I remember a moment when I experienced the power of sheer terror and love.

My family was on vacation. My brothers and I were jumping off of a dock into the lake. At one point, my youngest brother jumped in. We waited for him to surface. He did not. He was stuck in the water, unable to surface because he had gone under the dock. I did not know this at the time. All I knew is my brother was under water and in danger of drowning.

That is the moment I remember. Standing there on the dock, I felt sheer terror at the prospect of my baby brother dying and I felt the power of love which impelled me to jump in. When I jumped in the water, I found his leg kicking in the dark and pulled him out.

Looking back now, it probably was not as drastic as it felt in my young imagination. But, even today, I still feel the power of terror and love when I remember that day on the dock.

I thought about this moment when I read our gospel for this Sunday: the baptism of Jesus.

So often, when preaching on the baptism of Jesus, we try to draw the connection between Jesus’ baptism and our own. Unfortunately, this connection is difficult and needs careful negotiation. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance not a means of grace. Those who had been baptized by John were baptized again by Paul into the baptism of Jesus (Acts 19:1-6). In a sense, our baptism and the baptism of Jesus are two different things and, when we look at the baptism of Jesus through the lens of our own baptism, we miss much of what is happening there.

Jesus did not need to be baptized. But he did it. Why?

For me, it was like that moment on the dock. Jesus was confronted with the sheer terror of God’s judgment upon all people and the deep love of God desiring to bring about salvation. So, He jumped in to save.

He was standing there on the bank of the Jordan watching sinners get into the water. Their baptism signified their repentance. They acknowledged their sin and the justice of God’s judgment. Confronted with those who are sinful and dying under God’s judgment, Jesus identifies with them. He jumps into the waters of judgment to save all people from drowning.

To see how truly beautiful this act of Jesus is, consider how Matthew has surrounded the baptism of Jesus with other events to help us see the depth of God’s rescue in Him.

Before the baptism, the wilderness is filled with God’s judgment. John is preaching the coming of God. The axe is laid to the root of the trees. God will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

After the baptism, the wilderness is filled with Satan’s terror. Satan prowls about like a roaring lion. He attacks Jesus. He takes Jesus from place to place, claiming to rule this world, and trying to force his reign upon Jesus.

In the middle, however, we see Jesus, the One who goes into the waters. He suspends John’s preaching of judgment (“let it be so now”) to reveal how He, Himself, will bear it. First, He will bear God’s judgment for us before the day when He will bring God’s judgment on the world. He is also the one who comes out of the waters and faces Satan’s terrors. First, He will be bruised by Satan with us before He crushes his head for us when He dies on the cross and later walks out of the tomb.

Jesus is this mysterious figure, who stands on the banks of the Jordan. He sees the terror of our dying under the wrath of God. He sees the terror of our suffering under the torture of Satan. In that moment, when the wrath of God and the horror of Hell are about to break loose on the world, Jesus responds with an act of love. He identifies with sinners, going into the water and submitting Himself to the judgment of God, and He is identified as God’s Son, so He might enter battle for us, armed by the Spirit against the powers of Satan.

If Epiphany is a season of revealings, manifestations of God among us, how wonderful to begin with the figure of Jesus. He sees our sin and our suffering and intervenes to save.

As we look out upon the post-Christian world, so far from the Kingdom of God, we know the feeling of terror. We are tempted to gather in churches and create a safe place. What we discover today is how the heart of Jesus, when confronted by the terror of suffering, responds with the actions that flow from the power of love.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 3:13-17.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 3:13-17.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 3:13-17.