1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. 5 Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. 6 I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (ESV)
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (ESV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV)
The Babylonians were once a great and powerful people, and they conquered nation after nation. One of those conquered nations was Israel, the apple of God’s eye. Now, because of Israel’s idolatry, God allowed Babylon to conquer Israel, destroy Jerusalem, and to drag the people off into captivity for seventy years. The prophet Isaiah foretold this long before it happened. But there is even more that Isaiah foretold. He speaks of a time when God will give men in return for you [O Israel], peoples in exchange for your life and when God will bring [Israel’s] offspring from the east, and from the west. The day would surely come when God would give the Babylonian nation over to destruction in exchange for setting Israel free from her captivity, free to go home. Yes, God promised to gather and to bring His sons and daughters home from afar.
And God kept His promise. The Babylonians, who had conquered so many nations, were themselves conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Israelites to return home and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. And this historical example of God setting the Israelites free from their captors and gathering them and bringing them back home is a picture of what God does in Holy Baptism. Just as God came as a Champion to set His people free from the Babylonians, so now in Holy Baptism God comes as a Champion to set us free from the enemies that seek to enslave us forever to our sins.
And of course, when we talk of God being our Champion, we cannot help but think of our Saviour Jesus. And that is precisely what is going on in today’s Gospel. Here we see, in such a strange way, Jesus becoming our Champion. He who has no sins to wash away enters into the Jordan River to be baptized. And in that water Jesus steps into my person and yours and He stands in the place of all of us sinners and thus He becomes a sinner for us all. Yes, Jesus comes to be a sinner, as Isaiah 53 says: The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (v. 6). For since, as Isaiah says: we all like sheep have gone astray, God found this remedy: He took the sins of all human beings and hung them all around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. Jesus, God’s Son, thus becomes a great sinner—indeed, the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth—so that there is no other. For the Lord has laid on Him the sins of us all.
Jesus truly becomes our Champion in such a strange way. In His Baptism, Jesus takes all of our sins and plunges them into His Baptism and washes our sins away from us, since He has stepped into our person to take from us the awful burden of our sins. Therefore, He is the greatest and only sinner on earth, for He bears the sins of the whole world, and He is also the only righteous and holy One, since no one is made righteous and holy before God except through Jesus (adapted and excerpted from Luther’s Works, vol. 58, pages 44–45).
Of course, our Lord’s work of bearing our sins at His Baptism culminates with His death on the Good Friday cross. But we can truly say that already in His Baptism, Jesus bears the sins of the whole world. And since He bears all sins, He is both the greatest and only sinner on earth. Which means that there really is only Baptism. Now, it is true that we each were baptized as individuals. But we should not think of our baptism as our own unique possession. Rather, we all were baptized into the Baptism of Jesus.
At His Baptism, Jesus stepped into our persons to take all our sins away and to bear them Himself. At our baptism, we step into Jesus and we receive His righteousness. That is why Jesus is baptized: to fulfill all righteousness. He partakes of a baptism for sinners in order that He might be our substitute and bear the judgment we deserve. In the water Jesus trades places with us. Our sin becomes His sin. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. And the amazing thing is that this exchange is equal on both counts. To the same degree that Jesus became Sin, so you and I have become righteous in God’s sight. On Good Friday, our heavenly Father turned away from Jesus because there on the cross Jesus was Sin in all its fullness. And now, our Father will never turn away from us because we are baptized into all of Christ’s righteousness. Remember that as you struggle with your trials and temptations, as you bear your crosses, as you suffer, and as so often you experience defeat rather than victory. To say that Jesus fulfills all righteousness is to say He becomes all of our sin so that we may become all of His righteousness, so that our Father in heaven receives us with the same love with which He welcomes His Son.
Do you see how in Holy Baptism, your life is intimately connected to the life of Jesus? In Baptism, Jesus stepped into your person to bear your sins and you stepped into Christ to receive His righteousness. And in today’s Epistle, St. Paul describes in detail just how intimate is your connection to Christ: We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
This now is your life: as Christ died on the cross, you now die daily to sin; and as Christ rose from the dead, you now arise each day as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity. This is God’s gift to you. Yes, Baptism is God’s gift that connects you to Jesus, so that you are united to Him in His death and resurrection. You die to sin by confessing it in true repentance, trusting that God forgives you for Jesus’ sake. And the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus gives you the strength to amend your sinful life—not that you will ever be perfect in this fallen world, with your sinful nature still at work—but that by God’s grace, you consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Now, there may be times when you feel as though you have cut yourself off from God’s grace and that your baptism is null and void because of your falling into sin again and again. You might even think that you deserve to have your name erased from the Book of Life. But in the Name of Jesus, reject such dismal thoughts! Remember that God does not take back His gift of Baptism. And remember that Baptism is like a door always standing open for you to return to through true repentance. If we refuse to repent of our sins, then, sadly, we do cut ourselves off from God’s grace. But God remains faithful to His promise, and so He always keeps the door open for us to return to our baptism through true repentance.
And so, do not become discouraged by the sins of your natural, human weakness—your pride, anger, lust, greed, and lack of love—but simply confess your unrighteousness before God and then with joy thank God that in Holy Baptism you are covered from head to toe in the righteousness of Christ.
In Ephesians, St. Paul writes that Christ has cleansed the Church by the washing of water with the Word (5:26). That means that all the evils that you have committed have been cleansed and healed by the baptismal washing of regeneration and sanctification by the Word. Not only are the sins of your past washed away in Holy Baptism, but also those sins committed in the future by human ignorance or weakness. And it is not that Baptism has to be repeated as often as we sin. Rather, Baptism is God’s gift which, although just given once, continues to work in the lives of God’s children their whole lives long. That is why we say “I am baptized!”, for Baptism is a present ongoing reality of being cleansed of our sins and living in Christ’s righteousness.
Baptism always brings us back to Christ our Champion. Think back to our Old Testament lesson, where God’s work of redemption consists of three actions: 1) He defeats Babylon in order to set His people free; 2) He gathers His people from the four corners of the earth; and 3) He brings them home. And Christ has done the same for us.
First, our Lord Jesus has defeated all the enemies seeking our eternal damnation. In the rite of Holy Baptism, we pray: Almighty and eternal God, You drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Do you see? God parted the waters of the Red Sea and led His people through on dry ground and then sent the waters crashing down on the Egyptian army. So too, in His Baptism, Jesus enters into a battle with sin, death, and the devil, a battle that will result in their utter defeat on Good Friday. Yes, in His Baptism, Jesus shows Himself to be our Champion over the enemies that seek our destruction.
And there is more. Just as He gathered the Israelites from the four corners of the earth and brought them home to Jerusalem, so now our Lord gathers His Holy Church from around the world and He promises to bring us safely to our eternal home, the New Jerusalem.
As baptized children of God, our eyes are always fixed upon the everlasting life we have in Christ. But meanwhile, we struggle and we suffer and we sometimes become discouraged. With a doubt, our being baptized has brought us into a fierce battle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. This battle will last our whole lives long. But we live in the certainty that Jesus is our Champion, who has defeated our enemies and has set us free and has gathered us into one flock and who, as our Good Shepherd, will bring us safely home.
And we must also remember this, that in Holy Baptism, you and I are recreated as co-victors, co-champions with Christ. Yes, it is beyond amazing what happens in Baptism. We emerge from the baptismal waters as the sons and daughters of God, surrounded by the holy angels, and wearing the crown of victory. In Romans, St. Paul tells us that in spite of our tribulations we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (8:37). Oh, you may often feel defeated by sin and troubles and sorrows. But in Holy Baptism, you share in your Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil—the victory Jesus won for you through His Baptism and His death on the cross. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead shows that He is indeed your Champion. And He will do what He has promised: He will bring you safely home.
Meanwhile, as you struggle against the weakness of your flesh and the temptations of this fallen world, He speaks to you a word of comfort: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. You were baptized by name; God knows you by name and His Name has been placed upon you, which means you belong to Him. You belong to the Champion of heaven and earth, who in His Baptism became the greatest and only sinner in all the world, to redeem you, to save you, to set you free from your enemies, so that now you have nothing to fear. When you pass through the waters,…they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For you are united in Holy Baptism to Christ Jesus, your Saviour, your Champion, who goes with you every step of the way, leading you in the paths of His righteousness until the day you dwell safely in the House of the LORD forever. Amen.