Heaven Came Down – January 9, 2022, The Baptism of Our Lord

Psalm 27:1-14, Matthew 3:1-17
January 9, 2022

This story we have today is about the very beginning of the earthly ministry of Jesus.  And I wanted to read it from the beginning of the chapter, starting with the part we read during Advent.  I want you to see how that relates to the story we have for today, “The Baptism of Our Lord.”  Because it’s all part of the same story.  And I want you to think about what this whole scene looks like to you?  What mental images do you have about this story?

John is down by the Jordan river, and he’s preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And we hear some of his preaching.  He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  And Matthew, who is very good at quoting Old Testament prophecies, says this.  “This is one Isaiah spoke of when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’”

Matthew may not have that comma in the right place there.  Isaiah said, “prepare the way in the wilderness.”  Matthew seems to say, “Cry in the wilderness, prepare the way.”  But they’re both saying the same thing.  John was in the wilderness, and he was preparing the way.  So, I see it as the same.  Besides, in the early manuscripts of the New Testament, there was very little punctuation, and barely any space between words.  (But I digress…)

John preached of the coming kingdom.  But he pulled no punches.  When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him, he was “less than kind,” shall we say.  And I’m sure what he said didn’t go over very big with them.  “You brood of vipers!” he called them – probably yelling!  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?”  Maybe you can picture that part of this scene, too, the anger on John’s face, and the shock on the faces of the others – both the Pharisees and the people watching!  These were their leaders he was yelling at!

But then, in our story for today, Jesus comes to John to be baptized.  And that’s the part I really want you to picture in your mind.  John says, “You’re coming to me?  It’s I who should be baptized by you!”  And we know he was right.  But Jesus says, “Let it be so for now.  For thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”

I’ve never been absolutely sure what he meant by that.  But let me suggest that Jesus was saying that his baptism was not so much for his own benefit, but for the benefit of all those who were there watching, and for all those who would read this story later – including us!  For what they witnessed, and what we celebrate now, was to be seen as a very important event!

The title of this sermon comes from an old song we used to sing at a church group I went to when I was in college.  Maybe you know it.  It’s an song called “O What a Wonderful, Wonderful Day.”  I was surprised to find that it’s actually number 331 in our hymnbooks.  Take a look at it sometime.

That’s actually the first line of the song.  And as you may know, hymns in most hymnbooks are listed by the first line.  But the first line of the refrain is “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.”  And of course, that chorus has been running through my head this week, as music often does for me.

That’s what came to mind as I read, once again, this story of the Baptism of Jesus.  “Heaven came down.”  What those people experienced that day was what is known as a “Theophany.”  I’ve used that word before.  It simply means “an appearance of God.”  And when you use that word, it invokes images of Moses on the mountaintop, with the earthquake, thunder, and cloud.  It’s reminiscent of the scene on the mountain of the Transfiguration, with the cloud, and the earthquake, and the dazzling appearance of Jesus, and the voice of God.  A Theophany!

That happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry.  Here, we have a similar scene at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Here, we see the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending in the form of a dove.  And here again, the voice of God!  And I ask you again, what does all of that look like in your mental image?

As I suggested a moment ago, I don’t believe this baptism was for Jesus’ benefit as much as it was for the benefit of the people who were there that day – and for us.  They would say later, and we would acknowledge, that “something happened” that day!  This Jesus, this guy we’ve been hearing and following, was acknowledged by God himself.  “Heaven came down” and showed us that he is who he said he is.  And more than that, he is who God said he is!  “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!”  Again, a Theophany!

Baptism is a beginning.  It is a commissioning, in a way.  It is the beginning of our lives in the Church of Jesus Christ.  And for those of us who were “raised in the Church” – like I was – our “confirmation” is a moment of “confirming” that beginning, that was made on our behalf.  Well, Jesus was using his baptism as a beginning, too.  And I think it’s wonderful that we have shared this ritual, this sacrament, with Jesus himself! 

Matthew viewed this event as a beginning.  He, along with the other Gospel writers, considered this to be the start of Jesus’ ministry.  And it included a “Theophany.”  God himself “showed up!”  He put his blessing on this event, and he gave us every indication that this was the “start of something big.”

Something else would happen first, though.  Satan would have one last shot at ending it, before it really got started.  That’s what happened next.  You can read that on your own.  And I’ve often wondered about that.  I’ve tried to see this as Satan grabbing Jesus, pulling him aside, and trying to sabotage things.  But that’s not what happened.  It appears that the time of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was part of God’s plan.  Matthew tells us, “After this, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  (Matthew 4:1)

That sounds pretty deliberate!  And as much as we don’t like to read about Herod’s massacre of the children in the Epiphany story, we’re not so crazy about this one, either.  Yet it is presented as part of what happened.  And perhaps this, too, was a preparation of sorts – a “baptism by fire.”  Perhaps it was God’s intention to “feel out the enemy,” to know his greatest temptations – the greatest weapons he would use against his people.  I am considering looking at that encounter for next week.  But I want us to be careful with that.  I don’t want us to think it’s up to us to engage the battle.  That’s God’s job.  But I think it is helpful to us to recognize the tactics used against us.

For now, though, I think its most important for us to be sure of who we’re following.  No soldier in a battle wants to think that their leader is not up to task of engaging the enemy.  Any soldier would want to have absolute confidence in the one they are following!

That’s what this story is about.  “Heaven came down” that day, “and glory filled our souls.”  And I hope we know that it has for you.  Because that’s what this is about.  It’s about knowing who we follow, and why.  It’s about having confidence in our leader.  It’s about knowing that our allegiance is not misplaced.

As we think about that again this year, I am going to ask us to do what we’ve been doing for a number of years now.  I’m asking for this to be a time of re-commitment.  A time when we think about following this Jesus, and confirming our decision to do so, whenever that may have been.

At least part of that commitment involved baptism vows.  And in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to use those vows to recommit yourself to this Jesus, here at the start of a New Year.  And as you do so, I would remind you that making a statement in public is a good thing.  But it’s not as important as what we say in our hearts.


Eternal God, we thank you that you so loved the world, that you sent your son.  As we think about our commitment to him and to his kingdom, help us to have the strength we need, through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, that we may live the life you would have us live.  For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen



Renewal of our Baptismal Vows