As Advent has given way to Christmas and Epiphany, as the divine Word has become Flesh and dwells among us, and as the preaching of the Holy Gospel leads you to the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus at His Altar, so does St. John the Baptist decrease as the Lord Jesus increases, as He manifests the divine Glory of the Holy Triune God by the Epiphany of His own flesh and blood.
As a case in point, although it is St. John who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, St. Luke makes a point of locating St. John the Baptist in prison before he mentions the Baptism of Christ Jesus. Why? Because the Baptism of our Lord is a decisive turning point, a startling transition, and the beginning of all that will be accomplished and perfected by His Cross and in His Resurrection.
The liturgical year, like the Holy Gospels, moves very quickly from the Nativity of our Lord to His Baptism. Of the four Evangelists, only St. Luke writes anything at all about the time in between — the story of the Boy Jesus in the Temple (as we heard on the Ninth Day of the ChristMass). For St. Mark and St. John, the Gospel basically begins with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
His Baptism marks the beginning of His public ministry. But it is more than just that. In some respects, today is not only the Octave of the Epiphany but the onset of Lent and Holy Week, as well. As Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan He passes the point of no return on His journey to the Cross and Tomb. As He submits Himself to those waters, He commits Himself to be crucified, put to death, and buried. Everything that happens to our Lord from this occasion onward — up to and including His Cross and Passion — is one, long, continuous Baptism into His own death.
As Jesus puts it to His disciples at one point: “I have a Baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” So does He describe His sacrificial death for your sins.
And so does His Crucifixion begin in the Jordan River with a Baptism that continues until death.
Likewise, your life as a Christian from the Font until the grave is one continuous Baptism, which signifies that your old Adam should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all your sins and evil lusts, and that you should daily emerge and arise from death and the grave, in and with the New Man, Christ Jesus, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
In either case — for Jesus and for you — it is a lifelong Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection.
Now, the practice of a “baptism” per se was not entirely new with St. John. The Jews were already accustomed to many ceremonial washings, or “baptisms” (from the Greek). Especially significant is the fact that Gentiles were sometimes “baptized,” as it were, when submitting themselves to the life and laws of Judaism, as God-fearers who recognized the authority of the Lord God of Israel.
But in the case at hand, St. John the Baptist was calling the Jews themselves to undergo a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Although they were the biological descendants of Father Abraham, their sins cut them off and kept them far away from the Lord their God, as much or more than any Gentile. To be and to live as His children, they also needed to be cleansed and forgiven.
There has actually been rather a lot of debate and differences of opinion among theologians and Biblical scholars as to the precise nature and purpose of St. John’s Baptism. But whatever it may have been beforehand, when the Lord Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan and submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance, it was changed forever after. His Baptism “consecrated and set apart the Jordan and all water as a salutary flood and a rich and full washing away of sins.”
This is no abstract theology or merely poetic piety. It is of the greatest significance to your life. For the Baptism of our Lord has become your Holy Baptism. Only, what is Law and sin and death and judgment for Christ Jesus, is for you the sweetest Gospel of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
To begin with, you know from the preaching of St. John, as we have heard during Advent, that Baptism calls you to repentance and bestows the forgiveness of sins. But you receive forgiveness in your Baptism because Christ has received your sins in His Baptism. It is the place of a great exchange, in which Christ Jesus goes into the water holy and sinless and perfect, but He comes out drenched in your sins, in your death and damnation; whereas you go into the water saturated with your sins and covered in filth, but you come out clothed in the beautiful white robes of Christ and His perfect righteousness. Your sin and death in exchange for His divine life and eternal salvation.
All of this, as St. Paul writes, because you have been united with Christ in His death by your Baptism into His Cross, that you might also rise with Him in His Resurrection and so live with Him forever. So it is that your Holy Baptism is your personal Good Friday and Easter.
That is the significance of the Crucifix and Paschal Candle which stand alongside our Baptismal Font as visual confessions of the Gospel. They declare that you have been crucified with Christ and buried with Him by your Baptism into His death; and just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, so does He arise and emerge in you, and you arise in and with Him, in the Spirit of His Resurrection from the dead, to live as a beloved child of His God and Father.
Everything that happens to Christ Jesus is for your sake, and He receives all things in heaven and on earth on your behalf. Thus, you have a new identity, a new reality, and a new life in Him. And when the Father looks at you, He does not behold the sinner that you are, He does not look upon your sins; He sees instead His own dear Son, and He speaks His divine blessing from an open heaven, now also to you in Christ Jesus: “You are My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
So have you also been given the Holy Spirit in your Baptism, the same Spirit who descended on Christ in the form of a dove at His Baptism. For all that He has received is given to you, as well.
Thus do you now bear in your body and soul the Spirit of God, who unites you with Christ Jesus as a member of His Body and Bride, the Church. And in this Christian Church, by and with the Word of the Gospel, He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the one true faith; He helps you in your weakness; and He teaches you to pray to the Lord God Almighty as your own dear Father.
Accordingly, your Holy Baptism is far more than a single red-letter day on the calendar of your life or a page in your scrapbook. Indeed, your Baptism into Christ Jesus has an ongoing, daily, and lifelong significance, which defines who you are and gives meaning to all that you say and do.
The drowning and dying of your old Adam and his evil cohorts, which began with your personal flood in the Baptismal Font, is a drowning and dying that must continue throughout your life on earth. In this body and life, there is never a point when you could say that sin is once and for all behind you. It is a battle that rages until you depart from this vale of tears and enter into heaven.
That battle, however, which you are called to engage against your fallen flesh and sinful heart, is not won by any good intentions or firm resolve on your part. Discipline your body and life by the Word and Spirit of God. And just as Christ the Lord defeated Satan by clinging to the promises of His Father, unto His death upon the Cross, so do you triumph by clinging to the Word of the Lord which puts you to death and raises you to newness of life in Christ by repentance and faith.
It is for this reason that Dr. Luther describes Confession and Absolution as the continuation of Holy Baptism and a regular return to the significance of your Baptism. That is to say, confessing your sins and receiving the forgiveness of your sins in the Name and stead of Christ is an exercise of the ongoing reality of Baptism in your body and life. Which means that it is not only for those who find themselves in a crisis over some great unusual sin. It is rather the most natural thing in the world for you as a Christian. It is a confession, not only of you sins, but of your faith in Christ.
By this ongoing exercise of repentance and faith, Confession and Absolution, your Baptism into Christ is your crossing of the Red Sea out of Egypt and your crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It is no coincidence that Christ our Lord was baptized in the Jordan River, that He might bring you into the Good Land of God, into His Kingdom, His Church, on earth as it is in heaven. By His Baptism there and then, He brings you through the waters of your Baptism into the freedom of life and salvation with Him. Because the Font is the Jordan River here and now for you, and by its waters you share in the Baptism of our Lord, in His Cross and Resurrection.
Thus may you also follow Dr. Luther’s good example in greeting each new day with the confident confession and assertion: “I Am Baptized!” That was the sure and certain hope that sustained him in the face of all sorts of threats and challenges, doubts and fears. And it is your hope, no less.
Whenever he was tempted or afraid, he recalled his Baptism with the sign of the Cross — as also in the morning, at every meal, and at night — marking himself as God’s own child. He laid hold of the fact that he was baptized into the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, whereby he received the forgiveness of sins, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and the gracious adoption of God the Father.
You have that very same comfort in the waters of your Holy Baptism, waters encompassed by the Lord’s command and promise and administered in His Name; waters sanctified by His Baptism for you and all the people in the Jordan River. To the human eye and your fleshly senses, according to the wisdom of this world, it is nothing but a splash of ordinary water, an empty symbol, and a worthless ceremony. But to the eyes of faith, according to the gracious Will and Wisdom of God, it is a gracious water of life, a rich and full washing of regeneration. It works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the Words and promises of God declare: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.”
For Christ also was baptized, once for all, the Just for the unjust, the Righteous One for all of us poor sinners, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in our flesh, but made alive in the Spirit of His God and Father. Participating in that good work of His, your Holy Baptism in His Name now saves you. Not as a removal of dirt from your face and hands, but as the testimony of a good conscience in the presence of God through the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead — in whose crucified and risen Body you are now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. By your Baptism you have died; and by your Baptism your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.