Seeing Heaven Opened
Text: Luke 3:15-22
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When our Lord created us, He made us with five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The gifts of our senses help us learn and experience God’s creation. Furthermore, because God has made us both body and soul together, that means that our senses help us learn and experience not only physical, material things. Our senses also help us learn and experience spiritual things. For instance, our physical ears hear words that create and strengthen faith. Our tongues taste the Lord’s Supper, which gives us forgiveness and spiritual nourishment. Our eyes see symbols that remind us of lessons we’ve learned about our Lord and what He’s done for our souls.
We see this lesson in striking color today at the Baptism of our Lord. St. Luke took care to gather all the details he could about what was seen, heard, and felt at the Jordan River at that momentous event. For instance, what’s seen? We see Jesus baptized and praying, yes, but we also see the heavens opened. That realm, which had been closed to mortal sight, except in very few rare cases with the prophets, is wide open now. The splendor, the light, the glory—all there, visible to our eyes. What was lost to us is restored at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
But wouldn’t the heavens have stood open for Jesus anyway, whether He was baptized or not? The answer to this is yes and no. Yes, Jesus is truly the eternal Son, fully God, begotten of the Father from eternity. So in that, heaven, and all things, are open to Him forever. But we also must remember that Jesus is fully man too. So when it comes to His human nature, He’s taken our side which we’ve recognized and celebrated this Christmas season and Epiphany. That means that He’s under the Law, with all mankind. In that way, heaven must be opened to Him. He must do what the Law demands for the gates to swing open. He must live as a man and do all that is required for perfection if the heavens are going to be accessible. And it’s the accomplishment there, the accomplishment of Jesus perfectly doing what is demanded by the Law, all Ten Commandments, that entrance into heaven is won and the doors are opened wide to Him. He has access to the Father, to all the heavenly hosts, to everything that heaven contains, all the splendor, light, and glory. Heaven is His.
That’s what we see at the Baptism of Jesus. What of our other senses? We certainly can hear some surprising things. A voice came from heaven—could any of us even imagine that?—and said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” The voice rolled through the air like thunder and shook all who heard it. Heaven was open because this perfectly obedient Son of God was doing everything it took to open the door; now the voice that was heard affirmed this. God the Father is well-pleased with His Son—what He’s done, what He’s doing at the Jordan, what He will do through the rest of His earthly walk.
What is it that the Father will be so well pleased with? The redemption of the world and taking on the sins of all mankind. Pay close attention to the details of what Luke wrote. Notice that the people gathered there have been going down to the water, receiving a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The tax collectors, the soldiers, the sinners of Jerusalem and all Judea, have had all that they’ve done washed off of them by John in that slow-moving water. Those people are baptized and then Jesus is baptized. The sins of the people had been washed off in their baptisms. Jesus, having no sin to wash, went down into the water to pick up those sins and deal with them. And it was this work that would be the most pleasing to the Father: the work of saving the world from all that had separated us from Him.
This work would, of course, be completed at His death. On the cross He finished dealing with those sins He picked up from everyone’s baptism. He defeated them and restored the baptized to holiness. Through His sacrifice He regained access to God—literally opening heaven to us, allowing God’s proclamation of love and being well pleased to be announced to us.
As if it weren’t enough to have God the Father approve of what Jesus was about to accomplish, God the Holy Spirit also shows up to give His seal of approval. The Holy Spirit descends from heaven, in bodily form like a dove, something He had never done before; lighting on Jesus, the Son, leaving no shadow of a doubt that this is the One. This is the Man who is God, who is going to do all that is required, who is going to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. The entire Holy Trinity was present, available for human senses to see and hear, to feel the rumble and echo, to know that something big was happening—something unseen before that would reach its conclusion with Jesus’ work.
So what? That was a momentous event, but isn’t it in the past, like other major events from the history of mankind? We talk about these events in school, we learn about them, but we’re so far removed from them that none of us would pretend that we have any kind of immediate connection to something that happened thousands of years ago. And if we were talking about what one man from history did, this Baptism of Jesus would be exactly like all those other events that happened in the distant past and are done. But here’s the thing: Jesus is not just one man from history. This was not just something that happened a long time ago. Because Jesus is God, and because the entire Trinity shows up and approves of this, it means that this event is set free from the bounds of time and is delivered to us now. The Baptism of Jesus is brought to us in our own baptisms.
Use your senses to learn and experience this. We know that we don’t have any birds in the sanctuary, whether the Holy Spirit or just mundane pigeons. Nor do we see the heavens opened up or hear a divine voice shake the rafter when we’re baptized. But we also know—from our senses, what we’ve heard with our ears and read with our eyes—that we are, in fact, baptized into Christ. “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.” That means that our baptism is connected to Jesus and His baptism. We’re baptized into His life, death, and resurrection. All that He did, all that He lived and experienced, is given to us. All that He has now at the right hand of the Father is ours too, through Him and His gracious rule. The heavens are opened and we have access to God through Jesus’ baptism and ours.
We do still have our senses engaged to help us learn and reinforce this. We can smell the oil that someone who’s baptized receives when they’re anointed. We can feel the water on our skin, hear it trickle down into the font, like streams into the Jordan River. We can feel the pastor’s hands on our head as the people of God pray and we receive Jesus’ blessings. And yes, we do still hear God’s voice. It may not be as dramatic and air rattling as it was in the wilderness, but it is there, cloaked, hidden under the vocal cords of the pastor, the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation. But they are still truly God’s words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “We welcome you in the name of the Lord.”
The Triune God is truly present, just as present as He was at the River. That’s what it means when we’re baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It means that He’s showing up, really and truly there, just as when the service is begun in that same Triune name, just as at Jesus’ baptism. We’re calling on Him to be present, and merciful God that He is, He answers our prayer and is here.
And yes, the heavens are opened up. It may not be in a blaze of light and awe, but the door is opened through forgiveness and grace. We’re placed before the throne of God and made His beloved children with whom He is well pleased. The Holy Spirit is given. He doesn’t take bodily form, but He does show up in that ever-reliable vehicle of God’s Word and Sacraments. He arrives to strengthen us. That’s because He knows that the life of the baptized won’t always be easy in this world. We’ll face temptations. We’ll face sin and guilt. We’ll hear the evil one whisper that maybe we’re not God’s child, maybe He’s not well-pleased with us, maybe Jesus didn’t do enough to cover us. But the Spirit arrives in Baptism, in His Word, to create and strengthen faith. He comes to us to draw us back to the words of the Father: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
So we remember our Baptism. Not all of us will be able to remember the event itself perhaps, but we do remember. Remember you are baptized into Christ with song, with senses, crosses, symbols, words, prayers, and encouragement. You remember when the Holy Spirit reminds you, when forgiveness is poured out. You remember when the heavens are opened to you at the altar where you stand with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, when the gates of heaven are flung open with the Gospel in the Word. You hear, you see, you taste and know that the Lord is good. In the name of Jesus, who opens heaven to us. Amen.