In the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I spoke to a man who began a career in a nursing home many years ago now. His training was more rigorous than one would expect. He shared with me his second day on the job. He said in order to more deeply identify with the residents of the home he got to spend three days as a resident. He did this willingly as all the other employees did. He said many people would quit on day one. I wondered why. It sounded simple until he explained more.
He spent all three days in a wheel chair. He was not allowed to use his arms to spin the wheels only his feet. Since he was still strong unlike the true residents he had to wear socks that would slip and slide on the tile making it more difficult to move. They put glasses on him covered with a thin layer of Vaseline to make it harder to see. The staff bathed him, assisted him in the bathroom, helped him dress, helped him in and out of bed, they even fed him. He told me by the end of the experience he felt a little violated, a little embarrassed, and extremely humbled. He also said he would do it all over again if he was asked to. He came to identify himself with people three times his age in a way he never expected. As he served them he knew and they knew he was just like them.
As we’ve celebrated the last couple of Sundays in Christmas we saw that Word made Flesh came among us in a hidden way; as a baby, as a boy in the temple, as a carpenter in Nazareth. He is God in the flesh, but he looked just like one of us. In fact he is one of us. We may at first want to chafe against the thought that he is like us because he is also God and Lord. For the moment though don’t steal from yourself the comfort that Jesus who serves us is just like us according to his human nature. His human nature is just like ours of course without the taint of sin. He understands the tension between our strength and frailty, our capabilities and neediness, our joy and our sorrow. He understands us from personal experience as God in the flesh. Think about it and be amazed. Almighty God came to identify himself with you just as you are.
That’s what confused John the Baptist in our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus was going to receive John’s baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though they were both men John knew the difference between himself and Jesus. Sinless Jesus did not need to repent, be baptized, and forgiven. John did. He needed Jesus to baptize him, so he thought.
Jesus insisted that he be baptized though. Why? He says it himself. So he could fulfill all righteousness. This is confusing. Jesus is the God-man, he doesn’t need righteousness, He is righteousness incarnate. But here’s the thing. He didn’t say he came to fulfill his righteousness, but all righteousness. He is the Lord, God in the flesh, and he comes to be baptized. The sinless one came to the waters of John’s baptism to begin the work for which the Father had sent him, to have the cross laid on him so that he could fulfill all righteousness. The Sinless One is baptized as a sinner. The one who needs no repentance receives the baptism of repentance.
How does that word “repentance” make you feel? How do you react when you’re told to repent? Do you immediately say, “Okay” and fall to your knees? Most of us, even Christians, first ask, “What do I need to repent for? What did I do?” We’re tempted to flash a Christian identification card and say “I get plenty of repentance at church.” Or deflect the attention to others and say “I may not be perfect, but I’m not as bad as those other people.”
Thank God that he soon stops our excuses and brings us to repentance. Luther wrote in his 95 Thesis, that when Christ says “Repent” he means for the whole life of the Christian to be one of repentance. This is what John was teaching at the Jordan too. He called all to repent and to be in constant repentance as they received the forgiveness of their sins. As the Christ came into the world so we needed to repent and recognize God’s righteousness and that we have no righteousness of our own.
Jesus had neither kind of sin— not the original sin of Adam nor any sin of his own. He had nothing to repent for and yet he willingly accepts a sinner’s baptism. I mentioned earlier the powerful example of a man who willingly suffered the humiliation of a nursing home so that he could identify himself with every patient he served. Jesus did something much more powerful. He willingly and intentionally received a sinner’s baptism so he could stand in solidarity with all sinners. This is Jesus identifying himself with you.
John is right that a sinner needs to be baptized by Jesus. The lesser ought to be baptized by the greater, but here we see again the upside down nature of God’s Kingdom. You might want to think of Jesus’ baptism as your baptism done backwards. In our baptism into Christ we receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation that he won for us on the cross. As we’re washed by the water and the Word we receive Christ’s righteousness and our sin is washed away. Jesus’ baptism is exactly the opposite of yours. He identifies himself with you as a sinner. He was inaugurating what he would do for you on the cross. On the cross he would be covered not with water, but with your sin and die the death you deserve. He becomes the sinner so that you might become the saint in His gift of baptism.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.