3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,
3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
This second week of advent, we look at preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ. In our gospel reading, we see something that John the Baptist introduces into the Jewish community as a way of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord: Baptism. What is this new innovation from John, and what does it mean to us?
Well, when a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he had to do two things: he had to make a confession of faith in the Mosaic law and he had to be circumcised. Now, there was no anesthetic back then, and so Gentiles tended to balk at the second requirement, and so the Jews just said, well, instead of the circumcision, just take a bath. You Gentiles are unclean, and so the ritual bathing will take care of that second requirement.
Now, here comes John the Baptist on the scene, and he does something shocking: he tells all the Jews that THEY are unclean, too, and THEY need to take a bath, and it is URGENT that they cleanse themselves NOW, because the Kingdom of Heaven is AT HAND. John uses some powerful imagery: the axe is laid to the root of the tree and the winnowing fork is in God's hand. The time to get clean is now because the day of the Lord is not a feel-good experience, and one wants to be WHEAT and not CHAFF.
Well, this seems a radical innovation on the part of John, but does it count as law? Well, yes it does, for two reasons. First, John is considered to be the LAST prophet of the Old Testament. Even though he is only mentioned in the New Testament, he is an Old Testament Prophet. Second, Jesus comes on the scene and gets baptized himself, approving of the new law. Here are three verses beyond what we have above:
Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him.
There's another reason why Jesus was baptized. Sometimes Jesus getting baptized is a confusing thing, because Jesus was without sin. Why did he need to be baptized? He was already clean. Even John asks this question, but Jesus responds that they must fulfill all righteousness. What does that mean?
Well, we must ask, why did Jesus come to earth? In order to save us from our sins. In order to die in our place. Children can respond in this way. Yes, that is true. Is there anything else? Why did Jesus not just come down on Good Friday, die in our place on the cross, and then ascend, all in one day? Why was he born as a baby and live on earth for a life?
Jesus lived a full, sinless life, but he also kept the whole Mosaic law, and that included being baptized in the river Jordan. He could not overlook a single jot or tittle of the law, because he needed to fulfill the law. He needed to live not only a sinless life but a life that obeyed the law to the letter. Why? Because two things happened. It's called double imputation, but all we need to know is that not only did Jesus take our sins--past, present, and future--on himself, but he bestowed his sinless, lawkeeping life on us. Now when God the Father looks upon us, he sees Jesus' righteous life. Jesus had to live a whole life. He had to go through the same temptations as we do, over and over, the same number as an average person would have. The sins of our childhood are covered by the righteousness of his childhood. The sins of our teens by his teens. The sins of our adulthood by his adulthood.
How do we receive this blessing of God's grace? We ask. Baptism is a symbol of God's promise to us to accept us as clean individuals. When we baptize an infant or an adult. We are asking God to claim this person as one of his own. When that person afterward comes to faith in Christ, that is actually God fulfilling his promise to us. You don't need to be baptized again after coming to faith, because the baptism itself was the symbol of the promise. The coming to faith is the result.
Each Sunday we reaffirm our baptismal covenant with the words of the Nicene Creed. Please, let us all stand and reaffirm our faith now.