But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
“What’s he doing here?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? Usually it’s a statement of disbelief when you see a person out of the context you’d expect. The other day, I saw a list entitled, “31 of the most random places people have met celebrities,” many of the entries included pictures of everyday, normal people in everyday, normal places posing with some of the most famous people in the world. “What’s he doing here?” must’ve been the first thing that came to mind when a young lady ran into 8-time Grammy winner John Mayer at Costco. Apparently, musical talent comes along with frugality that makes you want to buy in bulk. “What’s he doing here?” was probably the first thing out of his mouth when someone bumped into John Bon Jovi at Home Depot or Brad Pitt at a middle school basketball game. “What’s he doing here?” you’d have to ask as you see Fabio at a grocery store or Bill Murray bartending your cousin’s wedding. When we see people out of the context we’d expect, the reaction is predictable. “What’s he doing here?”
That’s the same question that John the Baptizer was asking himself as he saw Jesus of Nazareth coming toward the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized. “What’s he doing here?” John knew what he was supposed to do. His work was to prepare the way for the Lord, to make straight paths for him, to get the world ready and let the people know that the Messiah was coming. So, John’s preaching was pretty pointed. He said things like, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John called people away from sin and pointed them to the coming Savior. He directed sinners to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that he was offering. So the people came in droves – confessing their sins, they were baptized by John in the Jordan River. But now, here comes cousin Jesus. “What’s he doing here?” This is Jesus – the carpenter’s son who’s been living in obscurity for three decades. John probably didn’t have much connection with Jesus in their youth, because John lived out in the wilderness, but John likely knew enough about Jesus to say that he was a righteous man who didn’t seem to need the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that John was offering.
What’s he doing here? He doesn’t belong here! But then again, by that logic, Jesus didn’t belong in many of the places we find him in the gospels. The eternal Son of God, the one who holds the universe in his hand, didn’t belong in a manger as a newborn, but there he was. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, didn’t seem to belong at a dinner table with tax collectors and the low-lifes of society, but there he was. Jesus the pure Son of God, didn’t seem to belong when he reached out and touched the sick, the unclean, and the dead, but there he was. Jesus, the one who is Life itself, doesn’t seem to belong hanging on a cross, dying like the worst of criminals, but there he is. Why? What’s he doing here? The answer to that question and to all of the paradoxes we see in the gospel is the same. What’s Jesus doing here? Saving you!
So, the sinless Son of God hops in line to be baptized in the Jordan River. Remember, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus didn’t have any sin…or did he? Jesus was baptized as our substitute. He took all the sins of the world upon himself. He made our burden his burden. Jesus’ baptism was a baptism of repentance, just as John preached – not repentance for his own sins, but for ours. Jesus’ baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins – not forgiveness for his own sins, but for ours. Jesus came to identify with sinners. He came to take the place of sinners. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. With his baptism, Jesus continued on his path to the cross of Calvary, where he would sacrifice his perfect life to pay for our sinful lives. So, there he was, standing on the banks of the Jordan River, fulfilling all righteousness for you and for me. What’s he doing here? In his baptism, Jesus, the holy and righteous Son of God, was united with sinners so that we, sinners, are united with the holy and righteous Son of God in our baptism. What’s Jesus doing here? Saving you!
Still, this was unsettling in John’s mind. In another account of Jesus’ baptism, John puzzles, “What’s he doing here?” “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” The solution for your sin is not that you become more like God. The solution for sin was for God to become like you, taking your place, fulfilling all righteousness for you. At his baptism, Jesus graciously hurls himself into our battle against sin and shows us the road of redemption he would walk for you, for me, for every sinner. From his baptism, every day, Jesus would gain renewed strength from the Spirit’s descending and the Father’s declaring that he is, indeed the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. From his baptism, every day, Jesus would gain strength to walk the road of redemption – for you. Jesus had been walking that road for thirty years of perfect living, and it led him to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, anointed with the Holy Spirit and approved by the Father. That road of redemption would take Jesus out of the Jordan’s waters and into a 40 day stay in the wilderness where he’d be tempted by the devil and resist him perfectly, for you. Jesus’ road of redemption would lead him from the desert of temptation and into a ministry filled with sinners needing forgiveness and the diseased needing healing and the dead needing raising – so he met every need of every neighbor, for you. Jesus’ road of redemption would put him right in the crosshairs of the peoples’ hatred and, ultimately, as the only target for God’s perfect wrath against sin – yours and mine – as he hung on a cross, for you. Jesus’ road of redemption would lead him through death itself and into the perfect day of his resurrection. Heaven would once again send a message of good news – he’s not here, he has risen!
What’s Jesus doing here, being baptized on the banks of the Jordan? He’s identifying himself with those he came to save. He’s being anointed with the Holy Spirit and declared by God to be the Savior of the world. When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At Jesus’ baptism, heaven is torn open. Father and Holy Spirit can hardly contain themselves. This is my Son! The Spirit descends to mark Jesus as the chosen one, so all the world may know that this Jesus of Nazareth is and always has been the eternal Son of God, who has now come in the fullness of time to save you from your sins. It’s not every day that heaven is ripped open and the Father’s voice booms down with paternal pride, so stand up and take notice, because something big is happening here. This Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation – yours and mine. The Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, take action to save you.
If only that would happen today, right?! If only God would make a bigger splash (pardon the pun) in baptism today! But realize what happened at your baptism. Stand up and see what’s really happening at this font. In his Small Catechism, Luther asked the question, What does baptizing with water mean? Answer? Baptism means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. What’s happening in baptism? Death and resurrection. Everything that we were, everything my sinful nature stands for, is held under the waters of baptism and drowned – put to death. But from those same waters, the Son of God pulls me out and raises me to new life with Christ. See what’s happening in baptism? It doesn’t look like much, but in those three splashes of water and eighteen words, we see the powerful promise of God at work. With every baptism, you can picture heaven being torn open, the Spirit descending on this new-made child of God, and the Father’s voice bursting with love about you – You are my son/daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
But what happens when you don’t particularly feel like a beloved child of God? When you drown your sinful nature in the waters of your baptism, but you realize that he’s an excellent swimmer? What happens when you fall into sin, when you can’t kick the habit, when you fight tooth and nail to keep those vile thoughts out of your head, but you fail? What happens when the devil whispers that question to you – What are you doing here? Do you really think you’ve got it together? Are you sure a person like you belongs in a place like this? Go back to your baptism, every day. Remember who you are because of baptism. Remember whose you are because of your baptism. You are God’s own dearly loved child. You are clothed with Christ. You are covered in his holiness, so that when God looks at you he doesn’t see your sin – he sees Christ. So, what are you doing here? You’re standing in the presence of a holy God, washed from every sin in the blood of Jesus.
Paul said it this way in our second lesson, [God our Savior] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The Son of God sinks himself into the waters of the Jordan at his baptism so that when we come through the waters of baptism, we put on Christ – his righteousness, his holiness, his very self. Or to put it more simply, we go in full of sin, we come out filled with Jesus – a new person, a child of God. To the water, Jesus contributes his perfect human trust in his Father, and I bring my idolatrous trust in myself. From the water he takes my self-reliant idolatry, and I step away with his trusting obedience. As my baptism connects me to Jesus, there I find a gift Jesus didn’t need – forgiveness – and there he accepts a burden I cannot bear – all my sin. In the waters of your baptism, you have been crucified with Christ; connected to the Son of God with liquid nails, never to be separated from him. Every single day, you and I get to live and move and have our entire being in Christ – the one came to identify with us sinners, so that we sinners could become the very righteousness of God. Every single day, we get to live with a life that’s not our own and won’t ever be taken away from us! Remember your baptism, when God’s name was spoken over you, connecting you to Christ, making you a child of heaven In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.