When you come into church on a Sunday morning there exists a basic commonality of all those gathered in a house of the Lord. Now you may say, “Well, yes.” We are all children of God or we all live in the same general area or we all have the same confession of faith. And while that may be true, and no doubt we could add to this list, the one commonality we do not tend to advertise is how we are all sinners. Every one of you is a sinner. Not only that, not only are you a sinner, but you have also come to church in search of the forgiveness of sins. Now, all churches know this, at least I think they do, and they do their best to try and provide you with forgiveness. Some may have you look to your own works to the bettering of yourself, the living of a morally upright life. Others might have you focus on your spirituality, your prayers, and ecstatic feelings. Still others might appeal to your intellect, to your wisdom and understanding as pathways to forgiveness.
Of course, not everyone knew they were a sinner before they came into the House of the Lord. They may have had some ideas about it. They may have known they were not exactly proud of how they have lived their lives, but the depth of their sin was still hidden from them. The laws which govern our lives outside of the church are only amplified within the church. Here we learn it is not just about what you do or do not do, its about how you think, about how you feel. It is not just that you do not hurt or harm your neighbor, but you do not even wish hardship upon him. You help him and honestly desire the best for him in all his endeavors. It is not just that you do not commit the act of adultery, but you do not lust after another person. In other words, what the Law of God does to you as it is applied to your life is it begins to shut down any possibility of justifying yourself. Any hope you may have had to rectify your sinfulness slips through your fingers as God’s Law reveals the totality of your sin.
So, everyone who sits in a church, everyone who has spent any time there at all, knows they are a sinner. You know, or at least you ought to know, you have nothing to offer your God in exchange for your salvation. You do not come with a bunch of good stuff to barter with. You have nothing to trade for eternal life. Sin runs through all you do. Even the very best things you offer, even those works that all your friends and neighbors would praise as good and faithful, they are stained by your sin. As the prophet Isaiah said, “All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Your only hope then, your only way to eternal life and the promise of paradise is the forgiveness of sins.
Which brings us to the baptism of our Lord. For this moment, this action, is all about your forgiveness. The baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River is overflowing with promise and hope and confidence for sinners like you. By now, we should all be familiar with what John the Baptist was doing. He was out there ceremonially washing people in the river as they came confessing their sins. It was a moment of repentance, a moment where one publicly displayed their desire to return to God and be reconciled with Him. In other words, the desires of those going out to the Jordan are not much different than your own desires. They too knew they were sinners. They knew they could not right the wrongs of their life. But they desperately wanted to fix what was broken, to rectify the problem, and so like sinners going to church they went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. What is John doing? Why, he is pointing them towards a mightier One who is coming. He is the One who is not just going to baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit.
So, the scene is set. We have a group of sinners who cannot save themselves and have come out to be baptized as they confess their sins. They come to repent, and John is directing them to our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the mightier one. He is the one who will provide what we are unable to do. He will give reconciliation with the Father. He will forgive sins. So, what happens next ought to blow everyone’s mind. Jesus, the mightier One, the Savior of sinners, gets into the water. He undergoes the baptism that John is providing. Jesus is repenting. Jesus is confessing sin. Jesus is doing the one thing a pure and holy Son of God ought not to be doing.
So why is He being baptized? What sins could He possibly be confessing? What is the need for His repentance? This is the child born of Mary. This is the sinless one. If he is undergoing a baptism of repentance it must be for the sins of another. In fact, that is precisely what is happening. He is repenting for the sins of the world. He is repenting for your sins, for your failures under the commands of the Law. Jesus the perfect son of God becomes the perfect penitent. He confesses every sin and takes them as His own. It is as if the waters of the Jordan were not removing sin and failure but coating Him in them all. Here He repents of the sins which would condemn Him to die, sins that would lead Him to the cross and the grave, sins that have brough you into the Lord’s House today.
That is right. Jesus repents of your sin so that He might claim them as His own and on the cross die for them all. Your baptism, then, is a connection with what Jesus begins at His baptism and carries through the rest of His great work. So, Saint Paul will say, “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 form the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). It is as if Jesus knew that even your repentance would not be enough. It would be halfhearted at best, shallow and select. So, He does it. He goes all the way and pays the ultimate price for them.
The forgiveness of sins is more than just saying you are forgiven. It is more than simply pretending you did not transgress the Law of God. There was a debt you incurred, and it must be paid. Our God is a just God, and He will not take shortcuts with justice. So, He sends His only begotten Son to stand in your place. When He does, we are told the heavens tear open and the Spirit of God descends upon Him. The reconciliation between God and man begins here in our Lord Jesus Christ. Your forgiveness is made sure in the death and resurrection of your Savior. When you hear the good news that you are forgiven all your sins it is because He paid the price. He was washed in them and died for them and then rose victoriously from the grave to give you a new life.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all represented here in this text. They are all at work here for you, for your salvation, for the forgiveness of your sins. As the Son repents in the waters, the Spirit anoints Him for this work and the Father speaks. What does He have to say about His son covered in your sin? What does He say to His only begotten as He repents for sins that are not His own? Why, He says, “You are My beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
This is the pleasure of your God. That you, sinners though you are, might know this day you are forgiven. You have a Savior who stands in your place. He loves you all and does what must be done to call you His brothers and sisters. So, you are. You are forgiven and loved and welcome in the presence of our Father.