“Lord, What Are You Doing Here?” (Matthew 3:13-17)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday, January 9, 2011

“Lord, What Are You Doing Here?” (Matthew 3:13-17)

You know, so far, both at Christmas and at Epiphany, we’ve found Jesus in places you wouldn’t expect. The shepherds were told to find the newborn Messiah lying in a manger, not in a palace. Then, when the wise men come looking for the one born king of the Jews, they find him in the little town of Bethlehem, rather than in the royal city of Jerusalem. Not where you would expect for such a glorious king. And now, when we fast-forward to Jesus as an adult, once again we find him where you would think he doesn’t belong. Today, it’s at John’s baptism at the Jordan. This is not where Jesus should be! Or is it? This, in a way, surprising appearance of Jesus, coming to be baptized, is what throws John for a loop. He basically asks Jesus, in effect, “Lord, What Are You Doing Here?”

“Lord, what are you doing here?” This is not only John’s question, it is ours, too, on this day when we observe the Baptism of Our Lord. As we look more closely at the text, we will see what Jesus is doing by going here for a baptism he really doesn’t need. And because Christ got down in the water with us, and then followed through with what he was doing, he now infuses our baptism with the richest blessing.

As I say, this is John’s baptism at the Jordan that Jesus comes to. So I suppose our first question should be, “What is John doing there?” If we back up a few verses before our text, we find out. Earlier in Matthew 3, it says that John the Baptist was there preaching repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John cried. And so people came from all around, being baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins when they came.

You see, John was preparing the way of the Lord, making straight paths for him. He said, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John here is referring to Jesus as the Coming One, the Messiah, the mighty king and judge.

And now here Jesus comes. He comes out to John in the wilderness at the Jordan. OK, what’s he going to do? Inaugurate his royal reign with a mighty miracle? Bring down the wrath of God on that brood of vipers, the Pharisees and Sadducees? Clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire? Is that what Jesus is coming to do?

No, this is not why Jesus is coming out to the Jordan. Surprisingly, Jesus wants John to baptize him. Huh? Come again? John is shocked. He can’t believe it. Why would Jesus ask to be baptized? John tries to prevent him: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” No, Jesus. You see this baptism I’m doing? This is for sinners–sinners, Lord–people who need to repent, people who have a load of sins to confess. But you–you don’t have any sins to confess, none that I’m aware of. I mean, you are the Lord himself, the greater one, the Coming One, the mighty one. You are the one bringing the kingdom of heaven. You certainly have no need to repent. No, this baptism here is for sinners. So really, Lord: What are you doing here?

John is puzzled. But John is right, as far as the sinlessness and the holiness of the one coming to him for baptism. Everyone else has a load of sins in need of forgiveness–even John himself. But not Jesus. He has only righteousness to bring to the water.

And so Jesus answers John: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” There’s your answer. What is Jesus doing there, getting baptized by John in a baptism for sinners? He is fulfilling all righteousness.

“To fulfill all righteousness.” That is why Jesus came. That is why Jesus came to be baptized. He is about fulfilling God’s age-old plan to rescue and redeem his people, to save his people. The whole history of Israel is being fulfilled in this Jesus, who is Israel reduced to one. Everything the Lord God was doing with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses and Joshua, with David–all of God’s gracious dealings with and for and through Israel–now come to fruition with the coming of the Christ. To accomplish the salvation of God’s people–that’s what Jesus means by “to fulfill all righteousness.” The Lord God is showing himself to be a righteous God–he’s doing the right thing–by acting to save sinners. Jesus, whose very name means “The Lord saves”–“for he will save his people from their sins”–Jesus is here to fulfill all righteousness, and being baptized by John in the Jordan is part of that plan.

“So let it be for now, John,” Jesus says. There will come a time when you will see me come in glory, to judge the living and the dead. But that is not yet. Yes, Christ will come as king, as the mighty Lord of all, and every eye will see him. But that day is not now. For now, Jesus comes as a humble servant, the Suffering Servant, identifying with poor miserable sinners, standing in the water with them.

“Lord, what are you doing here?” By going to the water of the Jordan, Jesus is committing himself to the way of the cross. This identifying with sinners, standing in with them and for them, will take him there. A cross for executing criminals–that is certainly not a place where Jesus by rights ought to belong. But that is where he is going. By being baptized with sinners, Jesus is embarking on that mission. Now there is no turning back.

This is the river of no return. I think of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. That phrase has even entered our language, “crossing the Rubicon” meaning committing to a course of action from which there is no turning back. And so Jesus Christ is crossing the Rubicon by letting himself be baptized in the Jordan. This identifying with sinners will take him to the cross.

For that is where and how Jesus will finally fulfill his mission. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” John the Baptist will say a little later. Christ’s identifying with sinners will extend to the point of taking all their sins, all your sins, on his shoulders and carrying them to the cross. “Lord, what are you doing here, here at a cross where criminals die?” Jesus goes where you and I should be, dying under the judgment of God. And so, our sins atoned for, we are spared.

Now as Jesus sets out on his public ministry of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, of saving his people, of fulfilling all righteousness, he is affirmed and empowered for this task. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him”– and now comes the heavenly empowerment and affirmation–“and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The empowerment, the anointing: The Holy Spirit alighting on Jesus in the form of a dove. The affirmation and approval: The Father’s voice, attesting to the well-pleasing nature of his beloved Son. Isaiah captured both aspects, the approval and the anointing, in his prophecy, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.”

The Father loves his Son and he loves what the Son is doing. The Spirit empowers this man Jesus for his work as the Christ, the anointed one, who will bring the blessings of heaven to people on earth. “Lord, what are you doing here?” Fulfilling all righteousness, setting out for the cross, with the Father’s approval and the Spirit’s empowerment behind him.

And so all of this comes together for you now in your baptism. For in your baptism, you are joined to Jesus. The sins you bring to the font are washed away by the blood of Christ, and his righteousness is given you in their place. The Father voices his approval of you, beloved child, since you are now joined to Jesus, the beloved Son with whom God is well-pleased. The Spirit comes upon you, filling you with faith and giving you a new life to live every day. And thus buried with Christ in baptism and united with him in his resurrection, you have a new life to live now and an everlasting life to rise to when Christ returns.

“Lord, what are you doing here, here in your baptism at the Jordan?” Fulfilling all righteousness, saving you from your sins, bringing you the Father’s love and the Spirit’s power. And that is the fulfillment of everything you need.

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 2:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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