Stream services online at

January 8, 2023

The Sign of Water and the Spirit

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Series: This Will Be a Sign for You Category: Biblical Scripture: Matthew 3:13–17

The Baptism of Our Lord

January 8, 2023

Matthew 3:13-17

 “The Sign of Water and the Spirit”

You may be wondering what happened to Epiphany this year. Good question! The twelve days of Christmas conclude with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which this year fell on a Friday. We usually celebrate this in worship on the Sunday after Epiphany, but because of how the days fall this year, that is today – the First Sunday after Epiphany – which has its own emphasis. On the church’s calendar, the First Sunday after Epiphany is all about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, as we heard in today’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17), and by extension, our own Baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Epiphany is about the visit of those Wise Men from the East, guided by a star, who come bearing their costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-11). But then everything fast forwards to the grown-up adult Jesus who comes to be baptized by John. This is what we focus on in worship and preaching today with the message of the sermon entitled, “The Sign of Water and the Spirit.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.

Early on in this new year, it’s good to go back to the beginning – Jesus’ beginning and our own. Before launching out into his public ministry of preaching and teaching as the promised Messiah, Jesus submits to being baptized by John at the Jordan River. But why? As we heard in the Advent season, lots of people came to John to confess their sins and be baptized by him (Matthew 3:1-12). John’s fiery message of repentance called even God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, to turn to the Lord God with heart-felt repentance, rather than relying on any special status from their family history. But why Jesus? He is the promised Messiah, the sinless Son of God, and as such, Jesus did not need Baptism as we do, for the forgiveness of our sins. Even John balked when Jesus came to him for baptism, and would have turned him away, as we heard: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Jesus’ response sets the tone for what follows: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). There it is: Jesus came to “fulfill all righteousness.” And it begins with his baptism by John, marking him as the One chosen by the Father, fulfilling what Isaiah wrote in today’s Old Testament lesson: Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

Here at Jesus’ baptism, all Three Persons of the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are present. The Father’s voice of affirmation is heard: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Son, clothed like us in human flesh and blood, is washed in the waters of the Jordan, not for his sake, but for ours. The Spirit descends like a dove and comes to rest upon the Son. Here at Jesus’ baptism is the sign of water and the Spirit, marking him as God’s chosen and beloved Son. From here, Jesus would go on to fulfill all righteousness, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Jesus came to live that life of perfect obedience to the Father’s will and purpose, and Jesus came to die the death we rightly deserved because of our sin and disobedience to the Father’s will and purpose. And it all starts here at the Jordan River.

Each of us has our own Jordan River – the place where our own faith journey began. For me, it wasn’t even at the Baptismal font at my home church. Because of severe winter weather the year I was born, my Baptism took place in a basin on the kitchen table at home. Although Baptism typically takes place here in the house of the Lord, it can happen anywhere. The order for Holy Baptism in Cases of Emergency, found at the very close of the hymnal, provides for this (Lutheran Service Book, p. 1023). Because Jesus’ baptism took place in the Jordan River, sometimes people think that the waters of the Jordan have special powers. I have a glass bottle of Jordan River water, but it is just ordinary water, like water from any other place. Yes, there is certainly a strong Biblical connection in both Old and New Testaments to the Jordan River as God’s plan of salvation unfolded to reveal the coming of his own Son, Jesus, but it’s not the water itself that has the power to do anything. The power lies in the Word of God, as Luther writes in his Small Catechism on Holy Baptism: “How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying’” (Titus 3:5–8). The sign of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism ushers us into the kingdom of God, making us God’s own beloved children. 

Even when we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, even when we have been marked with the sign of the cross and sealed by the Holy Spirit for life eternal, we can lose our way. We can forget who we are and Whose we are. Over the Christmas holidays when all of my daughters, now young adults, were home, I was looking around for something in the basement and found this Woody doll in a box. It was a favorite of one of my daughters, together with Bullseye, Woody’s horse, all from the 1995 Pixar movie, Toy Story. We meet these characters, along with lots of other toys belonging to the little boy, Andy. Like many other movies, there’s a sequel, which is Toy Story 2 (1999). Here, a toy collector is in search of Woody to complete his collection and sell it for big money to an overseas collector. He happens to come upon Woody who was accidentally put out for a yard sale, and takes him. Woody gets cleaned up in order to get packed up and shipped. In the process, Andy’s name, written on the bottom of Woody’s boot, gets painted over. The good news is that Woody gets reunited with Andy and all is well. That image of Andy’s name getting painted over and Woody forgetting who he is and whose he is, has a lot to say to us. The Name – the sign – of our Maker and Redeemer, traced on our foreheads at Baptism, can get painted over in the course of our life. We can forget who we are and Whose we are. We can wander far away from the One who loves us and gave his life for us. The good news is that our Maker and Redeemer does not forget about us. When we feel like we’ve gone off the rails and abandoned the God who made us his own in Baptism, we have this promise from today’s Old Testament lesson: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3a). When it feels like we are bruised and broken, like we are about to be extinguished, the Lord who called us to new life by the sign of water and the Spirit is more than able to rescue, revive and restore us. As Paul the apostle tells us in today’s Epistle lesson (Romans 6:1-11): 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.”

As we begin this new year, may the Holy Spirit help us to remember and reclaim day by day all that God in Christ has done for us in Holy Baptism. Amen.