One of the greatest privileges I am given as a pastor is to be able to baptize a brother or sister in Christ. To be the one called to speak those simple words and pour the water over their head is a profound joy for me. These days everyone has their own ideas of what a wedding ought to look like and what sort of things you need to do to make it special, it is rare to even have a wedding in the church these days and normally some romantic setting designed for the perfect photo sessions. Even funerals are going this way, everyone wants to add their little twist to honor their loved one, to make it stand out from others. But baptisms, for the most part, are still left in the hands of the Church. The old rite is still used. They still regularly take place in the house of worship, where God’s people gather around to celebrate the newest addition to the family.
In the old rite of Holy Baptism there is this wonderful line after we pray the Lord’s prayer together where the pastor says, “The Lord bless your coming in and your going out from this time forth and even forevermore.” Baptism is our entry point into the Church. It governs, in many ways, our movements within the gifts and promises of God. It is the root of our assurance and our hope. This is why it is common in many churches to find the baptismal font, not at the front of the church but at the rear. It stands as a reminder that this is the means by which you come into the fellowship of God’s people. It is difficult to overemphasize the role of baptism in the Christian life. Saint Paul says all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death. These simple waters are the place where you die and rise with Jesus. They may not look like much, but they anchor you in the promises purchased and secured by the death and resurrection of Christ Himself.
Today is a day in the church where we focus on the crucial baptism in history. And as crucial as your baptism is to you it is not your baptism we are focusing on. In fact, it is a very different baptism altogether, though it is the fuel or driving force of your baptism. Today is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, a baptism given by John the Baptist, the great forerunner of the Son of God. This baptism was not the same thing you underwent when you were baptized into the name of God. No, this was a baptism of repentance, an act carried out by the people of God as they sought to turn from their wickedness and depravity and serve the Lord. John was in the wilderness declaring, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In repentance, people came to the waters of the Jordan River to ritually wash, to show their confession of sin and their desire to start a new life, to be ready for the coming Messiah.
Then, the Messiah comes. Jesus arrives on the scene in the fullness of time to live the faithful life of the Son of God, to do what no other could do. And what does He do? Why He heads out to the wilderness to see John. He does not go to confer with him on the next phase of ministry. He does not go to get some tips on how to best deal with the cultural situation in Jerusalem at the time. No, He goes out there to do the one thing he does not need to do. He goes to be baptized. Now, this does not make any sense. This is a washing of repentance. What does the holy one of God need to repent of? And John gets it. He gets how this makes no sense. In fact, he does not want to do it. He says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” (Matthew 3:14)? That is right. This would make sense. If Jesus baptized John it would be understandable, for no doubt he was a sinner in need of repentance.
But what reason does Jesus give to John so he will allow this act? What is the reason Jesus gets into the water to be baptized? He says it is fitting to do this in order to, “fulfill all righteousness.” This needed to happen for the sake of righteousness. He needed to repent, not for His sins and not for His unfaithfulness. No, it is necessary for Him to repent for you. He repents of your sins. He declares then that the sins of the world are His own. The waters of the Jordan do not wash away sins form our Lord, they coat Him in them, bind Him to them, so He might bear them to the cross of Calvary and pay for every one of them.
It is as if the Lord of Heaven and Earth is looking at all of you trying to repent, trying to wash yourself clean by your own confession and sorrow. You come with broken hearts and a longing to do better. You see how there are those you have hurt, those you have failed to help, and your thought and desires have been soiled with sin. You want to stop, to turn it all around, but you cannot seem to do it. You stumble and flail around. You think if you just had some more time you might fix what is wrong. If you just had another opportunity you could do better. But the end is always the same. Something is left undone. Something is sinful and failing in righteousness and the Son of God watches it all. He sees you drowning and when you cannot kick yourself to the surface anymore, when you slip beneath the water the final time to die, He jumps into the water, He dives headfirst to save you.
He takes your sins, He repents for your sins, He bears your sins. And they will lead to His death. But as He comes up out of the water, the heavens tear open and the Spirit of God descends upon Him, anointing Him, setting Him aside for this very task. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. And in this moment of victory we hear the Father speak about His Son. He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This action, this repentance by Christ is pleasing to the Father. The baptism of our Lord is the moment when see God’s determination to save us. He does not wait for you to clean yourself up. He does not wait for you to fix your wrongs. No, he freely and willingly comes all the way down into your repentance to fulfill everything necessary for you to be righteous before God.
It is into this work of God’s Son that you are baptized. Your baptism is into His name, into the place where your sins are dealt with completely. You are baptized into the fulfillment of righteousness. How do you know you are saved? How can you be sure of eternal life? Is it because of your behavior, or your lineage or your knowledge? No, you can be sure you are saved because you are united to Christ your Lord. You are connected to Him in the waters of baptism. His repentance becomes your repentance. His death becomes your death. His resurrection is given to you as well. As He lives, so you will live, for all eternity you will live.
Christ alone fulfills all righteousness. He gives it to you by grace alone and you receive it through faith alone. This is the working of the Spirit of God in your life. It causes you to despair of your own works and cling to Christ’s. Therefore, you trust not in your wisdom but in the waters of your baptism. And on the day of the resurrection of all, in the moment when you stand before the pearly gates, you will hear God say to you, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”