Sunday, January 8, 2017

Baptism of our Lord

Matthew 3:13-17 - Baptism of Jesus - January 8, 2017
God’s Love Revealed
Dearly beloved of God, grace, mercy, and peace be to you through God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen. 
One of the most dangerous false gospels of our day is the lie that we must love ourselves before we are able to love others.  Hardly can any claim be more contrary and diametrically opposed to the Christian religion than this.  And yet it is everywhere.  The world makes many assorted claims that are contrary to the truth of God’s word.  And we must resist them.  We must stand up against lie after lie because our faith and salvation depend on it and because it honors our God to do so.  They argue.  We must argue back.  They make their case.  And we take our stand on the word of God.  But the claim that we must love ourselves before we can love others isn’t even argued anymore.  It’s just asserted as though no one in his right mind could possibly take issue with this self-evident truth.  But we must take issue with it.  Because it isn’t true.  And it’s very harmful. 
Now obviously, if one is going to exert energy to live a productive or happy life, he or she must have some sense of his or her own value.  The question then becomes: where do we find our value?  Is the value of our life found in how generally good we are and how worthy of love we are?  Well then, if that’s the case, by all means learn to love what you are, embrace it, and make it your goal to get others to embrace it too.  Exude unearned confidence.  Show no shame.  Isn’t that how the celebrities gain the adoration of the world? 
But if you actually believe that you are a wayward creature of God whose deepest problem is your own sin and selfishness, then you recognize that your eternal value in the eyes of your Maker has nothing to do with what you have made of yourself or of your potential or of your hopes and dreams or of how you have learned to express yourself. 
No, your value must be found not where you exalt what is sinful and invite the world to bow before the altar you have built to your own ego – No! but rather where God redeems what is sinful on the altar he built for his own crucifixion.  Your value – and each one of us must confess this not just before God today, but even as we process the world around us in our daily life – your value and mine is found in the fact that God became true man in order to love what man in his stubbornness could not and would not love.  He placed himself under the law to love his neighbor where you did not, and to love God where all of Adam’s children defiantly refused with every breath.  Your value is in him who loved you despite your own love for self.  And indeed, for us Christians, he replaces in our hearts the love we have for the almighty Me with the love that the Almighty has for us poor miserable sinners. 
“Love yourself,” they say.  As though anyone has a problem with that!  Even the golden rule and the second great commandment take for granted that we already do.  “… as you would have them do unto you. … Love your neighbor as yourself.”  No, the problem people have is not a lack of love for self.  It is an overabundance of love for self.  At best, some people are discouraged by a lack of value they feel they have.  They feel guilty.  But they can’t define it.  They feel judged as their own consciences accuse them.  They want to feel less condemned and more worthy of approval.  And until they do they are despondent and sad.  And so they are encouraged by the religious elite of our apostate culture to look for value in their own corrupt flesh and soul.  How tragic!  The beginning of repentance is snatched by pride!  Where they should be looking for value is in the pure obedience and self-giving love of him who loved them unto death.  This is where your value is found no matter how worthless you sometimes feel.  This alone is where your righteousness is found no matter how good-enough you might foolishly seem to be. 
Our love for self only drives us deeper into our sin and resentment of others and of God.  It leads us to showcase our flaws under a thin veneer of holiness.  But God’s love for us leads us to where our shame is covered with the righteousness of Christ, where our eternal value is stamped with the very blood of God, and where through the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of salvation we are granted the eternal favor of him who made us.  He who provides as our Maker now patiently bears with us as our Savior and Mediator.  God’s love leads us to where we are truly loved and cherished.  Only with this are we able to turn out of ourselves and learn to love others.  Only with this love, and with such knowledge of how precious we are to God, are we able to bare our hearts to him in humble repentance and acknowledge that we have nowhere else to turn for mercy.  We do.  And he does.  By his power, in the midst of our weakness, we repent of our sins.  By his power perfected in weakness he forgives us our sins. 
Love does not serve the self.  Love serves the other.  The familiar Greek word for this love is agape.  It is self-giving.  It looks for the benefit of the other.  This is the love of the Father toward the Son and the love of God toward us.  Love does not measure itself against others.  Love places itself beneath others.  It was this love for the world that God revealed when he sent his only begotten Son into our flesh.  It was this love that compelled him to demand obedience of his Son even unto death as the Substitute of all humanity.  It was this love that prompted the Son’s unflinching compliance and willing submission to his Father’s plan to save us.  He gave his own life for us.  This is love.  He did not think of his own needs, his own rights, his own comfort or honor, but laid it all aside in order to rescue us from the devastation that our self-centered love for ourselves had wrought.  This is God’s beloved Son in whom the Father is well-pleased. 
John came baptizing and preaching.  It was a baptism of repentance into the forgiveness of sins.  All men needed it.  All people still do.  Jesus had no sin.  He is the only man who has ever lived who did not need to be baptized because he is the only man who has ever lived who had no sin.  He knew his Father’s love.  He shared it.  He knew he had his Father’s good pleasure.  He had always done it.  Even as an infant, his first breath was breathed in pure and holy concern for those who cared for him and for those he came to save.  His lowly life, largely unrecorded on account of how ordinary it was – like yours or mine, was lived turned outward.  He did not seek his own.  He entrusted his own needs to Mary and Joseph.  He did not demand his eternal glory.  He entrusted his inheritance to his Father in heaven who sent him to live as a man in order that he might share this inheritance with us.  And so toward us his heart was turned – the heart of God in the flesh.  And yet this Man – this holy One who had no need for the forgiveness that Baptism promised – he insisted to St. John the Baptizer that they fulfill all righteousness together. 
It was not required of him.  He didn’t need it for himself.  He didn’t say that it was necessary that they fulfill all righteousness.  He said it was fitting.  It was meet, right, and salutary.   It was fitting, or meet, because it was for this purpose that he became a Man.  He became the true measure of a Man in order to take the sins of all men whose own love fell short.  He became the perfect Man in order to clothe all men with his own obedience.  And this was why it was so fitting that he be baptized in the Jordan.  It was so that he might reveal the love of God toward all who are likewise commanded and invited to be joined to him through water and the word. 
And this is the love of God revealed: that from the water Jesus took into himself all the sins of all people ever, and that into the water Jesus put all his righteousness and holiness.  Jesus got up from the water.  This doesn’t mean he was under the water.  He likely wasn’t since the Jordan was and remains a shallow river better suited for wading than swimming.  He at least knelt down to receive his Baptism by pouring or sprinkling.  What matters is not the application of the water, though.  What matters is the word and promise of God attached to it in Baptism.  Our text makes this clear.  Our text also contains the clearest reference to the Holy Trinity in all of Scripture.  When Jesus got up from the water the voice of his Father spoke and identified him as his beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. 
The dove symbolizes peace.  Just as the dove returned to Noah with an olive branch in its beak, indicating that the waters were subsiding and a fresh home was now prepared where they might live, so also the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus indicating that in him alone we find refuge from the curse of earth.  In him is life and forgiveness and peace with God.  And why?  Or better yet, where?  It is found where God names us as his beloved children by joining us to his Son in Baptism.  As the Apostle writes, “As many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death … if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:3, 5). 
He names us as his beloved children.  He promises that we have died to sin – that is, that our sin no longer defines us or controls us and that it is entirely forgiven.  He promises us that death cannot hurt us since we have already died.  Instead death will only bring us to heaven to be with Christ.  He promises that we will rise again with pure and perfect bodies, never to sin or die again.  He says so.  Baptism need not be turned into a mark of our commitment in order to give it power or significance in our daily lives.  No way!  What more significance do our daily lives need than for us to know that in our Baptism God sealed us as his own forever. 
But we do not perfectly live as obedient children who know God’s love.  We live disobediently even while imperfectly struggling to obey.  Instead of drowning our Old Adam, we feed him and flatter him and present him to the world and protect him when yielding to others would wound his pride.  We remain sinners in our flesh.  But dear Christians, as surely as the Spirit descended on the flesh of the perfect Man in the Jordan, so the Spirit is yours who return to the promise he made to you in your Baptism.  With you God is well-pleased, because in you, through faith, he finds not sin, but the righteous obedience of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  In you God finds value.  You he loves.  Your sins have been borne by God’s Lamb who takes them away.  And in his blood you have been washed clean.  You are holy to God. 
And that is why he is so jealous of you.  That is why he wants to see you remain in repentance and faith.  As surely as he was compelled to let the world know who this Man was who stood in the Jordan fulfilling all righteousness, so he wants all of heaven to know who you are.  You are his.  You must know it too.  The same voice that broke the heavens to confirm the identity of our Savior is the voice of his Father and ours who teaches us through the preaching of his word today.  Being taught by God, we find our identity. 
In closing, I’d like to speak of another biblical word for love.  It’s where we get the word philosopher (love of wisdom) or Francophile (love for everything French): philos.   Like agape, philos is the self-giving love of God.  But it is not entirely selfless.  With this love God does in fact seek his own interest.  It is the love wherewith Jesus sought what he himself desired for himself.  He desired you.  Agape lays itself down.  Philos desires to be with you, to have you, and be joined with you as brothers who desire each other’s companionship.  And here in the love of God we find our value, we find our power to love others – especially those who like us are joined together in the Body of Christ.  We find our peace because we find the good-pleasure of his Father in the forgiveness of our sins and in the righteousness that clothes us by faith. 
Our fellowship with God is found in the love he has had toward us.  His love is eternal.  We find access to it where the eternally beloved Son of God reveals himself as our Brother.  We love him because he first loved us.  What great joy to see in Baptism – in Christ’s and in ours – the love of God pronounced so surely.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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