By Paul Koch –
The moment when our Lord steps into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by John is of great significance for the understanding of our faith. Here the identity and purpose of our Lord’s arrival come into focus. John the Baptist is doing what his namesake calls for him to do: He is baptizing. He is washing the repentant children of God in the Jordan River as a testimony of their confession of sins and their longing for a new hope in the coming Messiah. Remember, John is preparing the way for the Messiah. He is the voice calling out in the wilderness. Things are going well. People are flocking out to him, to be part of this new thing. But all of it takes a strange turn when Jesus enters into those waters. The people had been entering the water to repent and so be ready to receive the Christ, but why does Jesus enter? What does he have to repent of? What sins does he confess?
We hear the story of how the heavens open wide and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. In this moment it is revealed that this one is the Christ, the anointed one of God, the long-awaited Messiah. Here, as Jesus stands in the waters of repentance, God declares, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” He repents not for himself, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world. He repents in those waters for you. Here we see his great work so clearly as he takes up sins not his own, so that they might be judged in his flesh. In the baptism of our Lord, we see the beginning of his great work to save each and every one of you. And how does this great work become your blessing? How does the Messiah’s atoning sacrifice 2,000 years ago impact you today? Well, through a very similar action, through a washing of water, through a baptism. This time not in the Jordan by John, but into the very death and resurrection of Jesus himself. Here, in these ongoing waters of baptism, all that is Christ’s is given to you.
You are saved by his grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And your connection to that salvation lies not in your doing, not in your great action, not in your sacrifice or good works. You have not earned it nor made yourself worthy of it. No, you have simply received what he has done. You are given the gift. You are washed and so declared to be heirs of eternal life, united in baptism to your Lord. However, this gift causes a bit of a conundrum for you. You may well have been a sinner and been saved by grace, but what about now? What about your life here and now, having received his grace? Do we just sin and bask in abundance of grace and not worry about it? Well, lucky for us, St. Paul takes up this exact question. He doesn’t leave the issue of the Christian life to our own pondering. He asks,
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still life in it?” (Rom 6:1-2).
His answer is simple and shocking and probably a bit confusing for us. In essence, he says, “Of course you cannot go on sinning, for that is not who you are. You have died to sin. You’re something different, something new.” The reason this is shocking for us is that we all know only too well our own thoughts, words and deeds, and let us just be honest and confess that they aren’t exactly free from sin and shame. The text may well say that we’ve have died to sin, but that doesn’t actually seem to be that case, for you’ve sinned this very morning. You’ve confessed as such, saying you’ve sinned in thought, words, and deeds, by what you have done and by what you have left undone. It is only too easy to point out those you have hurt or failed to help in your life. Sin-free is not what you see when you look in the mirror.
Most people would declare that baptism is a good start. It is an inclusion into the household of God to be sure but then the real work needs to begin in earnest. For we look at ourselves and we see the sin which clings so tightly to our flesh, to our desires, and we resolve to do better to find the solution to sin. And what solution might you come up with? What grand plans do you have to clean up the deposit of sin that infects your life? Perhaps you begin treating your sin like an addict treats his drug of choice. You narrow it down, establish the triggers that pull you back into it over and again. Perhaps it is hanging out with the wrong crowd, what you watch on TV, or what sort of music you listen to. So, you begin to systematically remove them from your life. You monitor your behavior more closely perhaps even asking a trusted friend to act as an accountability partner to watch over your shoulder for the times you slip up and choose the sin again.
Other’s might find the solution to their continual sin in the intentional doing of good works. If you do enough good, positive, and faithful things, then you won’t have time for the sin. This will look different in each of your lives, of course. Perhaps for you it is volunteering your time and energy. Or maybe it is participating in the fellowship of God’s people, to pray and read the Word together. Do these things and just maybe you will find yourself more and more without the sin in your lives. See, whether you do it on your own or you do it here among the children of God, over and again your solution to the problem of sin is found in some action of your own doing. And that is why your solutions will always fall short, why even the best and most well-meaning, even righteous sounding goals and resolutions of reformed sinners go awry.
How long have you been able to go without sin? How many days have you been sober to this addiction? For too long I’ve talked with Christians who have been convinced they can cure their own sin. Maybe not on their own, but through prayer and devotion they can overcome their sinfulness. There are whole gatherings of Christians that unite in a fellowship that promises assurance of everlasting life based on the performance of the individual. Your salvation becomes measured by your commitment to the cause, your willingness to do what is necessary, to clean up your own life. And when they stumble, when they fail, all they are left with is doubt and fear and the wrath of an angry God. They throw themselves into it one more time. This time they will get it right; this time they will walk the walk. But they won’t, and you won’t. You will stumble and fall.
St. Paul speaks what seems absurd to us. He says that you cannot go on sinning because it isn’t who you are. However, unlike us he doesn’t turn to our actions as proof of this new identity. Rather, he focuses us completely on the gifts and actions of Christ alone. He says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5). Your salvation, your assurance of eternal life, is all about Christ and what he has done. It is about the one who repented for you, who suffered for you, who died for you and rose victoriously from the grave for you. This is your hope, your salvation.
What Paul declares is that your baptism connects you to this very thing. It unites you to the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism is a burying and rising with your Lord. It isn’t about your worthiness or faithfulness; it is about the great working of God from beginning to end. It is a radical and shocking turn of events. Baptism carries with it comfort and hope for each and every one of you, each and every moment of the day. For when the old accuser comes around and begins to point out your sins, when he begins to say, “Look at this here, look at how you’ve failed, how you fallen short yet again, you will never receive the blessings of God with such sin, you deserve death not life.” Why you can answer, “Yes, yes, I see those sins, I see those failures, but guess what? I’ve already died for them, I’ve already been crucified for each and every one. For I am baptized into Christ, I have died with him.” And as Paul reminds us all, “One who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7).
This is the radical and life-changing power that you live with as the baptized children of God. This is the daily reality of living in the promises of your Lord. It is a constant burying of the sinner in the death of Christ so that the new creature might live in him. It is why we baptize and why we cherish our baptisms. For through such a simple and ordinary looking thing, you can now consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.