This Sunday the vast majority of Christians around the world will gather to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  It is fitting that this annual centuries-old celebration comes at the beginning of January; what better way to start the year than to reflect upon how Jesus started his ministry?

During Advent we looked at what the birth of Jesus teaches us about who He is.  But now we shift our attention to what the baptism of Jesus teaches us about what He came to do.

The account in Matthew 3:13-17 tells us Jesus came to accomplish three tasks.  Let’s consider them.

Jesus came to identify with us.

In verses 14 and 15 Matthew tells us that when Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John,

“John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

Why is John so incredulous?  Because baptism was for sinners only.  Not for the sinless Son of God!  In choosing to baptized, Jesus was associating himself with people who needed to be cleansed.  This would have been viewed as scandalous.  It probably would have started rumors that this guy who claimed to be God actually had some things he needed to repent of.

So, why is this important for us?  Because we tend to believe that our failures drive us farther away from God.  But if that were the case Jesus would never have chosen to come near the people lined up to be baptized in the sin-murky waters of the Jordan, much less be baptized in it himself.

In Dorothy Sayers’ play “The Man Born to be King”, there is a scene in which Mary Magdelene says this of Jesus:

“The Master was the only good person I ever met who knew how miserable it felt to be bad.  It was as if He got right inside you and felt all the horrible things you were doing to yourself.”

So, that’s the first task Jesus came to accomplish.  Let’s move on to the second.

Jesus came to obey for us.

In verse 15 we see how Jesus responded to John’s incredulousness: “Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is right for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’”

This strikes us as a strange statement.  But if you were a first-century Jew you would have immediately realized that Jesus was alluding to Deuteronomy 6:25, which states: “If we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, this will be our righteousness.”

Here’s the point: Jesus is saying, ‘You’ve tried to obey this law for several centuries and it hasn’t worked.  So I’m going to do it for you and credit my perfect obedience to you.’

As a pastor I have found that this is one of the hardest things for Christians to accept; that Jesus not only died to for us but also obeyed for us.  I must admit that to preach this makes me nervous.  After all, don’t I want my people to obey God?  Of course!  But there’s a sense in which I can start to think that obedience makes God like us more.

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“Pastors especially seem to assume that everybody, or at least a majority, can be either persuaded or pushed into righteousness and maybe even holiness, in spite of centuries of evidence to the contrary.”

It was so freeing when I realized that my job as a pastor is not to keep people from sinning, but to point them to Jesus.  The fact is people really do believe that their standing with God is based on their performance.  And the good news is that it’s not.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

“We spend a lot of time in the church talking about God’s love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them.”

This leads to the third and final task Jesus came to accomplish.

Jesus came to approve of us.

In verse 16 Matthew goes on to tell us that when Jesus was baptized, “heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”

What a beautiful picture of the love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for one another.  But here’s what’s so amazing: God not only feels this way about Jesus, but about everyone who knows him!  Paul speaks of Christians as being “in Christ” and even tells the Colossian church that “Christ is in you.”  God not only loves Jesus, He loves us.  He is not only well pleased with Jesus, but with us.  And the truth is, unless we understand that God is pleased with us we will be continually trying to win the approval of others.

Lack of approval can lead people to do strange and even dangerous things.  Consider the biblical character Leah.  She hated the fact that her husband didn’t love her.  So, she had more and more children, each time hoping, “Perhaps now that I’ve given him another son he will love me.”  And it never happened.

You can probably think of examples in your own experience of how the drive to please people and be loved by people eventually leads to disappointment and even bitterness.

This is why God’s approval of us is such good news.  But here’s something to consider: If God told Jesus he loved him and approved of him at the beginning of his ministry, why did he not tell him again three and a half years later when Jesus was hanging on the cross?  It would seem like that would be an even more appropriate time to tell him, seeing as how he had spent those years preaching, teaching, healing, and perfectly obeying.  In fact, Jesus even cried out that God had forsaken him.  Was God absent?  No, just looking the other way, at you and me.  In order for God to tell us he loves us and is pleased with us, he had to turn his back on Jesus and turn his face toward us.  This is why almost every Sunday I close the service by reminding my congregation that “The Lord maketh His face to shine upon you.”  And now that Jesus has buried our sins and ascended to heaven, we are mysteriously with him, no matter what.

So, what did Jesus come to accomplish?  The tasks of identifying with us, obeying for us, and approving of us.  Friends, if this is really true, in the words of Max Lucado, “no wonder they call him the Savior.”