“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were 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.”
If I were to ask you to list the most significant events in the life of Jesus Christ, you would probably say Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and His Ascension. If you were broadminded enough, you’d include His coming again on the Last Day to separate the living from the dead, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
You would probably not have included His baptism on that list, unless of course it happened to be the 1st Sunday after Epiphany which is always “The Baptism of Our Lord” and you knew that this is where the preacher is headed. But the Baptism of Jesus deserves as much of our attention as all these other ‘landmark’ events in the life of our Lord. And here’s why.
On Christmas morning, Christ came into THE WORLD. On Good Friday, Christ died for the sins of THE WORLD. On Easter Sunday, Christ justified and reconciled God to THE WORLD. 40 days after Easter, He ascended into heaven to intercede with the Father for the life of THE WORLD.
You notice that in all of this, we haven’t once said, “FOR YOU.” It’s all very general and non-specific. And so we rightly wonder, ‘how does this apply TO ME?’ How does this connect TO ME, individually, personally?
When our children were getting ready for college, we wanted to get them connected to all of that scholarship and grant money that we heard was out there. We went to seminars and read books on how to tap into these resources. They had to fill out the applications, write the essays. And we had to learn how to fill out FAFSA forms.
What we learned was that there are all kinds of programs in place to help people in all kinds of situations and needs. But none of it actually benefits me in my situation until I fill out the forms and write the essays and do the interviews. Only then does the general become specific and FOR ME.
And what we discovered was that for all of the scholarships that are out there, there wasn’t too much that was actually available to MY son and MY daughter.
We hear about all of the benefits that are available through Jesus Christ – the forgiveness of sins, peace which this world cannot give, life and salvation. All these, Christ has won for THE WORLD by His birth, death, resurrection and ascension. But how do these actually get to ME? Are there forms I must fill out and essays I must write that will be reviewed by some celestial committee of angels who have this big stamp – ‘APPROVED’ / ‘DENIED’?
No, it is through this strange thing called ‘baptism’ that all of these benefits won by Christ for THE WORLD, are connected TO YOU and given to YOU.
This is what Paul wants to understand when, in our epistle reading today, he said, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)
Our Baptism INTO Christ.
The thing that we want to press down hard on in what Paul says right here is that little word “INTO.” “We were baptized INTO Christ Jesus.”
Picture a huge, solid door, behind which lies a room filled with treasures and wealth, the likes of which this world has never seen let alone imagined. Standing outside that door, you wonder, “How do I get into that room?” “How do I get this door to open so that I may enter in to where this treasure is and enjoy it?”
And even if you could FORCE this door to open and FORCE yourself into this room, how do you make this treasure YOUR OWN, and enjoy all this wealth?
Now, picture that all of that wealth is in Jesus Christ. He is the room in which all of the treasures of heaven are kept. And in His own words, He is ‘the door.” The question is, how do I get that door to open? How do I get into Christ where these treasures are? And the answer is ‘baptism.’ Which turns out to be NOT SOMETHING I DO at all, but something to us. We are ‘baptized INTO Christ.’
Let me draw another picture for you. This one comes from the book of Leviticus and is about the DAY OF ATONEMENT. The Day of Atonement was that annual day for Israel when the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies with incense and blood to atone for the sins of the entire nation. ONE SACRIFICE FOR ALL.
As you can imagine, there were elaborate procedures in place which had to be followed to the letter, so that the ‘sinful’ High Priest, who was one of the people, could enter into the very presence of the Holy God who was seated between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant.
Picture the entire congregation waiting outside the Tabernacle. The sacrifice of the innocent lamb was carried out. The High Priest took some of its blood INTO the Tabernacle. He’s headed for that little room at the far end of the Tabernacle called ‘the Holy of Holies’ where God is present. But before he went behind the curtain, into the Holy of Holies with that blood to sprinkle on the Ark of the Covenant, he had to do a few things.
• First, he had to take off the clothes that he was wearing. They were covered in sin.
• Second, while he had his clothes off he had to bathe in water. Literally, he washed or ‘baptized’ his sins off of him.
• Third, he would put on the holy garments and enter the Holy of Holies.
That’s what happens for us in holy baptism. As we enter INTO Jesus Christ, we enter the true Holy of Holies in the true Temple of God. As Paul says, Jesus Christ is “where the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” (Col.2:9)
But we dare not enter INTO this HOLY PLACE with our sins. First, we must be ‘baptized’ with water, which washes all of our sin away.
In the ‘Early Church,’ the standard baptismal practice was that before one entered into the baptismal pool, they removed their clothes. Baptism was always done in the nude. (Relax. There were separate pools for men and women and elaborate screens for privacy.) Then, as they came out of the pool, they were given ‘holy garments’ to wear which they wore for a whole week.
This is the picture that the prophet Isaiah describes saying, “he clothes you with the garments of salvation; he covers you with the robe of righteousness…” (Is.61:10).
I was over a friend’s house this past week and he got one of these ‘Virtual Reality’ set-ups for Christmas. And he said, ‘you’ve got to try this.’ And I did. How many have put on one of these things? It’s incredible. It transports you to faraway places and you’re standing above the earth looking down on it and in the middle of a highway with cars and trucks speeding towards you or in some room filled with people. And I don’t even know how to describe it.
If we could all put one of those Virtual Reality headsets on here, what we’d see is that in our baptism, we entered INTO the ‘holy of holies’ behind the curtain. We were literally “baptized INTO Christ.” And the life and salvation that He won FOR THE WORLD becomes YOURS.
Christ’s baptism INTO us.
But this is really only half of the picture that we need to see on this 1st Sunday in Epiphany, which is really, not so much about OUR BAPTISM as it is about JESUS’ BAPTISM.
But now we’re ready to see the other side of this picture. For if we are able to follow Paul’s meaning when he says, “you have been baptized INTO Christ,” then maybe we can begin to comprehend why it is that Christ our Lord was baptized. For just as “you have been baptized INTO Christ,” in the same way, “Christ has been baptized INTO you.”
This is the profound truth that St. Luke expresses so simply when he writes, “now when all the people were being baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized…”
And we say ‘wait a minute. What is Jesus Christ doing in the water? Why is He who is without sin, in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily, being baptized?’ And right here, we come to one of those ‘mysteries of God’ that opens up before our eyes to see in virtual reality, a beauty that brings us to our knees.
It is by the same sacrament through which we sinners enter INTO the holy Christ and receive all of the benefits that He won for us, that the holy Christ enters INTO us and our life in this fallen and sinful world.
Let’s return to the book of Leviticus and the Day of Atonement. After the High Priest goes behind the curtain and enters into the Holy of Holies with the incense and sprinkles the blood onto the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark of the Covenant, he then exits the Holy and Holies and comes back into the sanctuary.
But before he goes outside to where all the people are waiting, there are three things he must do.
• First, he must take off those ‘holy garments’ he was wearing.
• Second, as strange as it sounds, he must then bathe again. Why must he bathe again? Because he is covered in holiness.
When Moses came out from the cloud where He was WITH GOD, he never changed his clothes or washed. And his face shone like the sun, and no one could look at him and everyone was afraid of him.
The High Priest must be like his the people. And so he must ‘BAPTIZE’ that glorious glow of holiness off of him SO THAT he may ‘COME NEAR’ the people and the people may ‘COME NEAR’ to him without fear.
• And then thirdly, he puts the clothes that he was wearing back on.
As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “we have such a High Priest” in Jesus Christ. On Christmas morning, He came into THE WORLD. At His baptism, He came INTO YOU.
• The One who knew no sin, was baptized INTO you who was born in sin.
• The Holy One of God, was baptized INTO the unholy children of man.
• The One whose dwelling is in heaven, was baptized INTO you and made you His dwelling place.
• The One in whom the “fullness of the deity dwells bodily” was baptized INTO YOUR BODY.
Picture a huge, solid door, behind which lies a room filled with sin and death, the likes of which we are all very familiar. Standing outside that door is Jesus Christ with His gifts of forgiveness and salvation. How will He enter INTO you that He may save you? He has been BAPTIZED INTO you.
So, if I were to ask you to make a list of the most significant events in YOUR LIFE, what would be on that list? Christ’s baptism and your baptism ought to be at the very top. Because it was there that you entered into Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ entered INTO you. And all that He won for the WHOLE WORLD, is won FOR YOU.