Epiphany One| 2003| Rev. Rolf Preus| Mark 1:11
Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
According to St. Luke in today’s Gospel Lesson, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.” While the eternal Son of the Father had enjoyed His Father’s favor from eternity, he now grew in that favor as a boy growing up. When He was an infant, when He was a boy, when He reached manhood, and when He suffered crucifixion, he did so with His Father’s full and wholehearted approval.
Can you imagine anything worse than not having the approval of those you love? We thrive on approval and acceptance. We need the respect or favor of those we love. It is difficult, if not impossible, truly to love someone who is not pleased with you and never approves of you or what you do.
A little child needs the approval of his or her mother. It is amazing what handicaps a child can overcome when his mother loves him and is happy with him. A child who does not receive approval and praise withers inside. Something dies. The need for approval comes long before a child can even discern the difference between right and wrong.
In fact, the standard of right and wrong in the mind of a three-year-old is quite simple. When you approve of me and of what I do, you are good. When you disapprove of me and of what I do, you are bad. For the little child, he is the standard of what is right and what is wrong. We know that there is probably no cuter age than the age of three. But don’t let that fool you. A three-year-old habitually places himself on the same level as God. If you approve of what I do, you are good. If you disapprove of what I do, you are bad. It is simple, uncomplicated, and thoroughly idolatrous.
As children grow older, they generally learn that there are standards of right and wrong that apply to them from the outside. They learn that they are not their own gods, but are rather under the authority of others: Mom, Dad, babysitter, teacher, and so forth. Christian children are taught the standards of God’s law as summarized in the 10 Commandments. They learn to apply those standards to themselves and so learn self-criticism. The Christian learns to see himself according to God’s standards of behavior. He learns why he receives approval for doing one thing and disapproval for doing another. Children learn to evaluate themselves independently from the evaluation of others at about age 12. This was how old Jesus was when he spent so many hours in the temple asking and answering questions. He was talking to the teachers about the work of the promised Savior. They were discussing how the Messiah would bring God’s favor to His people. At a similar age, most twelve-year-olds learn just why they haven’t won or deserved the favor of God or men. Still, even when we learn that we haven’t deserved God’s approval, this doesn’t make us any less in need of it.
It is in the midst of this struggle – I want the approval of those I love, yet I must admit that I haven’t earned it – that God speaks to our hearts this morning in the Gospel that tells us of the Baptism of Jesus. There in the Jordan River stands Jesus. He is baptized. He is identified as the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is clearly revealed. And to Jesus, God the Father speaks words of approval: “with you I am well pleased.” To have the full approval of Almighty God, what greater treasure could anyone have? How much money could compare with God’s total approval? God’s approval is priceless. To hear the words of God himself; the one to whom all must give an account; the one whose holy nature determines for everyone the eternal standards of right and wrong, good and evil; to hear the words of God himself spoken to you, “I am well pleased with you.”
That’s better than the praise of any human parent. That’s better than the approval of your close friends. That’s better than the adoration of the crowd, it’s even better than the love and support of a husband or wife. God says to you, I am happy with you, I approve of you, I am well pleased with you. These words give you everything you need to live a life that you know is worthwhile, a life which pleases God.
How can you hear the words of God’s approval? You know, or at least you ought to know, that you haven’t done as Jesus did, you haven’t earned God’s approval by how you have lived. If you think you can earn God’s approval and gain his response: “I am well pleased with you” by doing what needs to be done to win it, then you are thinking the wrong way. Those people who were baptized by John did not go to the Jordan because they had won God’s approval for themselves, they went precisely because they had not, and yet they desired it more than anything else. The one who hears God’s word of approval is not the one who stands before God and says, “God, give me what I deserve.” You and I don’t deserve God’s approval. We confess our sins, as did those penitents who were baptized by John.
Well, then, is this what gains us God’s approval? When we confess that we have done wrong, that we have not loved God above all things, that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, when we confess this, admit it, say we are sorry and are sincerely repentant, is this what changes God’s disapproval into approval? No, it is not.
When the child disobeys after you have clearly told him what to do, and then, when confronted with his disobedience, he says, “I’m sorry,” we are surely glad that he is sorry, but we need to teach him that being sorry doesn’t make things alright. What is done is still done, and he can be as sorry as can be, but that really cannot undo the sin. Imagine, if you will, that someone invented a repentometer which could gauge how sorry people were for the bad things they did. Let’s say a man went into a bar, got half drunk, started an argument with another guy and when the guy took a swing at him, he pulled out a gun and shot him dead. After sobering up, he was really and truly sorry for having killed the man. The repentometer gauged the deepest contrition on the scale. Would you be willing to go to that man’s widow and say to her, Well, we know your husband was killed, and the man who did it intended to do it, but he’s really quite sorry, so we’re going to let him go?
Being sorry for our sin doesn’t take it away. It doesn’t pay for guilt. Yes, God commands us to repent, to mourn our sins, to be genuinely sorry for our offences against God. But that doesn’t take away sin.
Look back to the Jordan , and see Jesus standing there. There can be no doubt that God is well pleased with him. Why did the Holy Spirit see fit to record this event in the life of Jesus, not once, but three times, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke? Just so that we could know that the Father was pleased with his only begotten Son? Or just as an example for us, so that we could spend our lives looking at Jesus’ example, falling short in our imitation of it, and listening to God’s approval of him, while knowing in our hearts that he will never approve of us because we always fall short? No. Jesus did much more that set us an example when He stood in the Jordan and received baptism. Baptism is for sinners, not for righteous people like Jesus. Jesus was incapable of repenting. He had nothing to repent of. Jesus did not receive baptism merely to set us an example of something good we could do in imitation of Him. He received baptism in order to make our baptism what it is.
In baptism, Jesus took our sins and placed into the water His obedience and His righteousness. He joined to the waters of Holy Baptism his holy life that pleased his Father in heaven. When we are baptized, we leave in those waters our sin, our guilt, and the old lives headed toward death. We receive from those waters Christ’s righteousness and His obedience. His life of pleasing his Father in heaven is given to us so that it is our life. Our baptism joins us to Christ. Our baptism is where Christ meets us and we meet Christ, not just on the day we are baptized, but every day of our lives. In our baptism we receive that intimate communion with Jesus, so that all He is and has is ours, all of the righteousness, all of the obedience, all of the innocence, it is ours. In our baptism, our God says to us, each of us individually and by name, “I am well pleased with you, I approve of you.”
There are many who are baptized and who toss aside that blessed exchange. Instead of taking refuge and finding comfort in Christ’s obedience and death for them, they despise their baptism and seek to go it alone, either not caring for God’s approval or seeking to earn it, and thus despising Christ and his grace. Many fall from the grace of their baptism, never to return. They prefer a life of being their own gods and like the three-year-old who is no longer so cute they live to serve themselves. They don’t repent of their sins. They don’t come before God with humble hearts seeking his mercy. Many others try to earn what only God’s grace can give and thus they deny Christ and their own baptism into union with Him.
But the abuse of a gift doesn’t make the gift any less valuable. Nobody’s unfaithfulness can make God a liar. Baptism is what baptism is. Jesus is who Jesus is. We who lay claim to the Jesus to whom our baptism joins us hear a verdict from God that cannot be silenced. “This is my beloved son or daughter in whom I am well pleased.” Our baptism gives us a real life to live. It is a life lived under God’s approval. Christ has brought it to us. We know that everything we do in faith receives the good pleasure of our gracious God. This is why we live to please him. It is because He is well pleased with us.