Jesus Stands With Sinners (Matthew 3:13-17)

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we shift from the Christmas Season, where we found Jesus in a manger and as a child in a house in Bethlehem, to Jesus at the age of about 30 years old.  Yes, we take a big jump in time from the Christmas story to the baptism of Jesus; some 30 years have passed.

As we think back to our Gospel reading from today, we heard that Jesus traveled out to John the Baptist where hundreds of baptisms were taking place in the Jordan River.  If you can recall, John the Baptist was sent out into the desert away from the synagogues and away from the temple where the religious system of Jerusalem had been corrupted by a man-centered theology.  He was called out to the wilderness to carry out his ministry of preparing people for the Messiah.  John the Baptist was out by the Jordan River calling people to repent of their sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Thus, hundreds of people were gathered around the Jordan River; people of everyday life, as well as many religious leaders.

But why did Jesus come out to the Jordan River?  The answer is that this is the place where Jesus’ ministry, as we know it in the scriptures, begins.  After 30 years of silence, the baptism of Jesus serves as the starting point of His ministry.  Many people have pointed to this event of Jesus’ baptism as His inauguration, ordination, or installation, if you will.  The baptism of Jesus marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry, a ministry that would last for about 3-4 years and conclude with Jesus dying on the cross.  This is a place where God’s redemptive plan was really set into motion; it was the starting point of Jesus’ victorious campaign over sin, death, and the devil.

But why is the baptism of Jesus important for us to consider today in 2014?  What is the significance of it for the here and now?  Sure, it is the starting point of Jesus’ ministry.  But is that all it is?  No, there is so much more for us to consider in the Gospel reading.

My friends take a moment and ponder this.  Who was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River?  What was John calling the people to be baptized for?  Was his baptism for those who considered themselves morally good and only considered themselves as needing a bit of improvement here and there? Was his baptism for those who made mistakes and had sorrow over their job performance? Was his baptism for those who lamented over bad investment decisions, poor parenting skills, and a lacking marriage? No, John was not calling people who had worldly sorrow to be baptized but he was calling forth for Godly sorrow.  Keep in mind that John the Baptist’s message was not a message of repentance for people to succeed in avoiding sin and then do righteous things, though this is very good.  Rather, his message of repentance was deeper, it was a delivery of the Word to bring about confession of sin; confession that the people had sinned, that they continued to sin, and that they cannot stop sinning, and that they actually like to sin because of their sinful nature.  To be sorrowful about one’s sinful longings and the inability to fix the problem of sin by one’s own strength is at the core of John’s message of repentance.  Therefore, the baptism of John was for those who lamented over their sin in light of a Holy God and an approaching kingdom.  It was a baptism for those who confessed and knew that they were poor miserable sinners by nature; sinners who sinned against God in thought, word, and deed.  John the Baptist’s baptism was for sinners only.  Self-righteous and pompous people were not allowed; those who did not consider themselves to be sinners were not admitted.

Now, with that said, we see that Jesus arrives on the scene and He approaches John the Baptist and seeks to be baptized by John. Is this not crazy?  It seems crazy and certainly is unexpected; however, as backwards as it might seem to us it is extremely significant for us to consider.  Just what is Jesus going to enter into when He asks to be baptized by John?  When He was baptized, what did he enter into?  Jesus entered into the waters of the Jordan, water that was polluted by Israel’s sin.  This is shocking!  Jesus, who is the sinless Lamb of God, submits Himself to the baptism that sinful Israel was undergoing.  Jesus, who is the Mighty Savior and the one who will execute justice on the last day, steps into the Jordan River, a river and water contaminated by the idolatry, profanity, rebellion, murder, hate, adultery, lust, theft, dishonesty, lying, betrayal, and  coveting of Israel.  It makes perfect sense why John did not want to baptize Jesus.  If you were in John’s shoes, wouldn’t have you felt the same hesitancy?  In our Gospel reading, John the Baptist tries to change the mind of Jesus by saying, “Whoa… I need to be baptized by you!”  In other words John is saying, “Why on earth do you Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, need to be baptized by me, a sinner and especially in a baptism of repentance of sin?  What sin do you have to be sorry for Jesus?  Jesus, it is not you who should be baptized by me, John the Baptist, but you, Jesus, should baptize me!”

Baptized saints, the baptism of Jesus not only marks the beginning of His ministry, but it shows us perfectly how Jesus will save people from their sins; how He saves you and me.  The baptism of Jesus shows how the kingdom of heaven and God’s plan of salvation works.  The baptism of Jesus shows us that Christ enacts God’s saving plan for mankind when He Himself literally stands with sinners.  Yes, by receiving from John the Baptist this baptism that sinners receive, Jesus is not only standing with sinners but He begins His ministry where He takes the place of sinners.  This is absolutely awesome, for this is a bold picture of God’s love for you and me as sinners.  Indeed, Jesus steps into the pollution of sin, stands with us, receives a baptism that sinners receive, and then ultimately heads towards His trial, condemnation, and crucifixion; all of which He does for you and me.  Indeed, Jesus gives His life as a ransom for many, for you.  It is fitting for Christ to be baptized in the Jordan, for His whole ministry is one where He identifies and dies for sinners.[1]

Martin Luther, in a letter to Friar George in 1516, comments on the idea of Christ standing and identifying with sinners.  He says,

Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified.  Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, "Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin.  You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours.  You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not."  Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one.  For Christ dwells only in sinners.  On this account he [Christ] descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners.  Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation . . . you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours...

My friends, Christ identifies with us; He identifies with you.  For your sake, God made Him who had no sin to be sin for you, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. (1 Corinthians 5:21)  You are not only forgiven in Christ, but you are counted as perfectly righteous for you are washed not in polluted waters, but the water of God;  water that bears the name Father, Son, Holy Spirit; water that washed you, marks you, and names you as one of the Father’s own.  You are God’s Own Child, for you have been baptized into Christ.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Jeffery Gibbs, Concordia Commentary: Matthew 1:1-11:1 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 181.

Note: Sermon preached at Zion Lutheran Church on January 12, 2014.

To join in the conversation on Facebook, CLICK HERE.

Follow on Twitter, CLICK HERE.