Summary: Through baptism God marks us with real forgiveness.
(Call a few children up to the front of the church.) Can you see a face on this (U.S.) five-dollar bill? No? What do you see? You see a picture of a big building with lots of columns right? (Hold note to the light.) Now do you see a face? Very faintly don’t you? We call that a watermark. A watermark is a special label that tells you whether or not you have a genuine five-dollar bill. To put it another way, the United States Treasury has put their mark of approval on this bill. You could trade this bill in and expect a few ice cream cones in return. (Introduction idea from Donald Schatz, Concordia Pulpit Resource V. 12:1, p. 29)
Did you know that you’ve been watermarked? Sure, through the waters of baptism God himself marked you. Marked you for what? The baptism of Jesus will help answer that question.
Although Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, was only a few weeks ago, our devotion today fast-forwards to when Jesus was thirty-years old. We’re skipping over Jesus’ first loose tooth and we’re not going to speculate about the childhood games Jesus played with his neighbourhood buddies. We may wish we knew more about Jesus’ childhood but it’s just not important in regard to our salvation. What is important is the first verse of our text. There, Matthew says: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John” (Matthew 3:13). Wow! Do you see the profound truth? You’re right. It’s a bit hard to see what’s so important about that verse just by reading the English translation. When we read this verse in the original Greek, however, we learn that Jesus came to the Jordan for the very purpose of being baptized. Jesus didn’t get baptized the way many people get tattooed. You know what I mean. You’re at the fair and one thing leads to another and before you know it you’ve come home with a tattoo of a butterfly on your bicep! That’s not how Jesus’ baptism happened. He wasn’t walking by the Jordan River one afternoon on a separate errand when he noticed John baptizing and thought “Hmmm. That looks kind of refreshing. A dip in the Jordan River. I think I’ll get baptized.” No. Jesus left Nazareth and made a B-line for the Jordan for the express purpose of being baptized. That tells us that baptism was important to Jesus. It must have been part of God’s plan for him.
That truth is supported by John’s reaction when he saw Cousin Jesus standing in the line of sinners waiting to be baptized. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John stammered (Matthew 3:14). Imagine working in the kitchen at home when a celebrity chef knocks on your door. What does he want? He’s starving and would love something really good to eat. Would you make one of his signature pastries for him? “Hey, wait a minute.” You’d say. “You’re the expert. You’re the one who came up with that pastry. YOU should make it for ME!” And so with his insistence that Jesus should baptize him, John admitted that baptism was not something he had dreamed up. Indeed, God himself had told him to do it (cf. John 1:33). And now here was God in the flesh. Certainly Jesus must have come to perform the baptisms himself, like the CEO of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, himself unveiling the new iPhone and not leaving that to some company spokesman to do.
In the first part of Martin Luther’s explanation of baptism, the reformer makes this point: “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water used by God’s command and connected with God’s Word.” We need to remind ourselves of this truth that baptism is not a church ceremony. It’s not a ritual dreamed up by men thousands of years ago. Baptism is something that God himself designed and sanctioned. Therefore baptism is important. Jesus emphasized its importance by being baptized himself. I suppose that’s a bit like your doctor not only telling you to eat your fruits and veggies and get some exercise but doing these things himself because he really believes that they are beneficial. Of course Jesus wasn’t baptized because he needed baptism’s benefits, but we’ll talk more about that in just a minute.
For now I want you to ask yourself: “Do I treat my baptism as something special, or do I think of it like a tattoo I got years ago and now rarely think about?” Over the course of the next few months we’re going to take four Sundays (including this one) to relearn what’s so special about our baptism. We’ve already learned that baptism is special because it’s God-designed. But designed to do what? Let’s look at the rest of our text to find out.