jesus.