Jesus put it pretty simply when it comes to Baptism: “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” You see, to us poor sinners, heaven was closed, from the day the door was shut to Eden – the Cherubim and flaming swords barred the way.
Our first parents rose up in rebellion again the God of love, and so heaven barred its doors and we were shut out. And we had only ourselves to blame. In sin and in bondage did we come into this world. From our infancy we had been allied with the enemy, the devil.
We have sinned against God. We have sinned against one another. We have hurt others by the way we have lived. Our thoughts and desires have been soiled by sin. We confess we justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. So to us heaven was closed, from the day when the gate swung closed to Eden and the Cherubim stood guarding the gate with flaming sword.
Jesus put it simply: “Except a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. We give special attention to what Jesus’ Baptism means in the lives of his Christians.
In our Gospel tonight, folks are confessing their sins at the Jordan River. They’re being baptized by John for a baptism of repentance. But now here comes the holy Son of God down to the river. And He asks His cousin John to baptize Him. John essentially responds, “Are you nuts? I need to be baptized by you and you come to me?”
“You are holy and I am a sinner. You the Son of God and I am a sinful son of Adam. What need have You for Baptism? What possible sins do You have to confess?”
But Jesus’ answer said it all: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.”
The key to understanding this day is to learn from John’s bewilderment. Jesus had no need to be baptized. There were no sins to be forgiven and unlike us, He certainly wasn’t barred from heaven’s gates. After all, He IS the kingdom of heaven.
And here is the wonderful, comforting, bewildering mystery of Jesus’ Baptism. He doesn’t need it but He does it all for us.
Think back again what all those folks were doing at the Jordan River. They were confessing their sins. But now one comes to step into that water not to add His own sins, but to make them all His, and to take them all away. Jesus enters the water with all the other sinners – not to make Himself clean but to make Himself dirty. That’s the point.
When John points to Jesus on the banks of the Jordan and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God” – those are words packed with meaning! He’s our Passover Lamb. He’s our scapegoat.
When He steps into those waters, that’s what He’s embracing. In the waters of the Jordan, Jesus is embracing the cross and all that came with it. Yes, promising to lay down His life for us, but also, as He said, to fulfil all righteousness – to be and to do and accomplish what we never could. To live a life of perfect sacrificial love – the sort of life that God intended for all of us when He created the heavens and the earth and man as his coregent over all creation.
When our Lord comes out of the those waters the heavens are opened. Got it? The heavens are opened. The heavens that were closed by man’s rebellion and unbelief. The heavens that were closed because of your sin and mine. But now, look how at Jesus’ Baptism the doors of heaven swing wide open. The Spirit of God comes to rests upon Him, as a dove, calling to mind the peace promised to Noah and his family after the waters of the flood.
The Father from heaven spoke: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Pleased because Jesus was carrying your sins. Pleased because in Baptism Jesus was committing Himself to the cross. Pleased because the promise He made from the beginning was coming to its glorious fulfilment – and that those doors would soon be swinging widely open to the whole world.
What does Jesus’ Baptism have to do with your Baptism? Everything! In those waters we see what we Christians call the blessed exchange. In His Baptism, Jesus took your rebellion, your sins, and He made them His own. He took everything ugly in you and made it His. He exchanged your sins for His perfect holy life. Your disobedience for his righteousness. Your hideousness for His beauty. He exchanged your hell for His heaven.
But what you really needed was access to God – a way home - hope for the future. To us heaven was closed – cherubim and flaming swords barring the way. We had been aliens – exiles – and drifters.
So Jesus said, “Except a man be born of water and the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Do you see how wonderful Baptism is? In your Baptism, and I’m talking about what you’ve got right here, and right now, those mighty doors of heaven swing open. The cherubim angels barring the way sheathe their swords. And you are welcomed. Tenderly invited to enter in. The Father says of you, “This is My beloved, My own child with whom I am well pleased.” That’s right, in Baptism, you’ve got God’s divine and perfect approval.
Know that Baptism is never an over-and-done deal. Never is. It keeps on flowing throughout your life like an artesian well, bubbling up and spilling over with forgiveness and life.
In our first reading tonight, you got a nice little preview of what’s to come. With Joshua, the congregation of Israel crossed over the Jordan River – right into the Promised Land. But what’s that compared with our greater Joshua, Jesus, leading us through Baptism into the promised land of eternal life. In the name of Jesus.
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