Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17
The Jordan River starts somewhere north of the Sea of Galilee, when it combines into one from several tributaries. It empties into the Dead Sea, which is below sea level. The Jordan is the main water source for the Dead Sea and forms the border between Israel and Jordan. We first visited the Jordan River in the West Bank, just to the east of Jericho, on the second full day of the pilgrimage. We were warned by our guide not to touch the water, as it is now polluted, and no baptisms occur in this area. There is also a mine field off the Jordan River from the Six Day War in 1967. Later in the pilgrimage, we visited the Jordan River one more time just south of the Sea of Galilee, but there the water was very clean and clear.
Of course we know that baptism is a bit of a contentious issue in the church nowadays; this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, baptism has been regarded as a sacrament since the Church began, and most denominations still do count it as such. (Only the Baptists, Anabaptists, and some Wesleyans regard it as an ordinance, a command, but having no power to forgive sins. “The Lutheran Difference,” CPH, 2003.)
When Jesus was baptized, as the Lutheran Service Book says, He “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” John was not baptizing for the washing away of sins but for repentance, preparing the way for Jesus. Jesus instituted and commanded a new baptism: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The New Testament epistles also have a lot of baptismal language. Paul says in Titus that God has saved us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” And then in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Peter is bold and clear in his epistle to say that “Baptism…now saves you…” And there are other passages (see Luther’s Small Catechism).
Because of God’s promises, I find joy in every baptism that I witness, whether baby or adult. God is making this person a Christian–He is washing away sins, creating and sustaining faith, and bringing him or her into a community of believers, all without any merit or effort on their part. It is a beautiful thing to see God’s mercy at work in such an ordinary thing as water mixed with His Word. God’s joy is in nourishing us with the ordinary.
My son was baptized on August 13, 2000, and my daughter was baptized on March 2, 2003. Those two days are the most important days of their lives. Now, every time they hear “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” they remember that they are baptized. Whenever they have doubts or are grieved by sins, they remember that they are baptized. God does not abandon His people–the faith that He creates, He also nurtures–through parents, through pastors, through the Word, and especially through His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper.
Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “(Baptism) is nothing other than putting to death the old Adam and effecting the new man’s resurrection after that. Both of these things must take place in us all our lives. So a truly Christian life is nothing other than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.”
The Jordan River in Israel was pretty unremarkable as far as rivers go. Yet it was the site where Jesus started His ministry and began the work of saving us all. His joy is in nourishing us with the ordinary and unremarkable. God’s love for us, however, is anything but ordinary.
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” 1 John 3:1