Baptized for Us
The Rev. Dr. Ross M. Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The First Sunday after Epiphany, January 7, 2018
Text: Mark 1:4-11
This sermon is about the Baptism of Jesus – what Jesus’ baptism meant to Jesus and what it means for us. Picture John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, standing in water up to his waist. On the banks of the river, large crowds are standing, watching. They have responded to John’s urgent call for repentance, and as a sign of their repentance, have received John’s baptism.
And then, one man emerges from the crowd, makes his way from the river banks into the water, and stands waist-deep in the water with John. This is the most famous baptismal candidate in all history: Jesus of Nazareth. The early church was embarrassed by Jesus’ decision to submit to John’s baptism. They wondered why Jesus needed to make this demonstration of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John himself was taken aback, saying to the Lord: “I need to be baptized by you – and do you come to me?”
Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized for us. Through baptism, the Son of God has entered our world. He has come to live where we live, with all of the temptations and the powers that seek to draw us from the love of God. Through baptism, Jesus was empowered by the Spirit of God, so that the Holy Spirit can be poured into our hearts. As we have just sung in the sequence hymn:
Christ, when for us you were baptized, God’s Spirit on you came,
as peaceful as a dove and yet as urgent as a flame.
And as we will sing at the conclusion of this service:
For us baptized, for us he bore his holy fast and hungered sore;
for us temptations sharp he knew; for us the tempter overthrew.
Jesus was baptized for us. And this makes all the difference in the world as we head into a new year, with our aspirations and hopes as well as our anxieties.
The best way to understand how Jesus’ baptism is for us is to look more closely at what happened to him. St. Mark zooms in for a close up, as it were, and invites us into this intimate moment between our Lord and the Father.
As he was coming up out of the water, he immediately saw the heavens being ripped apart, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are my beloved son; in you I have taken delight.
Jesus sees two things in this encounter with the Father. He is the only one who sees them, so we are witnessing a personal, intimate, life-transforming moment. First, he sees the heavens ripped apart. Mark uses a strikingly strong, vivid word to describe what is happening. The heavens are not merely “opened,” they are “ripped open.” It is almost as if the hand of the Father reaches down from the heavenly realm and pulls back the sky to reveal the dimension of God.
As I tried to picture this ripping apart of the heavens, I was reminded of an experience that a friend had while riding a commuter train from Philadelphia to the town of Paoli, where we lived. The train was powered by electrical current from power lines above the train and connected by a contraption on top of each car. As the train pulled into Paoli station, there was a jolt, followed by the sound of ripping metal. My friend lookup up, and the roof of the train car was peeled open like a sardine can. The passengers gazed in amazement: where they expected to see the roof of the train, there was blue sky and sun shining in.
In Jesus’ baptism, God rips open the heavens. Through this gash in the universe, God pours forth his Spirit into our world, through Jesus. The power of heaven descends to earth. “Through this gracious gash in the universe,” God has poured forth his life from the world of heaven into the world where “we live and move and have our being.” Jesus’ baptism is for us, because it is through baptism that he has come to live in our world. He is with us. He is our brother. He has torn down the barrier that separates us from the life of the living God. The ripping open of the heavens at baptism points forward to the cross, where another barrier is removed. At the moment that Jesus breathes his last, the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple which cordoned off the Holy of Holies is ripped in two. The sacrifice of the Son means open access to presence of God – for us.
The second thing that Jesus sees is the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. This is the moment when the Son of God is baptized with the Holy Spirit, filled with the Spirit, and empowered by the Spirit to carry out the work that the Father has entrusted to him. And as soon as he is empowered by the Spirit, he goes into battle with Satan and the forces of darkness. All three Gospels are clear that immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he enters into intense, protracted combat with the principalities and powers of darkness.
Jesus’ power over the forces of darkness is revealed most clearly in his exorcisms: Jesus cast out demons. Admittedly, the subject of demonic possession is difficult for us, and this aspect of Jesus’ ministry is probably hard for us to grasp or accept. We read the passages about Jesus casting out evil spirts and wonder: How do you tell the difference between demonic possession and mental illness? Where do you draw the line between the powers of evil and the consequences of bad choices – or just bad luck?
These are deep waters. All I can say here is that I believe there are forces of evil at work in our world – that these forces are intelligent, personal, and that they are bent on undoing the goodness of God’s work in God’s good world.
Ultimately, what matters is that Jesus was empowered through baptism to do battle with the forces of darkness. Here is just one of many events which reveals Jesus as the one who is for us and with us – and against the powers of darkness. Following Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Capernaum, he casts out an unclean spirit from a man in the town. Jesus’ critics can’t deny that power has been unleashed, but they claim that Jesus is using occult powers: “He casts out demons by the power of demons,” they say. Jesus responds: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” I have the power to cast out unclean spirits, because I have broken into Satan’s prison and tied him up; and now, I am setting the captives free (Mark 3:20-27).
Jesus is the strong man, who routs Satan and the forces that attempt to steal our humanity. Jesus is victor. Jesus is Lord.
Jesus was baptized for us. Now, we are in the moment of decision. Will you listen for the voice of the Father who reassures you that you are a child of God, a beloved son, a beloved daughter? This is the voice that has been introduced into your life through your baptism. Will you seek and find protection in the power and presence of the Son of God, who has entered the battle for us and with us? As we enter this new year, we are called to follow Christ in a world that is filled with temptations. But remember the witness of St. Paul: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Call upon the Lord Jesus Christ. He will be there for you. He is for us. He is with us. And he has won the battle.
 F. Bland Tucker, “Christ, when for us you were baptized,” hymn 121, Hymnal 1992.
 Latin, 15th cent.; tr. Benjamin Webb, “O love, how deep, how broad, how high,” hymn 448, Hymnal 1992.
 Joel Marcus’ translation. Joel Marcus, ed., Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 1st ed, The Anchor Bible, v. 27 (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
 Joel Marcus’ phrase; Mark, 165.