Chaplain Tucker Messamore: Jesus’ Baptism (And Ours)

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 9, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; St. Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.

Let the words of my mouth & the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have to begin this morning with a confession: I have always found the baptism of Jesus to be a bit perplexing. This is probably not something I should admit as I’m opening up a sermon about Christ’s baptism, but it’s the truth. It’s always been puzzling to me. I am sure you can all see the look of panic in Fr. Kevin’s eyes as he’s perhaps beginning to regret giving me the task of preaching on this text.

In my defense, Father, I think I am in good company. I’m not the only one who has struggled to understand why Jesus would be baptized. Even John the Baptist, the very man who presided over Jesus’ baptism, could not make sense of it. In St. Matthew’s account of this event, we’re told that when “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him, John would have prevented him” (Matthew 3:14). John made his objection known: He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14b).

It’s understandable that John would be confused. After all, John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, a call for people to turn from their sinful ways. At the beginning of Luke 3, we’re told that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). People from all over Judea came to be baptized by John, and he exhorted them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). In Matthew 3:2, John’s message is summarized like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This presents a problem: if Jesus is who the Church confesses Him to be—the sinless Son of God—why would He need to participate in a baptism of repentance? He did nothing of which he should repent. He had no sins to confess. And yet, Jesus insisted that John must baptize Him, saying, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Somehow, in some way, baptism was an integral part of Jesus’ mission.

So what do we make of Jesus’ baptism? How are we to understand it, and what does it mean for us as believers today? This morning, as we examine St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, I hope that we will see two related truths: First, that in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. And second, that in baptism, we are identified with Jesus.

Let’s start with the first of those statements: in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. More specifically, we could say Jesus identifies with sinful humanity.

To begin to unravel the mystery of Jesus’ baptism, we should take note of a detail that is easy to overlook: the location of His baptism. Luke 3:3 tells us that John “went into tall the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance of forgiveness of sins.” For John, the Jordan River was more than just a water source. Pools for used for ritual cleansing were readily available in the city of Jerusalem, but John chose to operate in a remote place. It would seem that John was intentional in choosing this location for his ministry. The Jordan River was the boundary that God’s people had crossed to enter the land of Canaan, the land that He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It’s near the banks of the Jordan that an important event takes place, an event that is recorded in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. God’s people were encamped on the Eastern side of the Jordan River, and at long last, after many years of wandering in the wilderness, they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. But before they did, Moses reminded Israel of the Law God had given them after He delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. Moses urges them to obey God’s commands once they enter the Promised Land. “When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today” (Deut. 11:31-32).

Moses repeatedly warns the people that he is setting before them a blessing and a curse, good and evil, life and death. If they lived according to God’s Law, they would experience God’s blessings, but if they chose disobedience, they would reap disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, despite these warnings, soon after they take possession of Canaan, God’s people defy Him. They worship false gods and adopt the pagan practices of their neighbors. 

In a heartbreaking passage from Hosea 11, God recounts the tragic choices of His beloved people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). God had graciously freed His people from slavery in Egypt. He had lovingly guided them through the wilderness. He provided them with everything they needed and instructed them about how life works best. Yet sadly, like a rebellious child, the people of Israel spurned the loving guidance of their Father and chose to go their own way: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2). 

As a result of their unfaithfulness, the people of Israel experienced all of the curses that Moses predicted: famines, plagues, attacks from their enemies, and ultimately, exile from the land. These consequences reverberated into the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. Even though some of God’s people had been able to return to Judea, they were still under the rule of a foreign power.

With all this in mind, it is no accident that John calls people to a baptism of repentance on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, the very place where Moses had called Israel to keep God’s Law in the land. Theologian Scott McKnight explains this well: “John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again . . . John’s prophetic drama is a reenactment of the entry into the Land.” (Scott McKnight, The Jesus Creed, 67).

But John’s ministry was ultimately about more than just pointing people to repentance. It was about pointing them to a Rescuer. It would not be enough for God’s people to resolve themselves to live according to God’s ways. They had made this commitment many times before and failed to live up to it. And this is where Jesus shows up, the one that John said would come after him would be greater than him (v. 16).

It’s here that we should pay attention to another detail from Luke’s account: the words God the Father speaks to Jesus after His baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). We just saw that God referred to Israel in the same way—as His son—in Hosea 11:1. Interestingly, St. Matthew quotes this same verse in His gospel and tells us it applies to Jesus. After the visit from the wise men, Jesus and His family flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s schemes, and St. Matthew tells us that these things took place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” (Matthew 2:15).

The writers of the New Testament are endeavoring to show us that Jesus is the True Israel, that is, that Jesus came to what the people of Israel could not do themselves. We see Jesus as the New Israel right after His baptism when he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. While the people of Israel grumbled and rebelled against God during their wilderness wonderings, when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He resists the devil and remains perfectly obedient to the will of His Father.

If we put all these pieces together, we get an idea of what was happening at Jesus’ baptism. Why would Jesus participate in a baptism of repentance if he has no sin of His own? Jesus is standing in for His people Israel—and not just for ethnic Israel, but for all sinners, ourselves included. In His baptism, Jesus is acting as our representative, our substitute, by doing what Israel did not do and what we can’t do: perfectly repenting—not of His own sins, but of ours—and completely submitting to God’s will. N.T. Wright explains that this is how Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom on earth: “By humbly identifying Himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life, and ultimately dying their death” (Wright, Advent for Everyone: Matthew, 38). Jesus lived perfectly, died, and rose again so that anyone who is united with Him can experience all the benefits of His perfect obedience and His saving work.

This brings us to our second truth: in baptism, we are identified with Christ. It’s only those who are united to Christ who can experience the blessings He has secured through His life, death, and resurrection. In Romans 6:3, St. Paul teaches that baptism is the means by which, through faith, we are united with Christ. He says that those who are baptized “have been baptized into Christ Jesus.” He goes on to say, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). 

In baptism, as Scott McKnight explains, “the grace of God [is] set loose in the life of the baptized” (McKnight, It Takes a Church to Baptize, 51). Christ’s saving work is personally applied to us. In baptism, both a drowning and a cleansing take place. We die to our sinful nature, which is buried with Christ, and we are also washed clean of our guilt and sin and are raised to walk in new life in Christ.

These are not the only blessings God offers us through baptism. In our gospel reading, John teaches that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16). Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, so Scripture connects our baptism with the indwelling of the God’s Spirit. In Acts 2:38, St. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit enables us to do what we cannot do on our own: to say no to sin and to walk according to God’s ways (Phil 2;13, Ez. 36:27).

Finally, remember how God the Father says after Jesus is baptized? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 22). Scripture tells us that this blessing is ours as well. Romans 8:14 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” In baptism, God claims us as His own. We are adopted into His family, and we have a glorious inheritance awaiting us—not the Promised Land, but the new heavens and a new earth, a place where we’ll be free from sin, death, evil, pain, and suffering once and for all (c.f. Rev. 21:4). These are the blessings that are ours in Christ, blessings that God extends to us in baptism.

This morning, as I close, I want to leave us with an often repeated but ever important admonition: remember your baptism.

If you had given this advice as a young Christian growing up in Baptist church, it would have been just as perplexing to me as Jesus’ baptism was. But this is exactly the advice I needed in moments when I questioned, “Did I really understand what I was doing when I prayed for Jesus to save me? Was I sincere in my commitment to Christ?”

Remembering your baptism points you away from yourself and what you have done and points you to Jesus, and what He has done for you. As one theologian explains, “In times of doubt, fear, and even despair, those who worry about God’s love for them, and those who question their salvation or their participation in Christ, should not look inward where they will probably find even more reasons to doubt their salvation. Rather, they must look outside themselves . . . Christians in need of assurance should understand that their salvation is an objective fact, sealed in an event in space and time, as tangible as water . . . Instead of building our hope on the shifting sands of our own works or inner lives, we can have confidence that what Christ did for us is a fact” (Gene Veith, Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross, 59, 43-44).

So, if you begin to doubt God’s love for you, remember your baptism. Remember that God has claimed you as His own. When Satan tempts you to despair over your sin, remember your baptism. Remember that your sin has been nailed to the cross and that you have been washed clean by the blood of Christ. When your body is plagued by sickness and disease, when you grow weary amidst the pain and suffering of this world, remember your baptism. Remember that God has given you His Spirit to guide you, and look with hope to the glorious inheritance that awaits you.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.