John the Baptist had been preparing the way for the Savior’s appearance. He had been preaching boldly in the desert. Crowds had been coming out to hear him. And he had been baptizing. Those who were repentant of their sins were baptized and received God's promise that their sins were indeed washed away by his grace and forgiveness. In the same way today, adults who come to faith later in life - as the Spirit works through the Word and touches their hearts - are baptized and receive that powerful individual promise of God’s cleansing and forgiveness. In the same way today, little children are brought to the Lord, and by the same Spirit’s power receive the same forgiveness and faith in the Savior. Faith and forgiveness - indeed a gracious gift of God! The Lord was pouring out that gift. We’re told that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That forgiveness of sins would be purchased through the blood of Jesus, who as John said, is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”
We can certainly understand why crowds of people came out to see John and to be baptized and assured of the forgiveness of their sins. Like us, they all had much that was not pure in their lives, much that needed to be forgiven. If you were living back at that time and place, wouldn’t you have wanted to make the trip out into the desert, to the banks of the Jordan, to hear that call to repent and to have your sins washed away through that blessed Sacrament? We can’t erase the past. We can’t undo deeds that have been done, or take back words that have been said. Sins that have been committed have been committed. But the stain, the guilt, the punishment – that can all be washed away, cleansed through water and the Word. That’s what happened for believers out there at the Jordan, and that’s what happened for each of us in our own baptisms. We have been forgiven and made God’s own children. All that is impure in our lives, all that haunts our consciences, has been cleansed away through the blood of Jesus our Savior. Through Word and Sacrament, that cleansing forgiveness of Jesus has come to each one of us!
Yes, we can certainly understand why crowds of people came out to see John and wanted to be baptized. What we might not understand at first, however, is why Jesus wanted to be baptized. He had no sins that needed to be washed away. He had nothing to be repentant about. John picked up on that right away: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Let it be so now.” He did it for us - for each of us! No, he didn’t have to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins. But he was baptized anyway. He stood in line with the others who were there. He wanted the world to know that he was willingly standing with sinners, in the place of sinners. He had been living a righteous life for us since his birth, but now at his public inauguration he publicly shows his willingness to serve as our Substitute, as our Savior. He publicly stepped onto the road that would lead to the cross, and he would follow that road to its end! We might not always think about the Baptism of our Lord as being a major event for us, but it was. It is part of his Epiphany, when he revealed himself to be the Savior of the world. At the Baptism of Jesus he publicly shows his willingness to serve as our Savior!
We read the rest of the account from Matthew 3: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”