How Can Water Do Such Great Things?

St. Matthew 3:13-17

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St. Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me? But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and H] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  This is the Word of the Lord.

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord…  Water, water everywhere.  We use it every day to take a bath or shower.  We use it to wash our dishes, clothes, and cars.  We harness its power to provide light for our cities.  Water covers most of this planet.  Our bodies are mostly water.  Our bodies also crave water.

But water, as we know, can also be a natural enemy.  We need only to remember 2013, when this area was deluged with about 20” of rain in a few days’ time and all that water rushed down the canyons, moving house-sized boulders, washing away large chunks of roadway, flooding homes and destroying others.  I remember watching the Chinook helicopters shuttling displaced and cut-off people up and down the front range.

But how can something like water do such great things in Baptism, especially to Jesus?  Why does our Lord Christ permit Himself to be baptized by John?  Why do we Lutherans make such a big fuss about Holy Baptism and Scripture’s clear teaching on Baptism?  We’re back around to the question before us posed by Luther’s Small Catechism and by Matthew chapter three: HOW CAN WATER DO SUCH GREAT THINGS?

That is the question so many non-Lutheran Christians wonder about us Lutherans.  Someone not familiar with our Biblical teaching on Holy Baptism would think it odd to take children of all ages, particularly infants, bring them to the baptismal font, pray that the devil would depart from their life, pray God’s blessing upon the child, pour water over them, and bless their new life in Christ.  It seems so ritualistic, so otherworldly!  Why can’t we just get someone wet, pray about it, and get over it?

This is basically the attitude of John the Baptizer when Jesus came to him to be baptized.  John wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized.  John desired a role-reversal: the sinless Son of God baptizes the sinful son of Elizabeth and Zacharias.

This is the attitude of Peter when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples mere hours before He would be arrested and later crucified.  Peter is shocked that Jesus would stoop so low to do such a thing.  Peter is absolutely convinced that he is the one who should wash the feet of his Master.

This is our attitude on Holy Baptism too.  Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized.  He should tell John to stop his foolishness, step aside, and let people come to Christ through other ways.

But this attitude frankly mocks Holy Baptism.  The way we think about Baptism is shown in our churches.  In some Lutheran congregations, for example, the baptismal font is nothing more than afterthought, tucked away in a closet so it “doesn’t get in the way.”  Some years ago I saw one Lutheran church where the font – the very place where other-worldly and holy and eternal things happen – was turned into a vase for fresh flowers.  While careless at best, that attitude confesses to the world that Holy Baptism is no big deal.  It need not be talked about or preached on except on the First Sunday after the Epiphany or when someone is baptized.  When it is all over, Baptism goes into the background and off to the side until people are ready for it again, if they’re ready for it at all.

All of this is a gross misunderstanding about Baptism, and it simply begs the question which Martin Luther teaches us to ask in the Small Catechism: “How can water do such great things?”  And how are we taught to answer? You know the words: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.”  Know those words, dear friends, and never let them leave your brain.  Make them part of your very cell structure as you walk through this life and world full of people who not only don’t know what Baptism is, but despise and preach against it as well.  Be ready to give a clear and accurate answer at all times.  It is that important.

Now, John’s puzzled question to Jesus is answered simply: “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus allows Himself to be baptized so that He may fulfill all righteousness.  Here we see Jesus doing what He was sent to do – to serve sinners.  The One Who has no sin at all unites His flesh with sinners so that He may bear our sin all the way to Calvary; and then He goes to the tomb where He buries sin and rises from the dead to make all mankind righteous.

God’s Holy Word declares that we were all born unrighteous.  We are conceived and born in gross sin, inherited sin, original sin; we’re conceived and born spiritually blind, dead, enemies of God.  The Scriptures are clear about the fact that there is nothing good within us, not one thing.  We are slaves to sin.

And since that is true, someone must come from above and take on our flesh to take death away from us and give us everlasting life.  That One, of course, is the Word made flesh, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  He stands in the midst of the Jordan River, in water, and is baptized.  He fulfills all righteousness.  He again unites His flesh with ours.  It is as Martin Luther states it another of the great baptismal hymns: “This heavenly washing now shall be / A cleansing from transgression / And by His blood and agony / Release from death’s oppression. / A new life now awaits us.” (“To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” Lutheran Service Book #406).

Water kills.  Water also makes alive.  And water does not do this alone.  As the Catechism clearly states based on God’s Word, water with the Word and with faith is what regenerates lost souls.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Bible’s clear teaching of baptism, we might teach them this way:  We pray for the one about to be baptized, that Satan depart from their soul and make way for the Holy Spirit.  After all, we Lutheran Christians do take sin quite seriously!

Then we thank God for creating water and making it holy through Noah and the ark, through the Israelites passing through the Red Sea and through the Jordan, and through our Lord Jesus Christ’s Baptism.  Then the one being baptized renounces all evil things and confesses the Triune God – the same Triune God who was present when our Lord Jesus was baptized!  Then, in a very real sense, the one being baptized is killed, drowned with water and then made alive.  It’s death and life; it’s death and resurrection.  We resurrect them with water.  The one being baptized is dead to sin but alive in Christ!

Imagine that!  You were killed, and then you were brought back to life at your baptism!  No longer are you enemies of God.  Now, through Baptism God is pleased with you because of His Son.  Everything that Jesus did, He did for you.  This is how St. Paul confesses this marvelous truth in Romans 6:5: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”  Paul’s words are pure Gospel!  The Old Adam, that sinful nature, is literally dead in the water.  Then the New Man comes up from the water, just as Jesus comes up from the water.  Heaven is opened and, as it was said to Jesus, so it is said to you: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

How can water do such great things?  When water is connected with the Word of God and faith, children of all ages who are spiritually dead are made alive again.  They are regenerated, born again, born from above.  It could be said this way: “He who is born once, dies once and dies forever.  He who is born twice, dies once and lives forever.”

C.F.W. Walther says it this way: “…My baptismal water swallowed up all of my damnation and is for me a sure wall before God’s wrath and punishment… All of you who believe in God’s Word, let your watchword for entering the new year be this: ‘I am baptized!’  Although the world may laugh at this comfort…nevertheless, abandon any other dearly held pledges and speak only throughout the entire year to come, in all terrors of conscience and necessity through sin and death: ‘I am baptized! Hallelujah!”

Twice-born children of God, rejoice anew this day!  Jesus unites your life with His.  Jesus takes upon Himself the burden of saving the world from sin, death, and Satan.  He gives you the dignity of a child of God through Holy Baptism.  It is greater than any earthly riches or glory.  Earthly things we lose at death.  But Baptism is our passport to everlasting glory where it will be fulfilled and completed forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.