Like Us in Every Respect

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Baptism of the Lord
January 9, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: It seems at first that Luke downplays the fact that Jesus received a baptism of repentance for sins. Christians zealous to defend Christ's divinity haven't always stressed his genuine humanity strongly enough. But the Bible is clear about him sharing our vulnerability and suffering, and his fellowship with sinners. In reality, Luke doesn't downplay Jesus' baptism but emphasizes that the sinless Jesus was baptized with sinners as part of his saving work. We're invited now to reflect on who Jesus is for us today.

Jesus' public ministry began with his baptism by John, and if you think about that a little, you may wonder why Jesus was baptized at all. In fact, it may have seemed odd to some of the gospel writers. Shortly before today's text from the Gospel of Luke, we're told that John was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."1 If Jesus was, as Christians soon came to believe, the sinless Son of God, what did he have to repent for?

Every year on this first Sunday after the Christmas season we remember the Baptism of our Lord, and the gospel is taken in turn from Matthew, Mark or Luke, in a three-year cycle. This year, it's Luke's account of Jesus' baptism. To be more exact, Luke seems to speak around Jesus' baptism. "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized ...." Jesus' baptism is referred to only as something that has already taken place along with baptisms of other people. Then we move to what followed - Jesus praying, the descent of the Holy Spirit on him and the heavenly voice declaring him the Father's beloved Son. We might think that Luke wants to downplay the fact that Jesus received this "baptism of repentance."

Matthew's gospel deals with this differently. There the Baptist objects when Jesus comes to be baptized, saying Jesus ought to be baptizing him. But Jesus tells John that it's "proper" for him to be baptized, and John does so.2 In John's gospel, on the other hand, the Baptist points to Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" and sees the Spirit descend on him, but in that account, Jesus is never actually said to have been baptized!3

Those accounts contrast with the one in Mark's gospel. Most biblical scholars believe Mark to have been the earliest one written, and that Matthew and Luke made use of it. In that earliest gospel, the description of Jesus' baptism is straightforward. "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." The heavens are "torn apart," the Spirit descends, and the heavenly voice speaks.4

These different ways the story is told don't mean that there's serious doubt that Jesus' ministry began with his baptism by John. But Christian thought about who Jesus was and what he meant for believers took time to develop, and that development was somewhat uneven. We're invited now to reflect on who Jesus is for us today.

God has come to us

During Jesus' life and ministry on earth, those who followed him came to believe great things about him. His insights into both human nature and the scriptures amazed them. He performed "mighty acts" of healing and feeding, and he preached a message of love for others that appealed especially to those for whom life was hard. Disciples came to think of him as a prophet like those of old, and some believed him to be God's Messiah, the anointed one who would restore the kingdom to Israel and reign as God's adopted Son like Jesus' ancestor David.

After Jesus died on a Roman cross, and then rose from the dead on the third day and appeared to his disciples, his followers began to believe that he was more than just a prophet or a great king. Jesus' resurrection gave new understanding of who he was and how God was working through him, and they started to proclaim that the God of Israel had acted decisively in Jesus to reconcile and save all people. As soon as the persecutor Saul was converted by a vision of the risen Christ, he began to proclaim in synagogues that Jesus was "the Son of God."5

In several places in the New Testament Jesus is placed alongside God as the object of faith, just as Christians believed that the risen and ascended Christ was now seated at the right hand of God. "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,"6 the apostles Paul and Silas tell a frightened man in one story. By the end of the first century, Christians believed that God had come to be present with us in Jesus. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us,"7 John's gospel says. It is really God who has come to save us.

At the same time Christians knew that Jesus had walked the earth as a human being. The fact that he was "born of the Virgin Mary" is why we've just celebrated Christmas! So when Christian doctrine came to be formalized, it was stated that Christ is both fully divine, the eternal Son of God, and fully human, with a human mind and body.

The Word in our flesh

Christians who are concerned about correct doctrine are likely to become wary if someone suggests that Jesus was a great teacher or prophet but not actually divine. Such concern is appropriate, because the belief that it is God who has acted to save us in Jesus Christ is crucial. But similar alertness to error may not be shown about language that downplays the extent to which Jesus was genuinely human.

In a popular Christmas carol we sing of Mary's child, "veiled in flesh the Godhead see!"8 That suggests that Jesus' humanity is a superficial disguise, an idea also conveyed by Christmas cards showing the Bethlehem stable surrounded by light. Symbolism is one thing, but the baby Jesus did not glow in the dark. Another line from that same carol is better - "Mild he lays his glory by." Paul wrote of Christ that "though he was in the form of God" he "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."9 One prophet wrote of the suffering servant of the Lord that "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him."10

The solidarity of the Son of God with us goes deeper than appearance. "The Word became flesh," our flesh, and in scripture the word "flesh" often suggests vulnerability and weakness. Jesus hungered and thirsted, and the Roman scourges and nails of the crucifixion were painful for him. He understands our suffering from the inside because he has suffered with us.

And his solidarity with us goes still deeper in a way that brings us back to questions about him being baptized with sinners. Without ceasing to be the divine Word of God he was sent, Paul wrote, "in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with our sin,"11 and died on a cross with two criminals.

Does that mean that Christ really could have sinned? God cannot sin, but did he take on a human nature immune to sin, some pre-fall humanity from the Garden of Eden? In the stories of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness, he didn't respond to Satan's lures by saying, "You can't fool me. I'm God!" Instead, he replies as a faithful human being. The Word became our flesh. And though we can't explain the "how" of it, we can affirm with Karl Barth, a prominent theologian of the last century, that for Christ, "'Without sin' means that in our human and sinful existence as a man he did not sin."12

Realizing the importance of Christ's solidarity with us, let's go back to our text about Jesus' baptism. We can see now that Luke isn't trying to hide the fact that Jesus was baptized. Instead, he speaks of Jesus' baptism in the past tense in order to put him together with sinners who are baptized at the same time. The sinless Son of God is given his baptismal bath in our dirty bathwater. "He had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people."13

Let us thank God for who Jesus is for us today.