To Fulfill All Righteousness: Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 3:13-17.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
You were born as one lost and dead—lost in sin and dead in your trespasses. By nature, an enemy of God, under His just wrath and displeasure and doomed to eternal damnation. A slave to sin and subject to Satan, an unholy child of disobedience and unrighteousness, helplessly being led into the very jaws of hell. A sad state of affairs, to be sure; an unnatural condition that God did not design or intend, but nevertheless, one that that describes every man, woman, and child conceived and born in sin since Adam and Eve. Life in this world (even if lived in blissful ignorance) is still a whirlwind tour whistling through the graveyard. In truth, apart from the triune God, His love and grace—it is really a living death.
Yet, since that living death is the only “life” you had known it seemed normal; and to the old sinful flesh that clings to you that old way still seems normal. By experience, you understand that you’re not perfect, but by nature you believe that you’re probably good enough. By nature, you believe, along with the rest of humanity, that life is about doing your best to get along—bending this rule and breaking that one if necessary. By nature, you like the companionship of the world as it shuffles on its way—and those old sinful ways feel comfortable like an old shoe; they’re okay if no one gets hurt. And by nature, you live in fear—the constant fear of death, that this life is all there is and that the clock is running out.
But I have Good News for you: You’ve been rescued from all of that! You have been snatched from hell’s gaping mouth, redeemed, brought again into the Father’s favor and grace. Not by your work, not by your self-justification, not by your sincere intentions, but solely by the Lord’s work and mercy. The Lord earnestly desires to gather you to Himself as a hen gathers her chicks.
How far would He go to gather you to Himself? In the past few weeks, you have already heard of one great milestone: He would go so far as to become flesh for you, to be born in Bethlehem to redeem you from sin. But that’s not all. We hear more of His redeeming work for you today.
Jesus comes to the Jordan River, to John the Baptist, to be baptized just like all those poor, miserable sinners gathered there, all who, by nature, live apart from God, and who fail to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus comes to be baptized, and John tries to prevent Him. John is baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus is righteous, holy. He does not need forgiveness. And He’s God in flesh, so He does not need to be reconciled with God, either. So then, why is He baptized? For you and me. For this world of sinners.
Imagine a huge flock of sheep all gathered on the bank of the Jordan. One by one they go down to the Baptist, standing there in the river. Now these sheep are filthy, disgusting, covered in mud and their own filth. They have burrs and thorns caught in their wool, and they are ragged, nasty looking sheep. That’s all the people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. That’s you. That’s me.
And as these sheep step into the water and John pours water over them and says, “I baptize you for the forgiveness of all of your sins,” then all of the muck and filth washes off of these sheep, and they walk out of the river pure, white, and gleaming. Sheep after sheep comes into the water, and all of the dirt and uncleanness is washed off. Sheep after sheep is washed clean, while the water is covered with gunk, like a slough or an oil spill.
Now imagine that in the middle of all of these dirty disgusting sheep there is One Sheep who is white, gleaming, stunning to look at. This Lamb is without spot or blemish, perfect in every way. And now this perfect white woolly Lamb comes to the edge of the water, and John sees Him, and tries to prevent Him coming into the filth, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”
But this perfect Lamb answers, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So this perfect Lamb steps into the water, and as He does all the filth and muck and stain and thorn and dirt and blood that is swirling around on the water is absorbed onto Him. His wool is saturated with your uncleanness and my unrighteousness. All of it. And this Lamb walks out of the river bearing all the filth of all the sheep of all the world. And now the water is clear and pure, and this Lamb is nearly unrecognizable.
And there is John, in the river, and He points to this Sheep and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This is Jesus, who knew no sin, the One whom God made to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Dear saints, in this image we have the baptism and the death of Jesus and our baptism all wrapped up together, how they should be. For the baptism of Jesus is the first step of the ministry that ends at the cross. And at Jesus’ cross He fills up the promise of the forgiveness of all sins, the gift that Baptism gives to us.
So John baptizes Jesus, and what happens just afterwards? God the Father declares, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” And then the Holy Spirit descends upon Him; God anoints His Son with His Spirit. What happens here is the fulfillment of prophecy, for Jesus is baptized in order not to break bruised reeds or quench smoldering wicks. He isn’t baptized to make all those sinners even more separated from God. He is baptized to identify with them, because He is taking their place.
So much does Jesus desire to gather in these people, that He’s become flesh like them, and now He’s been baptized like them. He’s making the substitution, taking their place to suffer God’s judgment for their sin. As they are baptized, their sins are washed off of them; when Jesus is baptized, all their sin (and yours and mine) is washed onto Him and He soaks it up like a great “sin sponge.”
Jesus will carry that loathsome load to the cross and destroy it there. He will bear every last sin in the world, every sin that separates man from his fellow man, and every sin that isolates man from God and would leave him in eternal death. And Jesus will suffer that ultimate death on the cross as He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
That’s why Jesus is getting baptized with all those sinners—He’s taking their place to go to the cross. That’s why the Father says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And that’s why He is anointed with the Holy Spirit. All of this is part of what Luther calls the “Great Exchange.” Jesus takes our sin, our death, our wretchedness, the wrath and hell that our iniquities have earned, and in return gives us His kingdom, His name, His holiness, His righteousness, His Holy Spirit, His life, His hope, and His resurrection. As St. Paul writes: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
If you want to see what we have given Jesus, then we simply look to the cross. That’s where He really gets it. There we see the shame and loneliness, the forsakenness and suffering, the wrath and condemnation that we and our sin so justly deserve, hung out like dirty laundry for all the world to see. But that which is ours, is joyfully and gladly embraced by Jesus in His mercy, compassion, and boundless love as He fulfills all righteousness. And in return, He graces us, He gives us all that His: His righteousness, His obedience, His Spirit, His life.
All of this is brought to us personally in the gift of our Baptism. That is where the exchange is completed. There at the font. Jesus gives us what is His—His name, His life, His joy, and His forgiveness. There we are reborn as children of the heavenly Father, adopted as God’s children, made heirs of the eternal kingdom, and rescued from sin, death, and the devil.
Remember the words that the heavenly Father spoke of Jesus at His baptism? Well, they apply to you as well. Even the good pleasure of His Father, our Jesus shares with you in your baptism. “You are Mine. I am well-pleased with you because My Son has died for those sins that brought you loneliness and isolation, and so I no longer hold them against you. Therefore, you are an heir of heaven and have the hope of eternal life. Until then, remember: when I baptized you, I promised that I am with you always, even to the end of the age. I keep that promise. I visit you by My Word, and I gather you to My Supper.”
You are not lost in sin. You are not dead in your trespasses, because you have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ fulfilled all righteousness by being your Substitute. He carried that awful load of your sin God’s beloved Son suffered God’s righteous wrath for your sin in your place. You’ve been adopted as a child of God, an heir of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus became the Sinner so that you might become a son. He died so that you might live.
But remember that you live in a dying world; and that, as long as your sinful flesh still clings to you, those old ways of the world will still seem perfectly natural, right, and good. The world will still call you back to the living death you once had—and the world’s ways will seem so sensible and reasonable and workable. That is because your own sinful flesh still wants to do those things, which are sinful, which separate you from God.
It is tempting to believe that Baptism is the ultimate free ticket, that now you can commit whatever sin you wish; but that is utter foolishness. “May it never be,” says St. Paul. To continue in sin after Baptism is to say, “Since I’ve been released from prison, I will now go back into my cell and pretend I am free.” It is like saying, “Now that I have been adopted into a splendid mansion, I will go back and live on the street and imagine I am cared for.” It is really to say, “I was baptized, given new life in Christ, but I have left that life behind for death once more.”
That is not for you. Christ has died your death, given you His life. Sin need no longer hold you. So as Old Adam coaxes and seeks to seduce you to this or that sin, make the sign of the cross—remember Jesus’ death that He has joined you to, and say, “I am baptized. Once, I was lost, but now I am found. Once, I was a slave to sin, but now I am free. Once, I was dead in my sin and transgressions, but now I am alive in Christ. Shall I continue in sin? May it never be!”
And yet, you will still give in to temptation all too often—all Christians sin daily and much. The devil will delight to hold these sins before you in order to tempt you to believe that you’re not set free from sin—that you’re not a Christian at all. When the devil haunts you with your sin to prove that you’re not worthy of God’s grace, make the sign of the cross and say, “So what? I know I’m not worthy of God’s grace. But I am baptized. And there, by water and the Word, God said that I am His forgiven child and that He no longer sees the sins you hold before me. I am not saved by my worthiness, but by Christ’s worthiness, for He has shared His life, death, and resurrection with me!”
You’re no longer a slave of sin: that’s what Romans 6:6 says. Sin is like the robber who lurks in the alley: it can jump out and assault you, but it is not your lord. You are no longer a slave to sin. You are baptized. For Jesus’ sake, you are a child of God and an heir of heaven.
We quickly note here that all Christians are troubled by their ongoing sinfulness. If your sins do not trouble you, it does not mean that your heart is pure; rather, it means that your heart is hardening. If you don’t feel the guilt of your sin it means that your conscience is becoming calloused.
By faith, then, you trust what God’s Word says about you and how sinful you are. You remember that you are indeed sinful and unclean. You have sinned against Him by thought, word, and deed. You are a poor, miserable sinner who has offended God, and justly deserves His temporal and eternal punishment.
But you also trust what God says about His grace in Christ. You confess those sins and you say, “I am baptized. And while my stubborn heart for now will not let me acknowledge God’s grace as I ought, I know He forgives me for this sin, too.”
As long as you have sinful flesh, you still face the death of your body unless the Lord returns first. The specter of death is a haunting thing, and as it approaches you can be sure that the devil will use it as his final attempt to make you doubt the Lord’s promises. At such times, should you wonder whether or not God loves you, remember the answer and say, “I am baptized. God’s beloved child. Jesus joined me to His death—and He also joined me to His resurrection. Just like sin, death is not my master—for if death no longer has dominion over Jesus, then it has no dominion over me. Just like sin, death is like that would-be robber who would seek to destroy me; but it is also a conquered enemy, one that Christ will use to deliver me from this world and raise me up to eternal life.”
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John to fulfill all righteousness, so that He might take your place in death and share with you His resurrection. The same Jesus was just as present at the font when you were baptized, washing away your sins by water and the Word. That same Jesus is present in His Supper today, to give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith. The same Jesus is present in the words of Absolution spoken by your pastor. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.