So far this liturgical year we’ve prepared for the Lord’s coming, celebrated His Incarnation, witnessed the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and looked on as God drew the Magi to worship Him by the leading of a star. Today, for the first time since before Christmas, we witness our Lord actively doing something and not merely being acted upon. What He did was to go from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, marking the beginning of His public ministry.
As you might expect, this has a great deal of significance. It’s also quite startling. For here, in the Jordan, Jesus puts Himself in the place of sinners. What need does the Holy One of Israel have of baptism? Even St. John, who’s very job it was to baptize, was shocked by this. “I have need to be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?”
It was as if John was saying, “This makes no sense, Lord! Don’t you know that baptism is for sinners?” To which Jesus responds, “Exactly. Or don’t you know that I’ve come to put myself in the place of sinners?” That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Quite simply, He was saying to John, “We’re in this together.”
John’s objection is not unlike St. Peter’s. After Jesus predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter began to rebuke Jesus. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Like John, Peter would have prevented Jesus from putting Himself in the place of sinners.
Now we instinctively know that the holy needs to remain separate from the unholy. We may even have moments like St. Peter, where the darkness and guilt of our sin threaten to overwhelm us and we cry out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But Jesus insists, “No, we’re in this together.”
Our Lord began His public ministry by submitting to baptism. This is fitting, as His entire ministry can be characterized by submission. Our Lord said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me,” (St. John 6:38). In turn, He calls those who belong to Him also to a life of obedience: children to parents, wives to husbands, workers to employers, citizens to leaders, Christians to pastors.
This is all found in the Fourth Commandment, where we are taught that God establishes fathers in the home, fathers in the state (such as governors and presidents), and fathers in the church, or pastors. When pastors are installed, every Christian in the congregation pledges to “receive him, show him that love, honor, and obedience in the Lord that [they] owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over [them] by [their] Lord Jesus Christ.” Something similar could be said with respect to how we treat our parents and civic leaders. They have been given to us by the Lord for our good, and it is our duty to love, honor, and obey them.
Following the example of our Lord, the Christian life is a life of obedience. There is no place for rebellion among those who belong to Christ unless they are commanded to do something explicitly contrary to God’s will. Fathers of home, church, and state are to provide faithfully for those entrusted to their care, not as those who dominate, but as those who serve. And those entrusted to their care are to honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.
Have you despised or grumbled against your parents, pastors, or political leaders? Christ did not rebel even when He was unjustly accused, but was obedient unto the point of death. You have been disobedient for much less. Repent.
What’s even more shocking than what we learn about Jesus’ identity at His Baptism is what you learn about yourself at your own baptism. God’s verdict upon Jesus was, “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.” But what is God’s verdict upon you?
It’s shocking, especially when you consider your rebellion;
your deepest, darkest secrets, those things that are so shameful that you’d rather die than share them with anyone else;
your biggest regrets; the things hurt so much that you can’t even stand to think about them.
So what’s God’s verdict upon you? In light of your sin, you should expect the Father’s voice to say, “This is not my beloved child. This is a pervert, thief, and rebel; a grumbling, self-absorbed gossip who tears down others to build himself up.” That would be a fair verdict. But in a ruling even more shocking than OJ’s, the same praise that the Father lavished upon Jesus is said of you:
“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
That’s God’s verdict upon you.
How can this be? Because in His perfect obedience, your rebellion became Christ’s rebellion. Because Jesus identified with you, you get to identify with Him. Those who were guilty of treason are elevated to the highest place, because He who is God Most High humbled Himself to the lowest place, even to death on a cross.
To this Servant, no one is useless. Not even a bruised reed, something that everyone else regards as good for nothing. Neither is anyone too far gone or beyond His salvation, not even the smoldering wick.
Your Lord refuses to give up on you. Holy Baptism is the bridge He built between Himself and you. But it’s unlike any other bridge this world has ever seen, for His bridge passes right through the water. To the world, nothing could be more useless. But what the world despises and regards with contempt, God regards as holy. He chose what is low and despised in the world to bring to nothing the things that are.
Far from being useless, in Holy Baptism, heaven is opened to you, the kindly voice of your Father preaches, identifying you as His beloved child, and the Holy Spirit is given. If you ever want to know how God feels about you, look to your baptism. For there, you have your Lord’s steadfast promise: “We’re in this together”, a togetherness that not even death can rend asunder.
The shepherds had angels, the Magi had a star, but you have something even better: the voice of the Father Himself. He says, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” And if that weren’t enough, He now gives you His flesh and blood that you might feast with Him now and for all eternity.
Soli Deo Gloria
 In my parishes, we observed Holy Innocents on the first Sunday after Christmas and transferred Epiphany to the following Sunday.