THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
IN today's gospel lesson St. Matthew instructs the church about baptism, but the moment we praise this sacrament, sinful nature goes postal! As often as we praise it, glory in it, rejoice in it, return to it for spiritual assurance and defend its doctrine, it is the New Man, the baptized man, doing the talking. It is not the Old Man because he is blind regarding the things of the Spirit. Yet as dead and blind as the sinful nature is, that is just how alive and perceptive the new man is regarding holy things, and baptism is definitely holy.
We call it "holy" because that is God's adjective and baptism belongs to Him! It proceeds from heaven. He institutes it, owns it, gives it to His church for our blessing, teaches us how it is done, and gives new birth to every person who receives the priceless gift in faith.
What St. John the Baptizer said to the Lord that day was ultra perceptive, "I need to be baptized by you!" John did not object to the role he was ordained to perform, or to the assignment he was destined to complete. The Baptizer was an emblem of Adam ejected from the Garden, living in the wilderness, foraging for food, not dressed in the soft clothing of kings, but like Adam in the skins of animals. He was Adam anxiously looking for the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. We could think of this dramatic encounter as the First Adam meeting with the Second, who would now fulfill all righteousness by His pneumatic baptism in the Jordan, and by His bloody baptism on the cross.
Neither did John mind preaching to the crowds, or baptizing those who repented, even the caviling Pharisees and the despised Sadducees. He would baptize even them after reminding them that they descended from the snake, and after impressing upon them the necessity of the good works that must follow baptism. May he impress this necessity upon us, too, because faith without works is dead, being alone!
He did not protest any of those things, but he did object when the Lord presented Himself to be baptized. John said to the Lord what every person must say, "I need to be baptized by you!" and that is what happens as often as this life-giving sacrament is administered. The pastor pours the water and conducts the ritual, but it is Jesus Himself, by the agency of His Spirit, who is effecting the blessings here given.
What blessings? Baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and the promises of God declare. What are these words and promises of God? Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that does not believe will be condemned.
By His baptism, our Lord "fulfills all righteousness," not for Himself, but for us because we are by nature sinful and unclean and need the righteousness of God that Christ supplies. Baptism is not merely a symbolic event, but every person who believes and is baptized is born anew, born from above. As surely as heaven opened, and the Spirit descended upon the Lord that day at the Jordan, just so surely the same Spirit is imparted to us and where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty! There is freedom from the judgment and everlasting condemnation that sin always incurs; emancipation from the fear of death and release from the tyranny of the devil who loves to torment us day and night, to tempt us and to patiently await our downfall. "Resist him standing firm in the faith." Resist him every day and every moment and Scripture promises, "he will flee from you."
We should remember today that baptism and the Spirit it imparts is not a passing phenomenon, but like an inoculation it stays with us, stays in our system always staving off the deadly power of sin, death and Satan in us, and that is a good thing; good because the devil, using the world, easily leads our flesh by the nose into every kind of vice there is. It seems that the devil has demons specially dedicated to the various vices: a demon in charge of lust, another in charge of greed, another in charge of deception, and others in charge of pride, prejudice, luxury, addiction, self-pity and disrespect for authority. Further, just to exist in the world and to maintain your life requires a certain amount of less-than-holy thoughts, words and deeds; not that we are justifying sin. We will never do that, but neither do we need to be afraid to live the life God gives to its fullest extent because we have soap! We have the blood of Jesus, and we have water, the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.
Not only must we never get comfortable with sin, but we must know that baptism gives us a new, better and different kind of life, not just later, but here and now. It enables us to know and to live life for God rather an an existence dictated by the passions that tantalize the flesh. We learn this from the catechism when it asks, "What does such baptizing with water signify?" It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
"I need to be baptized by you!" John the Baptizer needed it. You need it, and by God's mercy you have it, so like the Lord Himself you are now beloved sons of the Father who is well pleased with you. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras