In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Mark 1:9-11
Martin Luther once said that “There is on earth no greater comfort than Baptism.” No greater comfort than this tangible reminder that we are in a life-giving relationship, with a loving God, that nothing in this world can threaten or take away.
Luther turned to this comfort throughout his life, which was filled with many challenges, some of which would be familiar to us today. Luther lived in a world threatened by plague, filled with political unrest, violent protests, and deeply divided over the issues of the day. Luther also faced many challenges in his personal life: excommunication by the Church, threats to his life, sickness, grief (including the death of one of his children), just to name a few. And through it all, Luther found comfort in this one great gift: That he was baptized. When despair threatened to overwhelm him, he would remember this one great truth of his life. This was the one comfort that he knew he could always count on – That he was in a life-giving relationship, with a loving God, that nothing in this world could take away.
And so it is for us. We, too, live in that same awesome truth. And Baptism is our tangible reminder of this. And today, on this day in which we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are invited to reflect, once again, on the miracle of baptism, and on why it is of such great comfort to us. And we do this in a particular way – by reflecting on the story of the baptism of the Son of God.
The Baptism of Our Lord – Mark 1:4-11
You can picture the scene described in today’s gospel reading, can’t you? John, out in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people coming from all over to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And then, this surprise: Jesus, the very Son of God, coming from Nazareth to the river Jordan, to be baptized by John.
Think of how very surprising this is. The Son of God, being baptized by one of us. A baptism that is of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Why would the Son of God do this? He hasn’t sinned. He doesn’t need to be baptized. Shouldn’t Jesus be the one standing out there in the wilderness, having people come to him to be baptized? Or, better yet, having people come to him to worship him?
This story seems altogether backwards, doesn’t it? And yet, this is exactly what happens: Jesus comes to the river Jordan, and is baptized by John. To me, there are really two great surprises here, each with important truths about our Christian faith.
Jesus Comes to Us
The first surprise is that Jesus would even go to the river Jordan to be baptized, rather than have John and the people come to him. Why would Jesus do this? After all, this is not what John did. John was out there, waiting for the people to come to him. And the people did. But Jesus never does that. He goes out to John and the people, rather than waiting for them to come to him. And then rather than staying out there at the river Jordan, and conducting his ministry there, he takes it on the road. He travels, first to Galilee, and then throughout Israel. He is constantly on the move. The disciples don’t come and find him. He goes and finds them – at the seashore, in the tax collector’s booth, wherever they are, to call them.
Why would he do this? Why would he go to them instead of having them come to him? nThe answer, simply put, is grace. God comes to us, through Jesus, before we ever go to God. Before we are even able to go and find God, God finds us. That is grace.
A wonderful illustration of this, for me, is the baptism of a baby. Jesus was baptized as an adult, of course. And we in the Lutheran Church baptize adults. But we also baptize babies. We believe very firmly that children – babies! – should be baptized. Why? The answer, to me, is grace. Baptism is not our work. It is God’s work. It is about God coming to us. Before we can go to God. That’s what salvation is all about. And that’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about. Whenever a baby is baptized, we are reminded in this amazing, powerful way, of God’s grace. That before that child can go to God, before that child can ask to be baptized, that child is received into God’s arms of grace.
God comes to us before we can go to God. That’s one of the amazing things that we learn about Jesus’ baptism. He went to the river Jordan to find those who were looking for salvation. He didn’t wait for them to find him. And that is God’s grace at work.
Jesus Is Baptized for Us
But there is another great truth we can learn from Jesus’ baptism. And that has to do with this surprising fact that he is baptized at all. Why would the Son of God allow himself to be baptized by a human sinner like John? And why would he go through a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins if he was not a sinner? And the answer, to me, is that he was baptized to truly become one of us, to become one with us.
He was baptized in the sin-soaked waters of the river Jordan, along with all those other sinners, to truly enter into our sinful life. To get dirty for us. To take on our dirt, our sin.
Remember that when Jesus is baptized, he takes the first concrete step on the journey that will bring him to the cross and to his death. It is no wonder that when he came out of that water, he heard his Father’s voice saying,
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.Mark 1:11
After all, Jesus had just taken that first step toward fulfilling his Father’s will, toward dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
And everything that Jesus did – from the river to the cross – was done so that we, too, might hear those same words from heaven, that Jesus heard the day he was baptized: You are my son. You are my daughter. My Beloved. With you I am well pleased.
To me, there is not a simpler or clearer definition of the gospel than that. That in Jesus, we are God’s children, the beloved. With whom God is well pleased. It is no wonder that baptism is of such comfort. It is our reminder of this great truth, the great truth of our lives. That we are God’s beloved children.
But you all have heard enough of my preaching to know that I can’t stop there, that I also want to ask the “So what?” question. What difference does this make in our daily lives? What difference does it make that we are baptized? That we know that we are God’s beloved?
In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, he reflected on the gift of baptism, but also on what it might mean in our daily lives. He said that:
[Baptism] signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
And what I like about that is the daily part. Baptism changes us daily. Every day we can wake up and remember our baptism, remember that we are forgiven, loved, and never alone in this world. And by doing that we can have the courage to live each day for God, above all else. Baptism changes us, at the moment of our baptism, to be sure. But also each and every day, whenever we remember our baptism, and choose to live differently because of its gift.
To put it a little differently, every day when we wake up, we can step into the River Jordan with Jesus, and remember our baptisms. And we can step out of that memory, hearing those wonderful words from heaven: “You are my son. You are my daughter. The Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
I don’t know if Martin Luther actually said, “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.” But I like the sentiment. When we wake up, we can remember our baptism – Remember that we are God’s beloved. And that changes how we live. It can shape our day, our every interaction, our every encounter.
Knowing that we are beloved by God, we want nothing more than to return that love to God, and share that love with our world. And that is the Christian life, in a nutshell. Coming to believe that we are God’s beloved, and returning that love to God and sharing that love with our world. The details can be as wonderfully unique as our fingerprints. It will look different for each of us. But it all comes down to that simple process of coming to believe that we are God’s beloved, and returning that love to God, and sharing that love with our world. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is what it means to be baptized into Jesus.
It’s no wonder that Luther said there is no greater comfort on earth than Baptism! Today, as we remember that Jesus was baptized for us, may we find comfort in the astonishing truth of the gospel – that we are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. And may we not rest until all the earth comes to share our faith in this wonderful truth. Amen