Up from the Water – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for Baptism of Our Lord

Today we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and we remember that in baptism, we are each given a new name. In baptism, we are called, “Child of God.” We are called, “Beloved.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17

Whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, your baptism required water. The average human body is about 65% water, and we need water to live. Water plays a major role in the biblical story, all the way from Genesis, with Creation and Noah’s Flood, through the Exodus, as God provides water in the desert, into the New Testament, where Jesus lives and teaches by the Sea of Galilee, right through to Revelation, where the River of Life flows through the City of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he, himself, was the source of Living Water.

As John baptized repentant sinners in the Jordan River, I wonder if anyone remarked on the irony of being cleansed from sin in one of the dirtiest looking rivers around. This is the same dirty river, you might remember, that we read about in the Old Testament, the river where Naaman was cured of leprosy.

Naaman was a powerful general in the army of the King of Aram, during the time of the prophet Elisha. When the king sends Naaman to Elisha to be healed, Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to meet the great warrior. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to dip himself in the River Jordan seven times.

Naaman is insulted. He leaves in disgust. But his servants, who are traveling with him, remind him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’s been told to do?

Naaman changes his mind, does what he’s told, and is healed of his skin disease. His disgust and unwillingness to submit to Elisha’s command is replaced with obedience.

Like Naaman, John also protested, but relented and became obedient. John knew Jesus. We don’t know if these two relatives spent any time together as children, but keep in mind that John was only about six months older than Jesus, and their mothers had been close. So we can speculate that they knew each other as “cousins” before Jesus waded into the river to meet John.

But John knew Jesus as something more than a cousin. He recognized that the man standing in front of him was The One for whom he had been preparing the way. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John knew that his own ministry was about to come to a close, because here stood the whole reason for John’s preaching, teaching, and baptizing. John knew that the Kingdom of God was looking him in the eye.

John asks Jesus a really good question. Why did Jesus think he needed to be baptized? He had never sinned; he didn’t need to repent. Yet, here he was, asking John to baptize him along with all those repentant sinners.

Jesus tells John, “Allow this to happen for the time being, to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, “Trust me on this one. Even if it seems weird to you, just trust me. God has a plan in mind, and this is part of it.” So John is obedient, and baptizes Jesus, and righteousness is fulfilled.

That word, “righteousness,” is loaded with meaning. Matthew uses it seven times[1] in his Gospel, and each use signals a slightly different understanding of the word. For Matthew, righteousness is more than “being good.” Righteousness is closely connected to an awareness of the coming Kingdom. Righteousness means following Jesus as a faithful disciple, and participating in that kingdom.

In Christ’s baptism, righteousness begins to fulfill God’s deep desire to save us. When Jesus tells John, “permit it to be so now, to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s saying, “Let’s do this! It’s part of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin!”

It’s important to see that Jesus includes John in the plan. They have to do this together. This moment when John lowers Jesus under the water connects the ministry that went before, preparing the way, with the ministry that is just beginning – that is the Way.

As Jesus submits to baptism, he puts himself in the same position as the people he came to save, and he does it in a very literal, tangible way that they can see. Three years from this moment, he will take on the sins of the entire world on a cross at Golgotha. But in a very real way, his baptism serves as the initiation for that saving work.

So, just as Naaman obeyed Elisha, and John obeyed Jesus, Jesus becomes obedient. In their obedience, Naaman and John are changed for good. In his obedience, Jesus changes us for good.

And then something else amazing happens, just as Jesus comes up out of the water. The heavens are opened, and Jesus sees the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we baptize an infant or a new believer, we lay on our hands and breathe over the one being baptized, to signify that a New Creation has begun in us. We anoint the newly baptized with oil, as a symbol that the Holy Spirit has marked this one as belonging to God. We name this child, not only with the name parents have chosen, but with the name Beloved. And with that name comes a new identity – child of God.

The world continually tries to rename us, identifying us by our occupation or skin color or age or social status. And while all those names might describe us in some way, they don’t define us.[2] Only the name we receive at Baptism really tells us who we are, and whose we are. We are each a Beloved Child of God.

Theologian Greg Garrett writes that baptism symbolizes birth and rebirth throughout the Bible, and whenever this happens, “people enter the water as one thing,” [slaves out of Egypt, or wanderers entering the Promised Land, for example] … and emerge as something entirely different”[3]. Jesus entered the water as ‘just another guy’, as far as the crowds around John were concerned. But when he came up from those baptismal waters, they saw him differently.

Christ’s baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry on earth, but it also marked him as God’s own Son, the Beloved, in whom God took great pleasure. If Jesus was going to baptize with the Spirit, as John had announced, he had to first experience that anointing himself.

We call baptism a sacrament, a ‘visible, outward sign of an invisible, inward grace.’ It’s important to remember that this is work the Holy Spirit does in us; it is not some transaction we perform. It is also important to remember that, once we are sealed with the mark of baptism, that seal is a permanent one. We belong to God, now and forever. He has claimed us as his own.

And all this is possible because Jesus came up out of the water.

He didn’t drown.

He didn’t go for a long swim.

He submitted himself obediently, and then he came up from the water committed to the purpose God had given him.

In a moment, you will have the opportunity to commit yourself once again to the purpose God has given you. How is God calling us to obedience through the Spirit working among us? What is the outward sign of our inward grace, and how are we to show that grace to the community of New Ulm? How will you come up from the water?

Last week, we remembered that the wise men saw a star because they were looking for it. They were seeking Messiah, and they followed the star to where they could see the infant King with their own eyes.

We live in the hope of seeing God’s kingdom fulfilled with our own eyes, but we do not wait passively for that to happen. In this year of transition for our congregation – and for our denomination – it is more important than ever that we keep on seeking, keep on pursuing God’s kingdom.

To that end, I invite you to make this year a year when you really see Jesus, because we need to see Christ clearly if we are ever going to show him to anyone else. And that is our task – to show Jesus to others, to offer them Christ. So today, as you remember that you are baptized and named as God’s beloved child, will you renew your promise to love and serve him?

[1] dikaiosu/nh – Matthew 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 21:32
[2] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/
[3] Greg Garrett, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, 239.

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