As our dear Lord Jesus Christ continues on His Way to Jerusalem — on His Way to the Cross — He reveals the significance of His Holy Baptism — for Himself, first of all, and so also for you.
It’s not what you might think or expect from your compassionate and loving Savior. Popular images of Jesus envision Him as tender to the point of being soft and weak; easy-going and good-natured enough to wink and nod at sin; by all means friendly, tolerant, and above all, nice. But those who insist on “peace and unity” at all costs are missing the mark where Jesus is concerned.
The Baptism of our Lord is a matter of deadly seriousness. It does not deal gently with sin. It does not look the other way or tolerate the contradiction of God’s will or disobedience to His Word. It is clearly black and white and leaves no room for shades of grey. Thus, Baptism means death and destruction for the sinner. It is both fire and flood. It is crucifixion and burial. And it requires the division of all people, no matter how closely related, on the sole criterion of the Holy Cross.
From the moment our Lord first entered the Jordan River to be baptized by St. John, His Life and His Ministry were one, long, continuous Baptism into His death, even His death on the Cross.
And so it is that your entire life, as well, as a Christian disciple of Jesus — from the font to your grave — is one, long, continuous Baptism into His death. As you have been taught to confess, it signifies that your old Adam should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all your sins and evil lusts; and again, that a New Man should daily emerge and arise in you, in and with Christ Jesus, to live before His God and Father in righteousness and purity forever.
Thus, in either case, for you as for Christ Jesus, it is a Baptism into His Cross. Only what is Law and sin and death and judgment for Him is for you the Gospel of forgiveness and life and salvation.
In the first place, you know that Baptism gives or profits the forgiveness of your sins. But you receive that forgiveness in your Baptism because Christ has received your sins in His Baptism. It is the place of that great exchange, whereby Christ Jesus goes into the water holy and sinless and perfect, but He comes out drenched in your sins, burdened by your death and damnation; whereas you go into the water saturated with your sins and dressed in filthy rags, but you come out dressed in the beautiful white robes of Christ and His perfect righteousness. Your sin, death, and hell in exchange for His heaven, His life, and His great salvation.
Remember, when Jesus came to St. John the Baptist in the Jordan River, how St. John confessed that he was not worthy of the Lord; yet, Jesus humbled Himself before John and submitted to his Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But how could that be? And what could it possibly mean? Does the Lord Jesus have sins to be forgiven, for which He must repent?
Yes! That is the very point. He has no sins of His own, to be sure; for He is holy and righteous, the perfect Son of God. But as the Lamb of God, He takes upon Himself the sins of all the world, including yours. So it is for those sins that He repents, for those sins that He suffers and dies, for those sins that He receives forgiveness — not for His own sake, but for you and your salvation.
You see, therefore, that everything Christ Jesus does and suffers from the waters of His Baptism to His death upon the Cross is all for your sake; and He receives all things in heaven and on earth on your behalf. The Word of Blessing from the Father, “You are My beloved Child, with whom I am well pleased,” and the anointing of His Holy Spirit, are both given to you in Holy Baptism.
It is in His Baptism that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was anointed by the Word and Spirit of the Father to be the Christ, your Savior. And it is by and from His bloody Cross and Passion that He bestows the same Word and Spirit of God upon you by the way and means of your Baptism.
This Word and Spirit of God are the “fire” that Christ casts upon the earth, which He first of all calls down upon Himself — from His Baptism to His Cross — and which He now pours out, for you and for all — from His crucified and risen Body, in and with His holy and precious Blood.
He baptizes you with the Spirit and with fire, having been baptized with the Spirit and with fire, Himself, in His own Body of flesh and blood. He bears and suffers the Cross for the sins of the world, but so is He risen from the dead for your justification, for the sanctification of your body and soul unto life with God forever. So you are put to death through contrition and repentance, but you are raised up to newness of life through faith in the forgiveness of all your sins.
As the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, has given Himself for you and for all upon the Cross, so do you follow after Him as a disciple in the Way of His Cross, unto the Resurrection and the Life everlasting. That is the life which He now gives to you in the Holy Sacraments, as you are baptized in His Name and continue to live the daily and lifelong significance of that Baptism, and as you receive the very Body and Blood that He sacrificed for you upon the Altar of His Cross.
It is by these Means of Grace, by the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism, and by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion, that you are purified by the “fire” of God’s Word and Holy Spirit. That “fire” has a two-fold purpose and effect, corresponding to the work of the Law and the Gospel. It is the wrath and judgment of God against sin, on the one hand, convicting hearts, crushing the old Adam, and calling to repentance; and on the other hand, the merciful cleansing of forgiveness, which gives rise to Life and Salvation with God in Christ.
Such is the decisive work of that sharp, two-edged Sword, the Word of God. It divides between even the soul and the spirit, between your joints and marrow. It cuts you to the quick and exposes your sins to the righteous judgment of the Lord. But so does it also call you to repentance, which is to say, not only away from your sins in contrition, but to the Lord in faith, to the new life that is yours in the mercy and forgiveness of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. It is Cross and Resurrection.
That you should be well-prepared for this confrontation with His Word, God makes it clear that He will not tolerate false prophets, nor any false teaching or preaching in His Name. That is most reprehensible to Him. But the true Prophets of God (like Jeremiah) preach His Word faithfully, even though it brings them grief and pain, suffering and persecution (as it did for Jeremiah). It brings the Cross, because the Word of God — specifically the hard Word of His Law — is not a coddling, permissive, and gentle word, but a consuming fire and a fierce hammer that smashes rocky hearts into pieces, in order that the Gospel might recreate those hearts in the Image of Christ.
Like any loving father — only perfectly, without any sinful anger or impatience, always fair and always consistent, always striving for your good — the Lord chastises you and disciplines you through His Word of the Law and through the temporal consequences of your sin. He does so that you should be healed and strengthened in body and soul, and trained to find your life in the Cross of Christ instead of in the pleasant enticements of sin, death, the devil, and your flesh. Thus are you returned to the death-dealing, life-giving waters of your Baptism and its daily significance.
Of course, this ongoing and continuous work of the Law and the Gospel, day-by-day throughout your Christian life, brings about a constant division within you — within your heart, mind, body, and soul. It is a struggle and a battle which those outside of Christ do not undergo, because they remain naive and content (for now) in their sinfulness and spiritual death. But St. Paul describes that war which rages like a fire in the flesh of those who live by faith in the Body of Christ Jesus:
You know by the Word and Spirit of God what is good and right and true and best, and by the grace of God you sincerely desire to live accordingly. But time and again you fail and fall short! By the Spirit of God you know and despise your sins, and you struggle against them. And yet, they so often gain the upper hand in your words and actions. So are you divided throughout this life.
And as there is such division within yourself, so is there a similar division between you and the sinful world — sometimes even within your own family and among your friends and coworkers.
I am well aware how greatly some of you struggle with those divisions of family over matters of religious faith and commitment, for all sorts of different reasons, in all sorts of different ways. And I sympathize, as well, because of similar situations within my own extended family. But I’m sorry to say, there is no easy solution for any of us. We rather teach and confess by the example of our Christian lives, and by speaking the Word of God as we are given the opportunity. And we pray for reconciliation and unity in Christ — but only in Christ, and not by way of compromise.
Over against the increasing wickedness and falsehood of this fallen world, Christians rightly insist that the God-given bonds of marriage and family are sacred and significant. How doubly-blessed are those families who are united in their Christian faith and life. Even so, the household and family of God, the marriage of Christ and His Bride, the Church, far and away surpass and must take precedence over any and all ties of merely human flesh and blood. Not that you disdain or despise your family, but that you always defer to Christ and His Word and live by faith in Him.
From the standpoint of eternity, the waters of Baptism are “thicker” than the blood of family ties. Whereas the Blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, which cleanses you from sin, is likewise thicker and more permanent than all other bonds. So, then, where a family is divided by religious faith, confession, and practice, as a Christian you are bound to give precedence, priority, and preference to Christ and His Church — over and above, and even in opposition to, your parents and children.
Even so, in spite of such painful divisions (inevitably brought about by the entrance of Christ Jesus into this sinful world and into your sinful heart), there is nevertheless a true and lasting Peace for you in Christ Jesus, and a new and more permanent family — created in Holy Baptism, where you were born again as a child of God — and strengthened and sustained, now and forever, in the Holy Communion. This is where the division of your soul and spirit, the destruction of your old Adam, and the enmity of the world against you, are replaced with the Love and Unity of Christ in His Spirit, the steadfast confession of His Word and faith in the face of all opposition, and the joyful confidence that He is not ashamed to call you His brother or sister, a child of His own Father.
Because you are a member of this household and family of God — the Lord’s own son or daughter — united with Christ Jesus in the unity of His Holy Spirit as a beloved and well-pleasing child and heir of the Father in heaven, you do find peace and strength in Him, even here and now on earth.
For the joy that was set before Him, for the sake of your salvation, He endured the Cross, despising its shame; wherefore He has been exalted in His Resurrection and Ascension to the Right Hand of His God and Father. In considering Him and all that He has suffered on your behalf, you are able to endure by His grace and bear His Cross without becoming weary or discouraged. Not only by way of His good example, but especially because the Baptism of His bloody Cross and Passion has been poured out upon you — by and with His Word and Spirit — as a Baptism of forgiveness, a rich and full washing away of sins, and a gracious water of life and salvation; and because the Cup of God’s wrath against your sins, which Christ Jesus drained to the dregs for you, is now given to you as the Cup of Blessing and Salvation, the New Testament in His Blood, poured out for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for life and salvation in Him.
Come, therefore, and be kindled by the fire of His love for you. Cling to Him by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit, even (and especially) when all hell breaks loose around you and you are cut to the quick within. Hear again His gracious Word, as you are called to feast on Him in the righteousness and holiness of your Holy Baptism: “Take, eat, this is My Body, given for you. Take, drink, this is My Blood, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” So shall you abide in Him, and He in you; and nothing shall ever divide you from His one Body forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.