So, what does such baptizing with water indicate?
It is a baptism of repentance, which both requires and results in more than lip service or an outward show; although words and actions are certainly also a part of it. Genuine repentance necessarily includes a confession of the truth and godly behavior, in accordance with the Word of the Lord. But repentance begins and continues, far more deeply, with a decisive change of heart and mind. It is a turning away from one way of life to another, a full conversion of self from the inside-out.
Repentance is both a death and a resurrection, and this is the very thing that such baptizing with water means and does. It calls you and converts you to become altogether different than you have been: in your attitudes and commitments, and in your thoughts and feelings, and therefore also in your words and actions.
Truly to repent is to flee from the wrath to come, in the conviction that the one true God exists, that He is the Author and Creator of all things, including you, and that His Law is a serious matter, which means what it says and holds you accountable for what you have done, and for what you have not done. Thus, repentance begins with the fear of the Lord.
God threatens to punish all who break His commandments. Therefore, you should fear His wrath and not disobey Him. The axe is laid at the root of the trees, and eternal fire awaits the ungodly, who do not live in faith and love. For to flee from God’s wrath is not to flee from Him, as if you could ever escape from His judgment. It is, rather, to live righteously according to His Word; and all the more so as the Day of His coming draws near.
He is the Lord, your King, who approaches. And St. John the Baptist is sent to prepare the royal highway before Him, which shall be called a highway of holiness. Thus, by his preaching and his baptism of repentance, he fills up the valleys and flattens the hills; he straightens up the crooked places and smooths out the rough spots.
Where, then, have you been lacking in your labors, whether out of laziness, arrogance, or despair? And where have you exalted yourself, and puffed yourself up with pride? Where have you turned to the right or to the left, distracted from your duties, or bounced around from one passion and pursuit to the next, as though you had no clear direction? Where have you stumbled and fallen?
That is where St. John directs his preaching to you. And that is where your Baptism would drown and destroy the old Adam in you, and put you to death, in order to make you alive and brand new. That is where your fruitless tree ought to bear the fruits of repentance: Not only to claim sorrow and regret for past failures, but from the heart to change your behavior; to set your ears, and mind, and mouth upon the Word of God; to cease from doing evil, and to do what is good and right.
Would you receive the Christ who comes, and follow Him into His Kingdom, and live with Him in righteousness and purity forever? Would you be a Christian, a child and heir of God? Then live with both humility and confidence before Him, within your vocation and stations in life. Fulfill your duties faithfully, and carry out your responsibilities with honesty and integrity. Not for the sake of appearances, as a people-pleaser, but in the fear of the Lord, and in love for your neighbor.
That is what such baptizing with water indicates. And that is how you flee from the wrath to come.
For now the Lord has begun to purify the sons of Levi, beginning with Zacharias and his son, the baptizer, St. John. These righteous men, to whom the Word of the Lord has come, have been raised up in striking contrast to the reigning high priest, Caiaphas, and to his father-in-law, Annas, who was still pulling strings and calling shots behind the scenes. Annas and his extended family were something of a religious mafia, as corrupt as Eli and his sons when Samuel was born. It was not to Annas or Caiaphas, however, but to faithful Zacharias in the Temple, while he was offering the incense of Israel’s prayer, that the Archangel Gabriel was sent. And it was St. John who was commissioned as the messenger of God, called and sent to prepare the people for the Lord.
By his preaching and baptism of repentance, St. John offers up the people as a priestly sacrifice to God, and as a righteous offering to the Lord. He slays them with his words in the waters of the Jordan, and then pulls them back up out of the water and points them to the path of righteousness in Christ. And by this repentance thus worked in them, by the washing of the water with the Word, the people offer up themselves and their lives to the Lord their God. They each become a living sacrifice, entrusting themselves entirely to Him, and so living a new life, by faith in His Word.
Such repentance is exemplified, later in St. Luke’s Gospel, in the tax collector Zaccheus, when he restores what he has stolen and then gives half his money to the poor; and in the soldier who confesses that Jesus is the righteous Son of God, after witnessing His death upon the Cross.
You also are called to live a life that is pleasing to God, that is, according to His Word, in the place where He has stationed you: In the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of repentance and of wisdom; and in the confidence of His faithfulness, His righteousness and steadfastness.
He is the Lord, He changes not. From everlasting to everlasting, He is God. His promises are true, and His covenant is certain. Though you have wandered far and wide, and forsaken His Word, return to Him, for He returns to you. He draws near for judgment, for justice and righteousness, in order to make all things right; in order to restore the people of His choosing as a priestly nation, in holiness and righteousness before Him, forever and ever. That is what He comes to do for you.
But, honestly, who can endure His coming? Who can stand in His judgment when He appears? Who can survive His Advent? For even on your best day, no matter how hard you try, there is yet more to be done, and there is still sin in your heart and life. Outwardly, your words and actions do not fully measure up, but inwardly it is far worse. You neither fear the Lord your God, nor do you love and trust in Him; not as you ought. There are still valleys to be filled, hills to be flattened.
The holy and righteous Law of God leaves no one unscathed. It does not accuse you falsely, nor does it demand from you more than is fair. And yet, for all your effort, you cannot live up to it or make amends for all your wrongdoing. Will you pay back four times over all that you have taken from your neighbor? Will you give up all of your possessions, or even half of them, to the poor? And would you thereby atone for all your sins and justify yourself before the Lord your God?
No, the axe still cuts you down; the fire still consumes you. The Law is insatiable in its demands and prohibitions, in its condemnations and its punishments; until it is fulfilled in the righteousness of perfect faith and holy love. But such righteousness and holiness are beyond your grasp. They are not a work that you can do or achieve for yourself, but a work that only God can accomplish. You do not perform it, but suffer it. And only then, after it has killed you, do you begin to live it.
St. John is not a motivational speaker, nor a self-help guru, but a preacher of repentance. It is true that he baptizes with water, but the Word that he preaches, being God’s Word, is a fire to be sure.
Yet, it is also the Gospel that St. John preaches to the people; although he does not fully realize or understand, at first, what his baptizing with water shall do. He rightly preaches the Law, but to begin with he does not perceive that Christ Jesus will submit Himself to the righteous judgment of that very Law. He preaches a baptism of repentance, and then he is confronted by the Christ who suffers that Baptism and repents for the sins of the world. Which is how and why St. John’s baptism of repentance is for the forgiveness of sins. And so it is that, afterwards, he will point to Christ Jesus and say: There’s the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice to end all sacrifice for sin, who makes Atonement for the world, who justifies and sanctifies all who believe and are baptized into Him.
He is mightier than John, not in threats and punishments, but in mercy and compassion for poor, miserable sinners. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He forgives iniquities, trespasses, and sins. That is the character of His heart, the essence of His Being, the perfection of His almighty power. That is the sort of Lord He is: The true and only God, who is Life and Light and Love. That is why you are not consumed, even though you deserve nothing but punishment.
Not as though the Lord overlooks sin or takes it lightly, but because He is mightier than you — in taking sin and death upon Himself, and suffering their worst, and establishing the righteousness of perfect faith and holy love in His own faithfulness, in His own flesh and blood, on your behalf.
St. John’s preaching and baptism prepare you for the coming of the Lord, because they make ready the way by which He comes to you. That is to say, Christ Jesus comes by the way of repentance, which He thereby opens up for you and for all, by taking responsibility for the sins of the world, by making Himself accountable for every last one of them, and by suffering their consequences.
The Lord Jesus submits Himself to St. John’s Baptism, not to flee, but to bear the wrath to come. He suffers the axe and the fire by His Cross and Passion. He bears the tree of the Cross, and by it He bears the fruits of repentance — which are for you the fruits of righteousness and salvation.
This is the good work that your dear Lord Jesus Christ has already accomplished for you, which He has also begun to work in you by His preaching and His Baptism. By the fruits of His Cross, and in His Resurrection from the dead, He brings you daily to repentance, and He purifies your heart and life by faith. And just as surely as He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity, so shall He bring this good work of His to perfection in you, in body and soul, forever.
Not only does He daily and richly forgive you all your sins, by the fruits of His Cross — that is, by the preaching of His Gospel of forgiveness, by His spoken Word of Holy Absolution, by the remembrance of your Baptism, and by His Food and Drink of the Holy Communion — but so does He also bear good fruits in you, by the same means of grace, after the same kind as His own Tree. For the Gospel bears the fruits of faith and love in the righteousness of Christ, your Savior.
He puts to death all that is sinful, unholy, and unrighteous in you, but then He also raises you up to newness of life in Himself. This is the repentance of His own Cross and Resurrection, which He works in you by His Law and His Gospel. In this way, and by these means, He removes the chaff from your life, from your thoughts, words, and actions, and He gathers you as finest wheat into His barn: into His Church, and into His Kingdom, now and forever.
He does it by His Word of the Cross, to and from your Baptism, day by day by day. He crucifies you with that Word, as He puts you to death and buries you with Himself by those waters; so that you die to yourself, to your old attitudes, behavior, and commitments, and you rise up to live unto righteousness in Christ. You follow Him through the waters into the way of faith and love. And all the while, on the way, beloved, know this: You are blameless before God in Him.
Remember how Joshua, when he led the sons of Israel into the promised land through the waters of the Jordan, established a memorial of twelve stones, not only on the shore, but also in the midst of the water: In the very place where the sons of Levi had remained with the Ark of the Covenant until all the people had passed from the wilderness into the paradise flowing with milk and honey.
So has this priestly son, St. John the Baptist, stood with the Christ in the midst of the Jordan, to whom you have come, as to a living Stone — rejected by men, but choice and precious before God. And you, also, are a living stone in Him, built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, in order to offer up sacrifices that are pleasing to God through Jesus Christ.
Such is the Word that is here preached to you:
From these stones, in the midst of these waters, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has raised you up as a beloved and well-pleasing child in Him. He has dressed you with His own tunic, so that you are now fully clothed and covered in His righteousness and holiness. And He who has the Food of everlasting life, now feeds you with the fruits of the Cross, the Body and Blood of the Lamb. Therefore, in His flesh, you taste and see the Salvation of God.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.