Sermon for Baptism of our Lord – January 7, 2024
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The beginning of a new year is an exciting time. As we put a new calendar up on the wall or crack open a new weekly planner, we have hopes for how our days might unfold in the new year ahead. Many have longings that some things would be different than they were the year before. Many resolve to do things differently, making adjustments to their lives. It feels like a clean slate, a fresh start. There must be some reason so many people stayed up on New Year’s Eve and counted down. There must be some reason for the fireworks in cities around the world as midnight struck in one time zone after another. When a new year begins, we celebrate a new beginning.
Our gospel reading for this morning begins with people who were longing for a new start. They had a sense that God was about to do a new thing. They were preparing for the coming of the Messiah by being baptized in the river Jordan. They received John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This baptism felt like a clean slate, a new beginning.
And it was! But something even better was just around the corner. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” John told them. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When the Messiah comes, John told the crowd, he will baptize not with water alone, but with the Holy Spirit – that is to say, he will baptize with the very presence of God. This will be more than a ritualized washing. It will be more than a pledge to live differently. It will be more than a human action, a human expression of faith and love and commitment. This baptism will be a pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It will be God’s work, God’s action, God’s expression of love and commitment. It will not be a baptism of water alone, but a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit – bringing the baptized into the very presence of the one true God.
And then this Messiah came, and this is precisely what happened! As St. Mark tells us, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Mark mentions it so casually, almost in passing. But something incredibly important is happening here. Jesus entered into the same muddy waters as those common sinners. Jesus, the Son of God, met them where they were in the waters of baptism. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. He didn’t do it for himself, for his own benefit. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a way of turning back to God. Jesus had no need for this. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus had no sin. He didn’t need forgiveness! Jesus did not need John’s baptism. So why did he receive it? In receiving John’s baptism, Jesus was coming alongside the very people he had come to save. He was present to them, present for them. And in going under the water and then rising to the surface, Jesus was foreshadowing how he would save them once and for all – by dying and rising again.
As Jesus came up out of the water, we are told he saw the heavens torn apart. Jesus’ baptism is marked by this sign of cosmic significance! The veil between heaven and earth has been breached! The distance between a heavenly Father and his fallen world has been overcome. The barriers separating a sinful humanity from a holy God have come down.
The only other time Mark uses this phrase “torn apart” is right after Jesus dies on the cross, when the temple curtain which separated the holy from the sinful was torn apart. When Jesus sees the heavens “torn apart” apart at his baptism he is getting a glimpse of what his saving work would accomplish: there would no longer be anything in the way of sinners having a relationship with the living God.
As Jesus gets this glimpse of the heavens being torn apart, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. It was just what John said would happen. Now the Spirit was upon the waters, just as it was at the creation. God was doing a new thing! By going into that water himself Jesus changed the very nature of baptism. He infused that water with his own saving presence. He infused it with the Holy Spirit. The one more powerful than John had come, and baptism would never be the same.
God the Father looked at all of this happening and smiled. He saw his Son in the water alongside common sinners and said, “Yes!” God the Father said. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God the Father saw the Spirit and the Son splashing in the waters, bringing about a new, more powerful baptism, and God blessed it. The Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all gave high fives to each other. (That’s not in the text, but I think it is safe to infer that this happened!)
On this first Lord’s Day of the new year, when many of us are hopeful about new beginnings and fresh starts, our attention is turned away from a new calendar and towards Holy Baptism. We have something better to place our hope in than the fact that 2023 had turned to 2024. Because you see, this baptism of which John spoke has come. It has been given to us. (If you haven’t yet received it, that is something we would be glad to remedy!)
When you were baptized into Christ, the Lord Jesus met you in those waters. When you were baptized into Christ, you were given the Holy Spirit. In Holy Baptism you were reborn as a child of God. St. Paul teaches us that when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his death and resurrection. In other words, the gift of salvation won for us on the cross is bestowed upon us through water and word and Spirit, making us Christians, making us his own forever.
New calendars are nice, and I have a few new year’s resolutions of my own, but the truth is, your baptism is the only clean slate you’ll ever need. And this new beginning can be claimed whenever you need it. In fact, Martin Luther teaches us in the catechism that baptism has a daily significance. It sets a daily pattern of dying and rising with Christ to newness of life, a daily pattern of putting off the old sinner and putting on the new person you are in him. We are invited, indeed encouraged, to return to the promises of baptism every day, and in do doing we are born again, and again, and again.
In the new, more powerful baptism established by our Lord Jesus, we are given a well of grace and mercy and forgiveness in our lives that never goes dry. Christ continues to be found in the water with sinners. The heavens continue to be torn open, giving us access to the presence of God.
And so, no matter what the calendar says, every day, every moment lived in light of what Christ has done to you and for you and in you in Holy Baptism is a new beginning, and a fresh start.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church