Texts: Matthew 3:13-17; Rom. 6:1-11
Tony Balandran had a gambling problem. He would spend all night at Kansas City casinos even though he had to go to work in the morning. He had a good job but borrowed money from friends just to eat his next meal. He simply did not have the will to stop. Tony finally admitted he needed help, so he signed up for the self-exclusion plan offered by the state of Missouri. This puts you on a registry of names of people who are banned for life from entering a casino anywhere in the state.
The trouble is, even if your name is on this registry, you can still walk into a casino and gamble. You don’t have to show your ID unless you win a certain amount of money. And that’s exactly what happened to Tony. In late August of 2009, he entered Harrah’s to play Pai Gow poker. He was dealt a 7 card straight flush. That’s seven cards of the same suit in numerical order (he had a joker, too). The odds on that are 750 to 1. His five dollar bet netted him $3,750. But that didn’t matter. Tony knew he was in trouble from the moment the hand was dealt. Now he had to show his ID. Soon after, he was escorted from the table, charged with criminal trespassing, had to pay a fine, and surrendered his jackpot.
Tony’s method to keep himself out of the casino by self-exclusion is called a “commitment device.” He knew he needed help doing something he didn’t have the will to do. But you see how well that worked out. Maybe you’ve tried using a commitment device, even though you didn’t use that term. Some people pay a huge fee for a gym membership, thinking that the money they spend will motivate them to work out more often. That’s a commitment device.
Out along the shores of the Jordan River, John was baptizing people, calling them to repentance. They were to prepare themselves for the coming of the kingdom of God. The Lord was near. They were to commit themselves to the Lord by trusting in him and by showing evidence of their faith by a changed life. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” was the way he put it (Mt. 3:8). But did they have the will to do it? Was John’s baptism enough of a “commitment device” to help them do better? I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But I do know this. I know sinners. I am one. And I know that the most well-intentioned repentant sinner still struggles with keeping his commitment to not sin.
Jesus walked the road down to the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing. As he did so, he knew what was ahead of him. Not merely a baptism of water. A baptism of blood. This is what Jesus meant when he later said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50). As Jesus journeyed toward the Jordan, he was fully committed to what he came to do. He needed no commitment device. He needed no coercion. He went freely and willingly.
Moreover, Jesus had no sins of which to repent. John well recognized this fact: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” This was the One John said was “mightier than I.” This was the One whose sandals John said he was not worthy to carry. This was the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mt. 3:11). After all the things John had said about Jesus … and now this! Confusing, to say the least.
Jesus said that it was necessary for John to baptize him in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was all about God’s saving plan promised to Adam in the Garden, to Abraham in Haran, to Isaac in Gerar, to Jacob at Bethel, and so on and so forth. God’s saving plan must be completed … finished. Before he was nailed to the cross, Jesus had to stand in the waters of the Jordan as if he were a sinner who DID need to repent. And as he did so, he stood in your place and in the place of all sinners, ready to take your sin to the cross with him. As St. Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
We remember Christ’s baptism early in the Epiphany season because his baptism is an “epiphany” – a manifestation – of the Holy Trinity and the saving love of God. The Son stands in the water. The Father has sent him as the Savior. The Father’s voice declares Jesus to be his beloved Son. The Father is well-pleased with Jesus and will prove this when he raises his Son from the dead. And the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son, showing that this is the promised Messiah of whom the Lord foretold through Isaiah, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations … I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:1, 6-7). Jesus’ baptism is an epiphany of the Trinity, but it is so much more. This is an epiphany of God’s commitment to you!
Baptism is sometimes seen as the Christian’s commitment to God. It is quite the opposite. God knows you have no power in and of yourself to commit to him. We can barely keep our insignificant New Year’s resolutions to give up caffeine and chocolate. How much more difficult is it for our Old Adam to give up sin!
Baptism instead is God’s commitment to you. It is God’s commitment to kill you and bury you. In Baptism, your old self was crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6). The self that loves to gossip and lust and covet. The self that doesn’t always outwardly rebel, but does so inwardly. The self that finds all kinds of ways to avoid God’s call to repentance and holiness. But because you are baptized, you can say right along with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). And elsewhere, Paul writes, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). In Baptism, the body of sin is brought to nothing … that is, it has no more power to condemn you and keep you separated from God. You are no longer enslaved to sin, but you are set free to serve God as one who belongs to him.
Baptism is also God’s commitment to raise you to new life. Death no longer has dominion over you. The life and love of God is coursing through you. In Jesus, heaven is opened to you, his Spirit is upon you and in you, and you are declared to be God’s beloved sons and daughters. And in case you ever doubt this, Jesus gives you his Body and Blood to eat and drink, assuring you that you have his life in you … really and truly. It’s not merely a spiritual truth. It’s a physical reality given under the bread and wine.
No “commitment device” will ever help us to cease and desist our sinning in this life. But in Baptism, God committed himself to you. Jesus walked through his baptismal waters and bore your sins all the way to the cross. In your baptismal waters, your sins are washed away. The Holy Spirit began his work in you to sanctify you, to make you holy, to empower you to live a life of worship and praise and thanksgiving to God and to do good works on behalf of your neighbor. And finally, there will come a day when the death and burial of our sinful nature in baptism will be fully realized. Dr. Luther says it beautifully in the Large Catechism:
…while sanctification has begun and is growing daily [2 Thessalonians 1:3], we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness [Romans 6:4-11]. Then we will come forth gloriously and arise in a new, eternal life of entire and perfect holiness. For now we are only half pure and holy. So the Holy Spirit always has some reason to continue his work in us through the Word. He must daily administer forgiveness until we reach the life to come. At that time there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people [1 Corinthians 13:10].
In the name of Jesus.