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Baptism: Clean or Messy?
Vicar Matthew Kinne
Texts: Mark 1:4-11; Romans 6:1-11

Back in November I witnessed the baptism of eight students from our day school. It was moving to see these young people drawn to the font by faith. But I will say, it was also very messy. As each student leaned over the font, Pastor Jud would scoop out water and drench their heads while proclaiming that these children are baptized in the triune name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While some of the water fell back into the font, a healthy portion of the water rolled off the side and onto the stone floor. By the time all eight baptisms were completed, most of the water was no longer in the font. The scene showed that something messy happened here.

When we think about baptism, we usually think of something elegant and clean. The color white is often used to show the righteousness and purity God offers to the baptized. Sins are washed away and the name of Christ is put on. A burning candle is lit to show the world that the light of Christ is now in this believer. The new life of the baptized is started. It all seems clean on our end. But what about to God? Is baptism clean or messy from His point of view?

Let’s begin with the man who baptizes Jesus. In our Gospel reading, we hear John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Nothing seems clean about his ministry. For starters, he preaches in the wilderness. According to the custom of the Jews the only sacred and holy place to preach was in the temple in Jerusalem or in local synagogues. John is in the wilderness where wild animals roam and where everything unclean resides. He wears camel hair, and he eats locusts and wild honey. Not only does the man look messy, but he is also baptizing in the muddy waters of the Jordan River. Nothing about what John is doing seems sanitary, yet despite the lack of cleanliness, people believe John’s teachings. Our text says in verse five, “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going to him and being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”(Mark 1:5). 

Somehow the preaching of John lures so many people into the water. Something about John was different that makes people confident God is working through him to forgive sins. Yet his ministry confuses the temple officials. 

Later in Mark, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, which is the beginning of His passion walk to the cross.  At the temple Jesus is tested by the scribes and priest. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (Mark 11:28-31) After much discussion, and fear of being hated by the Jews, they answer Jesus saying, “We do not know,” (Mark 11:33). 

The temple officials are blind to what John’s baptism is teaching. They think that this immersion in the Jordan is nothing more than a scam to ruin their business. They are scared that John is taking away their customers and putting their temple up for foreclosure. They would essentially be out of a job.

 These blind priests and scribes do not realize that this man, John, is the last of the Old Testament prophets. The clothes John wears are the same clothes worn by the men before him who proclaimed God’s word to all nations about the coming Messiah. The food John eats, though a seemingly odd diet, is food provided by God in the wilderness. This is similar to how God provided meat for Elijah at the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River nearly 900 years earlier (1 Kings 17). 

Not only is John’s lifestyle similar, but his message is also the same. Jonah proclaimed to the city of Nineveh, “‘Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!And then the people believed in God and repented of their evil ways” (Jonah 3).  When Jeremiah was commanded by the Lord to prophecy to King Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, he said, “Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth,’” (Jeremiah 26:4-6). Just like Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jonah and all the other prophets, John’s message is, “Repent, for the Messiah comes!”  And like many prophets before him John suffers imprisonment and death.        

Yet even though the prophets, including John, suffer many afflictions and sometimes even death for preaching God’s truth, none of what they suffer compares to the pain and hardships Christ would suffer through His baptism. Before Jesus is baptized, He is already clean. He is God. He doesn’t carry any sin with him into the water. The message of John, “Repent and be baptized” seems obsolete as there is nothing to wash away. But if we remember what the will of God is throughout the Old Testament it makes a lot of sense. 

God had to send His Son to earth so that there would be a sacrifice large enough to atone for all the sins of the world. When the heavens open at Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit comes down and the voice of the Father thunders from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!” This voice from the Father is not just a “hey son, I’m proud of you” like some dads may say after their son’s team wins a basketball game. This word pleased points out that this body of Jesus, that was just washed in the Jordan, came out of the water ready to take on the wrath of the Father and be a sacrifice for all. God provides this sacrifice to save His creation from the bondage of death. In baptism Jesus puts on your sin, my sin, the disciples’ sin, the prophets’ sin, the sin of all people, and He takes it to the cross. This baptism makes Jesus’ life and death messy and miserable.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus gets His hands dirty. After He is baptized, He goes out to be tempted by Satan in the wilderness while never sinning once. His first disciples come from low social classes. His first miracle in Mark is healing a man with an unclean spirit. He heals many others with diseases, eats dinner with criminals, gets called out by the temple staff for being a hypocrite, and is arrested. He is then beaten, spat on, mocked, and killed. Yet, while all this is happening to Him, He knows that He suffers these things for all men. He dies even for the ones who are putting Him to death. There is nothing clean about what Jesus has to do by taking on the Father’s will. 

            His baptism, that ends with His death, is the only way He could make you clean. The will of the Father is completed when you are washed clean in the blood of Jesus at your baptism.  In baptism you are united with Christ in His death, yet the work of the Son is not done if Christ stays dead. St. Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5). If we only hear that Christ died there would be no hope for life eternal. He went through all this messiness of death on a cross to make atonement for the sins the world and then rises out of the depths of death three days later to life. This is the work that pleases the Father. This is the work that fixes the gap between us and God. 

            When the baptized pray, “Thy Kingdom Come” and we eat of that body and drink of that blood in His Supper, we get a glimpse of the unity of heaven and earth. We look forward to the day of the resurrection of the dead when we will forever be in His presence, and we will never again be lost to the messiness of this world. Jesus did the dirty work for you, so that you could be washed whiter than snow. He completed the work of the Prophets, took on all sin, and freely gives you His living water of everlasting life. He has chosen you, saved you and set you free! You are clean in the blood of Jesus Christ. Amen.