Heaven Opened for You
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Have you ever just gotten done reading about an individual in the Bible and just thought to yourself, “Wow. Now there’s a faithful Christian!” And yet, in the back of your mind, what you are really thinking, what you are despairing about is, “Whoa. That’s how God wants me to live?! I could never measure up.” Take Elijah, for instance. He stood up against some of the worst kings in Israelite history because God told him to. He trusted that God would keep him fed through a drought by placing himself in the care of a widow and her son who were getting ready to eat what they thought would be their last meal. He went toe to toe against the 450 prophets of the false god Baal so that God could display his wonders. In fact, he was so faithful, we might think, that he was one of the very few people in the Bible who didn’t die. God sent a fiery chariot and took him to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). He was even one of the two who appeared with Jesus on the mountain when he was transfigured. How could we even measure up?
Or take Peter, the bold spokesman of the disciples, faithful follower of Jesus. Peter wholeheartedly trusted Jesus and walked out to Jesus on top of the water! When Jesus asked whom the disciples said he was, Peter was right there with the perfect answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Or, when Jesus prophesied that all the disciples would fall away the night he was betrayed, it was Peter who bravely declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:33). After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter was so excited to see Jesus that he jumped out of a fishing boat and swam toward Jesus rather than waiting for it to come ashore. And it was Peter who boldly stood before thousands on the day of Pentecost to preach a very stern sermon to all those who had crucified Jesus – whether directly or indirectly. Wow. How could we ever grow to that level?!
One other such individual, was John the Baptist. We actually aren’t given many glimpses into John’s life of faithfulness and bold service. Much of the chapters dedicated to him talk about his preaching in the wilderness. Yet, I’d argue that although we don’t have many snapshots of his life, he made more of an impact than many of the other prophets and apostles in the Bible. He too was a bold and moving preacher. He too was profound in his wisdom as he preached, and unabashedly called out sin, urging people to repent. And the main reason why I think he was perhaps greater than many of the other prophets and apostles was because of what it says right here in these verses. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ” (Lk 3:15). Now that’s saying a lot. These people didn’t identify just anyone as the Christ. In fact, you can see how reluctant many of them were to even call Jesus the Christ. So there was something about John that just amazed, wowed, and inspired the people.
But there was something missing. Not in the people’s eyes – they thought John was the real deal! There was something missing though. John, obviously knew that he was not the Christ. And he humbly pointed to his own unworthiness, his own lowliness in the face of the Christ, because he knew that he could never measure up. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16). John knew his own inadequacies, and his own sinfulness, even though we might point to him as a hero of faith. In fact, if you go back to my two previous examples, reading their whole story, you will also see that people we hold up on pedestals are no different than you and me. Elijah, that great prophet whom God worked powerfully through, was terrified by the powers against him. When he was threatened with death he ran for his life into the wilderness, but then strangely prayed for that very thing, “I have had enough, Lord” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kg 19:4). And Peter too, despite clearly confessing that Jesus was the Christ, there were moments when he was rather confused on just what that meant. Despite boldly claiming that he would never disown Jesus, it was Peter who denied even knowing him. And there were many other times when he hastily jumped to action before really considering what the godly thing to do would be.
The fact is, sin infect us all. You may look through the pages of Scripture or even look around at the people in this room. There may be some that you respect and uphold for their faithfulness – which is a good thing – but then you may despair thinking, how could I ever be like them? How could I ever live up? Every one of us strives to live a god pleasing life, yet every one of us also fails time and time again. That’s because sin infects every one of us. From the moment we are born – even from conception – we are stillbirths, spiritually speaking. Maybe that strikes a chord with some of you personally. I’m sorry for bringing that up, but this is the reality. This should strike a chord with every one of us. We are all born spiritually dead. Every one of our children is born spiritually dead. That’s tragic. That’s scary. That’s something that can’t be taken lightly. Especially because throughout the Bible God declares a specific judgment with finality against those who are not reborn with the Spirit – those who are not brought from death to life. Here, John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:17). The chaff is the dead, unusable part of the grain. It’s worthless to the harvester. It’s tossed into the unquenchable fire. If left the way we were born, every one of us is destined for this fire.
But amongst the crowds gathered to hear John out in the wilderness, there walks a man who is different. Not just in the way he would speak, not just in the level of his teaching, or the dedication of his service to God. This one was foundationally different from birth, and yet strikingly familiar. Jesus wasn’t born a spiritual stillborn – the only one since the fall into sin. His whole life was lived in perfection. Perfect service to God. Perfect obedience to the Word. He never knew sin. And on the day he was baptized by John, heaven itself even opened for God the Father to declare his approval of Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). And the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came down and remained on Jesus. That didn’t happen for anyone else in the Bible. That didn’t happen for anyone else in history. That couldn’t happen to anyone else but Jesus.
Yet Jesus didn’t lord it over the people. He didn’t elevate himself above others or seclude himself to be visited by only the most noble. He never expected you to be like him. Rather, he came to be like you in all aspects except sin. He was born in flesh, just like yours and mine. He breathed the same air you breath and walked the very same earth you walk. He went out into the wilderness to hear the great prophet of his day – went to where John was preaching. He stood among the crowd of common, everyday people – tax collectors, soldiers, all kinds of other people. All kinds of sinners. He stood among them, and became one with them not only in his birth, but also in his obedience to God’s Word. He became one of them in his birth. He became one with them in his baptism. And God declared about Jesus what he could not say about any other human being on their own, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).
All the heroes of the Bible we look up to and strive after, are not worthy of such a declaration. In fact, John the Baptist, whom Jesus himself called “greatest among those born of women” (Mt 11:11), insists upon his own unworthiness, “I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. I’m not worthy to perform the task of the lowliest of his servants.” And deep down, each one of you must know that you are not worthy of such a declaration. Not on your own at least.
Let’s take the focus off of that important phrase of God’s approval for Jesus for a moment and back up a bit. Jesus was baptized. Why was Jesus baptized? What is baptism? The Bible says that John “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). The second reading for today defines baptism as something God uses to save us. “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). But what sins did Jesus need to be forgiven of? What did he need to be saved from? Didn’t we just talk about how Jesus was not like us in our sinfulness? The prophet Isaiah says that the Christ would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Is 53:12). In fact, Jesus quotes this prophecy about himself shortly before he was crucified. And we often associate this prophecy with Jesus’ death. In his death, God laid on him the sins of us all. But really, all of Jesus’ life was lived as a substitutionary life for ours. His whole life was an offering in place of ours. So, in his baptism too, Jesus unites his baptism with the baptism of all sinners in order to take their place. In his baptism he was numbered with the transgressors so that he could be your Substitute for your redemption.
So as you, born spiritually stillborn in sin, were brought to the waters of baptism, you were reborn through the Holy Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit give birth to spirit” (Jn 3:6). You are renewed. And in your baptism, you were united with Christ in his baptism, and you come out of those waters with the best part of the deal. Your sins are laid on him to go to his cross, and his holiness, his righteousness, is laid on you to open heaven for you. Do you know what that means? It means that God’s approval of Jesus for doing all things well goes with his righteousness. It means that what God declared to Jesus at his baptism, he now declares to you also through your baptism, “You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
You don’t have to go through life trying to live up to the great people of the Bible. Actually, if you want to look at someone from the Bible, look at Jesus. He’s really the only one who lived a perfect life – who never did anything wrong or had any moments of weakness. But as you look at Jesus’ life, don’t look at in the sense of, “Whoa, how could I ever live up to God’s expectations.” Rather, look at it with this conviction, “Wow, because I have been united with Christ in baptism, this perfect life with God’s stamp of approval is really my life in God’s eyes. Because of that, I am a new person! And heaven is open to me!”