And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness … The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)
Dear friends, go back with me into the days of the old covenant. Go back with me and look in on Aaron, the High Priest hard at work in the Tabernacle. The smell of the animals, the feel of the rough hide beneath his hands. The sound of the bleating and the singing, the prayers and the crowds. It was all so familiar, yet also fearfully humbling, for the importance of this day was hard to ignore. After all the days past, the days of failure and sin, days of iniquities and transgressions, God was giving His people another chance. He was granting them this Day of Atonement. A day for forgiveness and renewed righteousness in the relationship between God and His people. On this day the sins of all past days would be laid on the head of this unwitting goat, and it would take the sins of the people with him, out into the wilderness. It would take those sins far away from the people, so that they might remain close to the Lord and His Dwelling Place. This one lone animal would bear the failures and burdens of all this unfaithful people. It would bear the sins of the people so that they might be free to live in the covenant of God Almighty. And all this astounding transaction came to be through his outstretched hands so perfunctorily laid upon this surrogate’s head. In a moment this simple act would be over, but the effect would guarantee the welfare of God’s people in all the days until the next Day of Atonement.
Now jump forward with me so many centuries, past hundreds upon hundreds of such Days of Atonement, to the day of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan river. (Matthew 3:13-15) “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.” Here, at the Jordan, we see once again in the holy presence of the Lord God Almighty both God’s High Priest and the sacrificial Lamb. We are also witness to the transfer of sin upon a surrogate who will be sent out into the wilderness. After all the days of long ages past, days of failure and sin, days of doubts and disinterest, God was again giving His people another chance.
Here in St. Matthew’s Gospel we have the very Lamb of God presenting himself a willing sacrifice, that He might bear the sins of the people. That he might be the means of their atonement before God Almighty. Today the High Priest Himself is consenting to become that sacrifice. The one who should rightly stand in judgment over the sins of the people is proposing to become the very one who will instead bear the weight of those sins. But this is what must be if righteousness is to be fulfilled for one and all under God.
(Matthew 3:16-17) 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.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present for this is the day that will see all righteousness fulfilled. In an attempt to show the presence of God the Father at this remarkable event, Christian artists throughout the ages have drawn a hand descending from the heavens. You’ve seen one such picture on our bulletin cover this morning. A hand outstretched in blessing and approval. A hand to rest in comfort, pride and affection on the shoulders of His only Son. A hand that in a gesture shows what God himself foretold in our Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 42:1) 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.
Yet consider this dear friends – it is also a hand that is in a very real sense, was laid upon the head of Jesus to make him our surrogate. It is the hand placed upon the head of the scapegoat, before it is sent off into the wilderness with the full weight of the sins of God’s people upon it. For that is where Jesus will immediately go after his Baptism, to face our great adversary in the wilderness. The image of the Father’s hand is one of a hand that conveys the sins of all people upon the head one lone man. This Jesus would take those sins far away from us people, so that we might remain close to the Lord and His Dwelling Place. This Jesus would bear the failures and burdens of all unfaithful people. He would bear the sins of all so that we might live in the covenant of God Almighty. This is the significance of what we see unfolding before us today. John was right in his stunned assessment, Jesus has no sins and does not need this Baptism. But we need Him to do it. For this Baptism of our Lord occurred to fulfill all righteousness – our righteousness before God.
That is why St. Paul can so emphatically proclaim in the Epistle: (Romans 6:3-5, 8-10) 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. 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 … Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
Jesus has become our scapegoat. He was Baptized into us to become our surrogate under the law. In this Baptism He took on our sin so that returning from the wilderness victorious, He might shed His innocent blood as a once-and-for-all sacrifice to atone for mankind’s sin. He is the one who willingly died to sin once for all so that we sinners might live a new life in Him. He is the one who came back to life to grant us eternal life through our Baptism into Him. His Baptism as your scapegoat, made possible your Baptism as a beloved child and heir of heaven. Always remember this. Always rejoice in this. You have had your day of Atonement in Christ, and now your place is with Him.
As Luther remarked: Therefore, learn to esteem this festival highly. For here God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – are all present as Christ was baptized. And how wondrous that this glorious manifestation occurred at Christ’s baptism at the Jordan! Had God so willed, it might have been in the wilderness or in the temple. But it happened at the baptism, in order that we might esteem baptism highly and regard ourselves as nothing other than newly created, holy people by our baptism. (Homily 3 for Epiphany, House Postils, I:220)