Heaven Is Now Opened
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The text for today is our Gospel, especially Luke 3:21-22: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’” Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
|Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino|
“I can’t believe how quickly time passes. It seems like it was only yesterday when we brought our little boy home. Now he’s all grown up, and has started out on his own career.” I’m sure that many of you have already pondered or expressed similar thoughts. As a father of four and a Papa of three (soon to be four), I can assure you, if you haven’t yet, you probably will. And much sooner than you’d ever think. Time flies. Children grow up so quickly. You just turn around and they’re all grown up. And so it seems with Jesus—at least according to St. Luke’s Gospel. One minute, He’s a Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And in the next chapter, He’s suddenly a grown man.
Jesus is kind of like one of those soap opera children. He is conceived and born under suspicious circumstances in one episode; and when He shows up the next time, He’s all grown up, ready to take on a starring role in His own major plot line. Baby Jesus is all grown up. Now He’s thirty—a fitting age for prophets (Ezekiel 1:1), priests (Numbers 4:3), and kings (2 Samuel 5:4) to begin.
So, Jesus, what are You to be now that You’ve grown up? What are You going to do with the rest of Your life? Don’t you think it’s about time to choose a career and make a difference in the world? Or more appropriately, to assume Your God-given vocation? Yes, indeed. More than you could ever imagine.
Grown up Jesus comes to the Jordan River from Nazareth. He’s come to preacher John’s church service for sinners. John’s no respecter of persons—an equal opportunity preacher. Peasant, tax collector, soldier, king—all hear the same message: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance… The Mighty One is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Our text says, “With many other exhortations he preached Good News to the people.” But Herod wouldn’t think it was such good news when John reproved him for adultery for divorcing his own wife and taking his brother’s wife to be his own. He’d lock John up in prison. Then in all caught up in the revelry of his own birthday celebration, he’d behead the meddling prophet to keep a hasty oath.
John’s been blasting away at all sinners in his camel hair vestments and desert pulpit, breaking every seeker-sensitive rule in the book. “Brood of vipers,” he calls the crowds who come to be baptized by him. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he warns. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John preaches real “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons—“the coming wrath of God” and “prepare the way of the Lord” kind of sermons. “Bearing fruits in keeping with repentance” kind of sermons.
Most of us probably wouldn’t give John the time of day. We’d blow off John’s “old-fashioned rural congregation” to go to Pastor Gabe’s hip and swanky megachurch in the city, where everything is permissible and nothing is forgiven. Our Old Adam would take a happy clappy, come get your Starbucks, sit back, and enjoy the entertainment kind of congregation any day over one that takes sin and the forgiveness of sin seriously. After all, no one wants to be reminded of his shortcomings. It’s bad for your self-esteem! Haven’t you listened to Oprah? All that negative talk will only create negative energy. And as one prosperity preacher would say, “You want to be a victor and not a victim.”
But evidently, Jesus hasn’t been listening to those purpose driven life coaches. He’s not looking for His best life now. He doesn’t seek to “Make Every Day a Friday.” Or win the battle in your mind. And so, lo and behold, grown up Jesus shows up at John’s service! The one for poor, miserable sinners, those who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Sinners like you and me.
Has Jesus come to sit back and watch John at work? To see what kinds of sorry losers gather to hear John’s message? To evaluate John’s preaching? Observe how he baptizes—sprinkling or immersion? Perhaps He wishes to teach John some people skills? No! Shock of all shockers! Jesus has come to participate! To take part. To receive a Baptism for sinners from John!
What’s that about? Jesus should baptize John. Even John realizes that. But no, grown up Jesus comes to make a difference in the world in a way we’d never have imagined. His career path was chosen for Him centuries ago as the Suffering Servant prophesied in Isaiah 53. “To justify many.” “To bear their iniquities.” Iniquities—that’s sins. Justify—that’s “to make right before God.”
Jesus is baptized, not because He needs it, but because we need it! The sinless Jesus comes to take on all that is wrong with sinners here in a sinner’s Baptism. Jesus identifies Himself with the people whom He came to save.
The sinless One does not separate Himself from sinners, but becomes one with them in His own Baptism. And so, grown up Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. Taking the world’s sin in His body in the river. Absorbing it all like a sponge. He’s going to take it with Him all the way to the cross.
And there, as Jesus suffers and dies, what happens? He is treated as a sinner! A cursed sinner! For “cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). As God the Father looks upon Jesus hanging on the cross and pours out His holy wrath upon Him, He sees the worst sinner who ever walked the face of this earth.
Calvary! That’s what Jesus is going to do with the rest of His life. He’s going to give it into death. Purpose driven all the way to the cross. That is His unique calling, His vocation—to be the sin bearer. To give His life as a ransom for many. For you! For me! And what a difference He will make! He’s the Savior. To save His people from their sins by taking them in His Body and answering for them all with His Good Friday death. To make every day a Good Friday for you! To bear God’s fiery wrath. To suffer the eternal God-forsakenness of hell. To be the sacrifice of atonement that covers all sin with His Blood. To ransom Himself for your redemption!
It’s what the Father always had in mind for His only begotten Son—from before the foundations of creation. This is where Jesus is supposed to be. At the Jordan to be baptized by John. To identify Himself with sinners. To be anointed with the Holy Spirit for the work of His ministry. And then on the three-year trek that ultimately leads to Golgotha.
So when Jesus comes out of the water all heaven breaks loose! The Holy Spirit comes down from heaven and descends on Him in bodily form like a dove. And the Father speaks from heaven: “You are My Beloved Son. With You I am well pleased.” Before Jesus begins His public ministry, the Father puts His seal of approval upon Him. Here is the Son of God, given by God to the world He so loved, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.
To read the Gospel simply as the story about a man who set a great moral example and established a world religion is an atrocity. But to read the Gospel as the story about a man who dies on the cross is also to miss the point completely. It is not just a man—it is the very Son of God who dies for sinners on that cross.
Again, all this in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one in whom I delight. I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).
God’s promise through Isaiah is now being done as Jesus takes on sin in a sinner’s Baptism. The Holy Spirit comes to Jesus to equip Him with power for His ministry. The Spirit descends in bodily form to provide the promised evidence to John that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the one whose way he was preparing.
With all that’s going on in this text: the Baptism of the sinless Son of God, the approving voice of the Father from heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, it’s easy to miss the main action. Did you catch it?
Listen again: “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened.” Did you hear that now? Heaven was opened! The opened heaven and the Spirit’s descent in bodily form highlight the Father’s words: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
The opening of heaven is a theme throughout Luke’s Gospel, and it will be highlighted at pivotal points in Jesus’ life. Heaven will open when the angels announce the Christ Child’s birth. Heaven will open at Jesus’ Transfiguration as Moses and Elijah discuss Jesus’ upcoming exodus, and God the Father acknowledges the divine and human nature of His only-begotten Son with words similar to those at His Baptism. Heaven will open at Jesus’ ascension, where He will be lifted up, taken into heaven, and seated at God’s right hand until the Last Day when He returns in the same way, to bring His people back to an open heaven.
The opening of heaven at Jesus’ Baptism is the beginning of the fulfillment of John’s prophecy: “I baptize you with water, but … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Here, Jesus is baptized with the Holy Spirit. At His crucifixion, Christ will be baptized with fire. As Jesus gives up His Spirit, the temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the more earthly worship spaces will be torn in two, opening the way into God’s holy presence. The opening of heaven at Jesus’ Baptism indicates that it will forever be opened to all humanity through the flesh of Christ by His Spirit.
This is the most important event in Jesus’ ministry outside of the crucifixion and the resurrection. (That is why it is observed as a festival day.) And it’s a very important event for our individual salvation, too. I can safely say that we don’t get to the blessings of our own Baptism without going through Christ’s Baptism.
In His Baptism, Jesus Christ—true God and true man—is anointed with the Holy Spirit and acknowledged by the Father. Jesus, in His humanity, as well as His divine nature, is graced with the Spirit and declared to be God’s Son, opening the way for fallen human beings to be incorporated into Christ through Baptism and likewise to receive the Spirit and to be adopted as children of God.
From this moment on, Jesus stands in solidarity with sinful humanity. He, therefore, stands for us under the wrath of God, wrath that will culminate in His crucifixion for the sins of the world. But He also stands for us under the love of God, a love that is demonstrated by Christ’s willingness to lay down His life for us, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and by the Father’s raising His Son back to life.
Christian Baptism is into Christ, and continues the pattern of Christ’s Baptism with water, the Spirit, and fire. In the water of Holy Baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Like Christ’s own Baptism, ours is Trinitarian. It unites us with Christ and gives us the Spirit, and so what the Father said of Jesus, He also says of every person baptized into Christ: “This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of our Lord is an “Epiphany” of the one true God in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In divine mercy, Christ takes His place with sinners and takes our sin upon Himself. “When all the people were baptized,” Jesus submitted Himself to a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:21). He had no sins of His own, but He took the sins of the world upon Himself—yours and mine, included—and so was baptized into His own death.
Grown up Jesus joins us in our sin. He takes it in His body and bears it to the cross. He moves from the Jordan to Jerusalem, making all the difference in the world for us. For in bearing our sin, He is our Savior. Your sin is His. And it’s all been paid for, paid for with the perfect, all-sufficient atoning sacrifice—Christ’s own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
The Father is absolutely delighted in grown up Jesus doing just that—giving His life into death for you and for your salvation. Into Christ’s sin-forgiving death you are baptized. You are united with Him. Into Christ’s resurrection you are baptized into eternal life. You are now clothed with Christ and all His righteousness. That’s right, His righteousness. What’s His is yours.
Therefore, “when you pass through the waters,” He is with you (Isaiah 43:2). He created you for His glory, and He has redeemed you with His blood, that you may be His own and live with Him in His Kingdom (Isaiah 43:1,7). As you are baptized with a Baptism like His, so also are you united with Him in His death and resurrection so that you “might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). For all who are baptized into Christ Jesus receive His anointing of the Holy Spirit and are named by His Father as beloved and well-pleasing sons and daughters.
Baptized into Christ, heaven is now opened to you. You are God the Father’s beloved child. You can bring your prayers to His throne. His Holy Spirit now dwells in you, giving you faith and life. Christ is with you always. Indeed, through His means of grace—His holy Word and Supper—He forgives you again and again. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.