The Baptism of Our Lord – Series C
This Sunday launches the Sundays after the Epiphany. As such its seasonal role merits a little attention on our part. The Sundays after Epiphany work best in a tension with the Christmas season and the Lententide which follows. Christmas proclaims the Incarnation, the enfleshment of Jesus. God comes into the flesh of humanity, effectively hiding himself, going incognito. And when God attempts to do something, he does it really well. Jesus has been so hidden in the infant of Bethlehem and the carpenter’s son from Nazareth that many would mistake him for nothing more than a man. In truth, many make that very assumption during his ministry.
Epiphany’s Sundays will serve to pull back that human veil a little for us to get a peek at the divine reality which lies underneath. Epiphany literally means “reveal” and in the readings which occupy our attention for the next several weeks Jesus will be revealed to be something special. We will particularly notice this in the miracles, the collection of disciples, and his teaching ministry. Watch the reaction of the people present to his words and deeds. Notice how the demons act around him. Notice how the very forces of nature are subject to him. When taken together the readings are designed to leave one with the inescapable conclusion that Jesus is God.
The Sundays have a structure to them as well, a structure which is evident already in this first week. The Sundays of Epiphany have a bookended effect in that the first and last Sunday of the season both involve a voice from heaven which proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved Son. The Sundays between are unpacking that reality, both the beloved and the divine parts of that statement.
This first Sunday starts with the Baptism of our Lord. The readings suggest to us that this is perhaps about our baptism, and many a preacher will run with that on this day. The Church in late antiquity used this as a baptismal day. Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century chided the Sicilian bishops for doing more baptisms on this date than at Easter. He thought they should not do that. I know a fellow who only does baptisms four days out of the year except for emergencies, saving them up for large baptismal events. This is one of his baptismal days. Even if you don’t have a baptism this Sunday, you might just do a baptismal remembrance rite.
Theologically, however, the emphasis on our baptism may not be the best. Jesus’ baptism is not so much speaking to our baptism as it is speaking about his work. John preached a baptism of repentance, but since Jesus was the sinless Son of God one almost has to ask the question “what was he doing there?” He had no sins to repent of. Or did he perhaps have them all? Jesus as the prototypical Christian does not work. But Jesus as the one who shoulders the sins of the whole world, who enters these waters bearing a burden which the Father has laid upon his shoulders, that does work today.
The preacher will want to keep this straight. My baptism is not a repetition of Jesus’ baptism or somehow patterned on this event, but my baptism is empowered by the Jesus who was baptized on this day. This is confusing because both of them use water and the same word for what happens, but ontologically my baptism is a different thing that Jesus’ baptism. I am baptized into
Christ. He is baptized as an act on behalf of the whole world. We all need to repent, and fail at it, so he does it for us. When I am baptized, I am united with him. When he is baptized, he is saving the world. These are two fundamentally different actions. I am passive in my baptism, he is active in both his own and my baptism.
One could preach an interesting sermon on this text in which you assert that this is the day in which God proclaims Jesus of Nazareth to be the “Christ” the anointed one. This sermon would preach as an explanation of that word. The anointing by the Holy Spirit would empower Jesus to do the things that he did, not that he was not already the Son of God, but now he was publically acknowledged as such and given this mission, this office, this task to perform. This is really where we get to call him by that name: Jesus the Christ.
How shall we talk about this? In the past we thought that the idea that Jesus was identifying with humanity meant we were asking some important questions about what it means to be a human being? When Isaiah says he bore our infirmities, does that mean he got sick? Does it mean he ever cut a board too short in his father’s workshop? What does it mean to be a human being? We ask those same questions in many venues and the preacher may want to be aware of this. Some are asking this about computers today. When does a machine become alive? What is intelligence? What is a soul? The old movie, Blade Runner with Harrison Ford asked that question about artificially manufactured people/clones. Are they human? We also of course ask this question in bioethical questions about abortion, end of life issues, and the like. These might be fruitful places for preachers to mine/explore.
Collect of the Day
Father in heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children and inheritors with Him of everlasting life; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This prayer acknowledges that the word baptism is going to make us all think of our own baptismal event, and it should. Baptism does indeed incorporate me into the life Jesus lived this day and every day, and the life which he laid down at Calvary to take up again on Easter’s brilliant morning.
In the Jordan God the Father named Jesus as his beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. This is especially true in Luke but also found in all the Gospels. This anointing of the Spirit and the proclamation is really about establishing the authority of Jesus to do what he sets out to do. The temptation scene which follows immediately upon this will have Satan questioning the validity of the claim that Jesus is God’s Son. “If you are really the son of God, turn these stones into bread…” This anointing is not with oil, but with the very Spirit of God. Luke will especially hammer home the role of the Spirit within the ministry of Jesus. Jesus will be noted at
critical junctures as being filled with the Spirit, just as we have already seen Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth and others acting under the impulse of that Holy Spirit.
The prayer also, however, notices that our own baptism at play here. We are baptized into this Jesus, made one with the One who stood in Jordan’s flood. We pray that we may be faithful to our calling as His children and thus his heirs, heirs of his eternal life.
Naturally the preacher has at least two different themes to run with here. Is this about Jesus or is this about our baptism? Can we bridge that gap without leaving our folks totally confused or worse, sure that their baptism and Jesus’ baptism are the same thing?
What does it mean for us today that Jesus is proclaimed as God’s beloved Son and that he acts today with the Holy Spirit? Here are a few reasons why this is important to us and should be important to our people.
1. Christ has divine authority to forgive sins just consider Hebrews 1:1-4 in which the words of Jesus are compared to the prophets and the conclusion is that they are far more authoritative.
2. Christ’s Holy Spirit continues to convey the presence of Christ to us today. As the body of Christ, this is also, in a sense, our anointing with the Spirit, an anointing which would be recapitulated at Pentecost.
3. Christ Jesus, present through that Spirit, is still authoritatively forgiving sins today. Jesus anointed is not just a past event, but a present event every time we, in that same Spirit, actualize the kingdom of God through sacramental action. When we forgive sins, baptize, and commune this Jesus shows up.
4. Jesus the beloved Son of God was found in the waters of repentance because he was bearing my sins and the sins of the whole world. This means my repentance is also somehow connected to him.
5. Jesus, being the Son of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, would carry those sins to Good Friday and Easter morning, thus removing their crushing burden from my shoulders.
6. Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit also then empowers us as witnesses. Our eyes are opened to see this Christ at work, we have a story to tell, that telling/proclamation of Christ’s real and active kingdom here and how is not merely a bunch of ninnies telling a story, but it is an occasion for the Spirit of God to be at work.
7. This Jesus who was present then, went up and out of these waters to a ministry of love and help to all who were in need. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, cared for the lonely and distressed. And he still does it through us and with us. Our lives of service have become lives lived for him.
This now is starting to lead us to talk of what it means to be baptized people of God. What then does it mean that in my own baptism I have been united with this Jesus who stands in this penitential flood on my behalf? What does it mean that he who owns eternal life by right now takes my death and exchanges it for his own life?
1. My baptism is a baptism of repentance. As Paul will say in the Epistle reading today we can no longer live in sin once we have died to it in these waters. Jesus’ perfect repentance on this day empowers my own repentant life. I cannot leave my life of sin by myself, but he can bring me forth from it.
2. My baptism unites me with the one who legitimately can lay claim to the title “Son of God.” That means I am God’s child.
3. If I really am God’s child, I am also his heir. The heavenly mansion which awaits me is not a thing into which I will skulk, but a legally bestowed gift, an inheritance which I have not earned but legally, rightfully own.
4. Being baptized means a present reality – this is not a future truth to which we look with expectation and joy, but a current reality as well. We are the children of God. Heaven in a sense does not wait.
5. More? See some of the last things we wrote above about our witness and service.
1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. 5 Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. 6I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This first verse has marvelous sermons packed in there. Of course, Jacob and Israel are the same person, but the names are significant. Given the name Jacob at his birth, the son of Isaac was a complete stinker. He tricked and weaseled his way through life, rebelling and seeking to get the best of friend and foe, and he succeeded quite often! As God said in the wrestling match at the end of Gen 32, he had wrestled with God and men and prevailed.
In fact, that is what Israel means, “Wrestles with God.” But this is not the real joy of it. God had made a bargain with Jacob at Bethel and Jacob clearly thought that he was getting the better of God in this deal. God held up his end of the bargain, submitted to Jacob’s unreasonable demands, and now in the wrestling/renaming match at the end of chapter 32, he was collecting.
It is interesting that before chapter 32 Jacob never says the words “the LORD my God” but always refers to the Lord as “the God of my fathers” or “the LORD, your God.” After this, he almost always calls the LORD “my God.” In a very real sense, Jacob is the old man, Israel is the new man of faith.
Of course Jacob has been moldering away in a grave for centuries when Isaiah writes, but the people who bear his name continue to have the same characteristics, they are both Jacob and Israel. They are a stiff-necked and rebellious people, but God submits himself to their unreasonable prayers and demands, loving the Israel of faith whom he has created in the baptism of the Red Sea and fed with the Supper of manna.
To them both he says “Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” He speaks of passing through waters, a clear allusion to the Red Sea, He is with them in fire, a less clear allusion to Sinai or perhaps another story from the OT (remember that Daniel has not been written yet).
God then goes on to speak of his great love for the people of Israel, how they are his treasure, how valuable they are to him. He gives Egypt and Cush and Seba in their place. Mighty empire, exotic places, for little old Israel.
This of course seems strange to their ears, for Isaiah is addressing a people who have been politically, militarily, and otherwise hammered. They are in exile, their children are in distant lands, the northern ten tribes are gone, the south is on the brink, if not already gone. God promises to bring the disparate children home. Indeed, everyone who is called by God’s name, those whom he formed and created, they all will be brought home.
Of course, the Gentiles like us take our comfort from that last verse. God, in choosing Abraham, did not exclude the rest of us. He said that through Abraham he would bless all the families of the earth, Jew and Gentile. There is another really good sermon to be found right there, a sermon of God’s universal love spoken to all, that he has given not nations on our behalf, but his only begotten son, a much more precious treasure. So broad and deep is the love of God for us. Thus Isaiah would calm our fears today.
Being Christian readers of this text, we also notice that this sounds a great deal like the Father speaking to the Son today. Jesus is the entire nation reduced to one man. Remember he relives the critical junctures of Israelite history, even going on a sojourn to Egypt. But after Jesus the things which happen to him are expanded to include the whole of His people.
Could we preach the first verse as “create” being the justification piece and “form” as the sanctification piece? If we do, we might want to expand the second reading as it speaks of the implications of being slain and made alive in Christ.
You may be installing officers or looking forward with a group of people this week. This passage’s emphasis on confidence in God, fearless facing of the challenges which do lie before us, this might be an excellent passage. The emphasis on “made by God” at the beginning and the end is true no matter how you feel. God promises that you are precious to him. The waters will still rise and we will pass though the fire and water (Exodus?) but they will not overwhelm us.
1Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.
3The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. 4The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
5The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 6He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. 8The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. 11May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!
A little time spent with this psalm is rewarding. I realize we are all busy, but I encourage you to do so simply as a meditative practice, even if you are not preaching this psalm.
The Psalmist (traditionally David) urges the heavenly beings to ascribe to God the glory due his name. Who and what are these heavenly beings? We would probably leap to say angels today but remember that the ancients lived in a world filled with spirits, often unruly spirits. The spirit in the river or the spring might just as easily drown you as anything else. David urges them to sing the praises of God.
The LORD thunders over the waters. Is he talking about actual thunder here? Does David hear in the storm the very voice of God? Again, we have to remember that the ancient did not perceive the world through our rather stunted vision of reductive materialism which reduces thunder to the effect of a static electric charge. If you have ever encountered one of those great thunderstorms of the South or Midwest you know just how awesome they can be.
In vss. 5 and 6 the voice of the LORD seems to be the cause of an earthquake as Lebanon skips like a calf. This is a seismically active part of the world. The mighty cedars of Lebanon are broken. The ground itself leaps about.
In vss. 7 and 8 again the voice of the LORD shakes the earth but this time it is with fire as well. A volcano? Kadesh is in the Sinai somewhere. We are not sure. It was a primary encampment for the people in the wanderings of the Exodus in the wilderness of Zin.
Vs. 9 is the one that really brings us up short. The psalmist seems to be finding God in awesome events in nature. Things which remind us of thunder, earthquakes, and volcanoes. But here the voice of the LORD causes the deer to give birth and the seasons to run as he notes the leaves fall to the ground in the winter. This too is at the command of God. Even the assembly who shouts “Glory!” are the thing which the Word of God has brought into being.
Suddenly this is talking about us and this assembly in which we find ourselves this morning. I am no longer an external observer through the eyes of the psalmist. I am a creation of this amazing voice that rattles the earth and calls the deer to give birth and orders the seasons.
The final verses of the psalm now make sense. We are calling on the power of God to aid His people. Power by itself is not necessarily my friend. But God’s power, while still the great power which shakes the very earth, is also the gentle power which causes the deer to give birth. I can look for that power and look forward to that God acting in power.
1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We 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.
5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This familiar and deep passage is central to our Baptismal theology and comfort.
In chapters 1-5 Paul has articulated his profound re-reading of the Old Testament following his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It is not the keeping the rules that make us beloved to God, it is the free gift, apart from works of the Law, the gift given in Jesus, through the faith of Jesus (see the Greek in chapter 3:21-28). In chapter 5 he says that this all took place while we were enemies of God. It is completely on God’s shoulders.
Here in chapters 6 and 7 he anticipates a number of objections that people might raise to this theology he has just expounded. Our text today is the first of those questions. If we are not saved by doing something right, why should we bother with doing anything right? If forgiveness is graciously and fully given, then why not sin more to get more forgiveness? But behind this question is really the question of why we should ever do something good.
Paul in these words explores the ontological change, the actual difference, which is attributable to our baptism. We are no longer the people who once wallowed in sin, now we are simply different people. We died to that old way, now we live in a new way. The piece of wood which once held up the branches of the tree, has been cut, milled, shaped, and repurposed as something else, perhaps a table or a chair. It involves a death, the tree has been chopped down, but the person has found a new use, a new purpose.
Of course my little metaphor there loses something. In the case of baptism, the death leads to more life, not a lifeless piece of furniture.
Paul works a very participatory metaphor here. This is not the justification metaphor and the preacher does not want to make it fit that mold. This is the metaphor of participation. Jesus has come into the flesh, we have been united with him in death, and he has participated in death with
us so that in that darkness we might be found. If you want to read more about this, I recommend the Orthodox tradition. They have long been pondering the participatory metaphor while we have been focused on Justification as our metaphor of choice.
When I speak of this metaphor for what Jesus has done I often use the imagery of a man diving into a pool of water. Jesus does not skim through the well lit upper layers of the human experience, the bright and sunny spots, but he dives all the way the depths of our experience, the horrific death of a crucifixion, because it is down there in the cold, sepulchral depths of the human experience that he finds all of us. Death is the common denominator which unites rich and poor, black and white, male and female, slave and free. We all die. Jesus collects us there. I think this is what Luke has in mind in that strange verse in which Jesus compares himself to a vulture (Luke 17:37). When the disciples ask him about where the kingdom will be found, he says that if you stick a dead sheep anywhere the vultures will find it. Jesus the-good-news-vulture will find the dead and raise them. That is why he went all the way to Good Friday with this burden.
Of course Jesus does not just find us there; he finds us and carries us out of that blackness. All of us who were buried with him have been raised with him. One of the hardest parts of this Christian life is that heaven actually begins right now, in the baptismal moment. We begin right then to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, the individual who is an heir of eternal life. And yet, we are also beset with the death of the old man at the same time. In chapter 7 Paul explored that terrible double nature as he struggled with evil he did but did not want to do, and good he wanted to do but did not do. Only Christ Jesus could save him from this body of death (7:24-25).
Right now we are given a new life to live, a real life to live, a life which is empowered by the Spirit and which really can serve God. Lutherans will always be quick to point out that the old sinner clings tightly to us, and it is so, but Paul is not talking about that old sinner right now. He will in a moment, don’t worry, but right now he is talking about the new life which flows out of that font, a life which really does want to do what God requires and asks of us. That life, that obedience of faith, is the goal of Paul’s ministry. (Romans 1:6)
Now we are engaged. Lutherans have been rightly critiqued for having so emphasized grace and our own depravity that we consider good works impossible and the deeds of this life to be worthless and empty of meaning. It is true, they do not earn us a place on the up escalator at the end of time, but they are hardly worthless and empty. Lutherans who suggest such a thing need to re-read the Scriptures and their own confessions. Indeed, Jesus is found today in real water, submitting his real flesh and blood to a baptismal rite of repentance. Likewise Paul says that our lives are occasions for us really live the new life which God has engendered in us in Baptism, the life which is empowered by Christ, which is Christ in us (Gal. 2:20.) Through us the sacramentally working God works in us. Our physical deeds are hardly devoid of meaning, in fact, the very nature of God’s gracious act means that they are more meaningful, more important, and more precious to us.
15As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke’s emphasis has switched here for us. We are no longer focused on the babe in a manger, but Luke has cast our vision to the Holy Spirit and the mission of Christ. The Gospel writers are all rather ambivalent about John the Baptist at times. There are certain clues that there was a competing John movement at the time. They acknowledge John as a prophet, but they also point out carefully that he was not the Messiah. They also may be suggesting that John’s vision was not entirely clear. John sees judgment and destruction. Jesus comes to judge and destroy sin, but he also comes to save sinners. Does John struggle to see that?
The Holy Spirit poured out and the voice from heaven suggest that he wants us to see the authority and Spiritual significance of Jesus.
The preacher who comes to the text may well be drawn to this phrase that John uses to describe the action of Christ: “He will baptize you with fire.” What is the baptism with fire? Is it a purification metaphor? Fire often is used in literature to cleanse things. Is it a refining metaphor? Similar to cleansing, but this is more purposeful. Metal that is refined is not destroyed in the fire but improved. Is it simple empowerment – an internal combustion engine is what makes my car go, fire produces that kinetic energy. Is this Luke’s premonition of the Pentecost event? What is the baptism with fire for us? In today’s culture when we use that phrase, we usually mean an inexperienced person who has been put into the conflict/battle and had to learn as he/she went along. It might mean my destruction or death. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is immediately hurled into the wilderness where he is tempted.
What is my baptism by fire? Is that just a metaphor/picture language to describe the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Or is it in fact that God is purifying me, that God is refining me? Is God energizing me? This is one of those wonderful enigmatic phrases we see so often in the Bible that leave us with more questions than answers. My human nature loves answers. God sometimes seems to want to leave me with questions.
This the year of Luke and Luke has some rather particular things to say to us. It is interesting to me that the Diatessaron was not written until several centuries after the Pentecost event. The four very different pictures of Jesus which we call Gospels were simply left to stand. The early church did not try to meld them into one cohesive Jesus story. They were very aware of the differences between the portrayals of Jesus and often wondered about them. Luke’s portrayal of these events is markedly different than the others. Notice that he doesn’t even have Jesus in the water, he mentions the baptism, but does not describe that event, but instead focuses us on Jesus after the baptismal event. He is praying, another important theme in Luke. The Spirit and voice are recorded, but notice that Luke does not focus on the penitential nature of John’s baptism or the questioning about his presence in the waters like Matthew and Mark do. Jesus is clearly the one whose sandal strap John is not worthy to untie. (In the Rabbinic schools, disciples were given certain rights. The Rabbi could ask you do to a number of things, but he was expressly forbidden to force a disciple to tie and untie his shoes. John is really saying that he is not even worthy to be the disciple of this one who comes with winnowing fork in hand.)
Luke is far more focused on the authority and the empowerment of Jesus. Remember he is writing to a Roman audience for whom these concepts were very important. John describes this one who follows him, and then Luke clearly wants us to see that Jesus is it through the inclusion of certain signs.
1. While Jesus prays the heavens are opened. In the ancient world this is a way of saying that a direct connection with the divine is established in this moment. The immanence of the deity is occasionally seen, and this is how it is seen.
2. The Spirit descends on him in bodily form. The Holy Spirit is a constant presence in Luke’s two part work. The work of Jesus is powerful because it is Spirit filled. For Luke and his audience, Baptism and the ministry of the Church was a way that you and I could plug into that same Holy Spirit. Luke wanted his reader to understand that the power, love, and presence of God was accessible to all through the Holy Spirit. This is why the Spirit is in Jesus and then poured out on Pentecost. The same Spirit who raised the dead and cured the lepers is now on his people, especially the apostles.
3. The voice from heaven. This is a common picture for religious people of the time, not only those who came from Jewish back grounds. The idea of God speaking from the sky was understandable and not necessarily a miraculous event, or at least outside the realm of the expected.
4. The content of what the voice says also serves to tell us that Jesus is important. He is beloved and he is God’s Son. He has the favor of God and the authority of God. God is happy that he is there. he is not running away, he is not some prodigal, he is here at the Father’s request and the Father is delighted that Jesus is here. One does not have to read in too many pagan myths to realize that this was an important thing to say to the people of the first century. A rogue son of God is a common literary trope.
There is another really good sermon simply in the words which are spoken so lovingly to Jesus today. (Notice that Matthew’s account put these words into the third person.) My own baptism into that Jesus means that I have been invited into this same relationship with God. I may call him “father” and he considers me his beloved child, in whom he is well pleased. My “Our Father who art in heaven…” is honestly said and without irony.
1. I am worried about my standing with God. I am far more Jacob like than I would like to admit. My life since Christ has come into my heart has not reflected my Jesus. I wonder if I really am a Christian sometimes.
2. I don’t know really know what to do about #1. I know what my New Year’s resolutions tell me I should do, but making resolutions and keeping them are two very different things. If I am going to be honest with you, I won’t get it done. I feel trapped in my sinfulness.
3. Isaiah preached to folks whose whole world had collapsed, the nation in shattered ruins, people in exile, there are lots of hopeless people in the world today, folks who don’t think there are any answers.
4. I know, the Bible claims that Jesus is the solution to these problems, but frankly, I am not seeing results. Jesus seems like a distant and ineffectual help to me. He is a story from the dim and distant past, I need help right now. Where is he?
5. What if this is really about his inability? What if the good news was a message for generations past and God has simply written off this generation and me too?
1. God loved Jacob and gave him the name Israel, because in the wrestling match God was overcome, but Israel was saved. Our failures are not the measure of our standing with God, but his amazing and steadfast love.
2. God’s love extends to my life and its living. He earnestly wants me to live well, if for no other reason than because I will be happier for it. He empowers me to be a forgiver instead of a grudge bearer. He gives me a humble and a servant heart because that is a far sweeter way to live than as a proud and offended human being. He does not count my failures in this regard, but he delights in my success and he pours out His gentle Spirit to help us along that way. I am baptized with fire – the fire that empowers a new life.
3. And that Spirit of God which he poured out on Jesus those many years ago is the same Spirit who entered my life through the waters of Baptism. So subtle and gentle is his work that sometimes we have a hard time seeing it. Like the accumulation of sediment, it slowly builds up something until it reaches a great height, one little kindness at a time,
one prayer, one gentle word. It is not that skipping our prayers one day keeps us from God, but in them he adds one more layer, another step closer to the completion of that good work begun.
4. Jesus can do this. The Baptism of Christ proclaims to me that He is God’s beloved Son, empowered by the Spirit of God. He can bear the whole world’s sins on his shoulders and pick up every lost and dead human being in his great and gentle hands. He can restore the life of this dying world.
5. Christ’s baptism of fire – Pentecost – has made Jesus present to this day and its needs and sins. I do not have less of Jesus than the folks who walked with him in Galilee. It may be differently perceived, but he is not divided.
1. God’s beloved Son (That the hearer would believe and rejoice that Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, came into this world for the singular purpose of saving humanity from sin, death, and devil. Today God declares, for my benefit and belief, that Jesus of Nazareth is the One.)
This sermon is a belief sermon. Jesus is portrayed to us today as the beloved Son of God. That means some pretty important things for us. He has the authority to do what the Bible claims he does. He can shoulder this world’s sins, he can bear them to a cross, he can die the death that they demand and thereby cleanse us all from that terror.
This could also be seen simply as a Christology sermon, proclaiming the nature and character of Jesus. This would need to be contrasted with our own plight. We are not God, helpless before our sins, powerless before death, and hopelessly in Satan’s grasp. Jesus entered into our world, but did so willingly, so that he might triumph over sin, death and devil. This is a proclamation of Jesus as our hero, our savior, our champion.
But there is another side to this sermon, and for this you might want to bring in the Isaiah text and the dichotomy of the Jacob/Israel story. God does not do this simply because he can. Jesus is not here to prove something to himself or to anyone else. This is not just for his glory. This is moved by God’s steadfast love. God’s heart aches to see our suffering, and it moves him to action, this action, this Jesus who contends on our behalf.
This sermon needs to clearly identify the Law. When we declare that Jesus is the one who is God’s beloved son and capable of rescuing us, what is the alternative? What else do people put their faith in? What is competing for this place in their lives? What will we point to as the alternative?
- A. There are many ways to heaven – Jesus is just an alternative. But this text says that Jesus is God’s son. There is not another way. To suggest that there are many ways is a form of self-idolatry, it puts the person in charge – but it also is a false
- security in that it really does not offer any consequences for getting it wrong. This sort of a sermon will want to highlight the consequences of following one who is not attested as the Son of God, whose rescue will be incomplete.
- B. Many would, in other ways than the immediately prior example, put themselves as the alternative, the real savior.
- C. Nature – We will find a beauty and peace in nature – not in Jesus. This is a resignation that there is no real savior, enjoy what you got, while you got it. Death is just part of the natural course of things, so while you have eyes to see and legs which will walk up there, climb the mountain on Sunday morning, don’t go to church!
- D. Fear of Death – we wonder what death really is, and we imagine that no, not even this Jesus, can conquer it. The very human fear of death can paralyze our faith and trust in Jesus. We might have all the right answers but in the face of death we are reduced to a blob of spiritual jelly, spineless and helpless. This is really the alternative of a nihilism, a hopelessness.
When we have clearly identified the alternative, this sermon gets much easier to preach. We are preaching Jesus – not that other thing.
2. Baptized into Christ, his death, his life, his heaven! (That the hearer would apply baptism to the whole of life so that death may be robbed of its power over us, and that this day may be lived in his newness.)
We are exhorted in the Small Catechism to daily drown that old Adam through repentance and baptismal remembrance. How does one remember baptism? Especially when we were baptized as infants? The traditional way is to make the sign of the cross. Our bodies remember in this action, it is not an intellectual remembering so much as a physical remembering. The invocation in the beginning of worship is another moment of baptismal remembrance. The benediction is another one – read the text from Numbers where this is situated and you will learn that in speaking the benediction we put the name of God on the hearers. Should we recommend that we remember baptism every time we take a bath? Do we talk about the sign of the cross on head and heart – tattooed for Jesus!? This Romans text is really the basis for that salutary exhortation from Dr. Luther and this sermon seeks to explore it.
Like the sermon above it needs to be rooted in the Isaiah text. God would that we not fear when we pass through flood and fire of this life, even the flood of death and the fires of Satan’s threatening glare. And so he goes with us, carrying us when we are faint, feeding us when hungry, and giving us to drink from his hand.
Of course as soon as you say this, the Christian will fear to have God so near. He surely does see all the sins we commit, all that is wrong with our lives. But this baptism is a
baptism into the wholeness of God, to his steadfast love. He knows and loves Jacob and Israel because he made them both, and he loves them both, even though they are the same person and one of them is a real stinker. This is a little like us, in fact it is a lot like us.
The Baptism of Christ is sweet good news for us. Jesus has done something to us and for us today. He has shouldered the whole world’s sins, he has relieved us of a terrible burden, but he has not left us empty, he has also given us his own righteousness. Paul speaks of the newness of life that flows out of baptism, but it starts with Jesus who has effected a new creation, a new life. He created Jacob, he formed Israel. He loves them both. Jacob was a stinker, Israel was the man of faith, God loved them both and though Jacob was such a stinker at times, God never left him.
God’s Spirit who has walked with us every day since our baptism is at work even now within us, renewing and restoring, calling and leading us to live out the lives which he created in those waters. Jesus has won that new life, the Spirit has bestowed it, and now it is ours to live in him. Paul is optimistic about this. He really believes that the Spirit of God makes real changes in human lives. Do we agree with him? This is tough to preach, it is pretty easy to become rather jaded about humanity, and there is good reason to be. What is more, the general American idea that we are basically good but just a little flawed around the edges does not help us. We feel the need to reinforce the depravity of our human life.
But if we lose sight of the fact that God actually does something to us, if we would so fixate on our sins that we forget his forgiveness, we are no better off. In truth, for us to insist on our depravity after God’s forgiveness is nothing short of disbelief. The Christian in touch with God through the Holy Spirit is empowered to do much more because of that Spirit. Here perhaps one needs to return to that promise from God in Isaiah. Death itself cannot cause us fear. Famously, the Lutheran bishop of Norway was being interrogated by the Gestapo. The Gestapo agent, frustrated at his prisoner’s recalcitrance finally said, “Don’t you know I could kill you?!” To which the bishop replied, “And what would you do to me then?” he realized that death was not the end of this story and he was emboldened to speak. Baptized into the life of Christ we too are empowered to laugh at death, but it is not only potency at the end of life. It is a power to face our own sins and do something different. It is the Spirit-filled power to face any problem and have confidence that God has a solution, that God wants a solution, and though we may not be able to see it, God can. Those problems could be personal, communal, national, even something global like AIDS or Global Warming or the like.
The preacher will want to have stories for this sermon of people whose lives have been renewed by Christ. Have you sat by some stalwart old saint on their deathbed who has told you amazing stories of how Christ has given them newness of life? Have you watched that transformation take place in a child or a person? Tell those stories. Bear witness to what Christ is doing right now in the lives of people.
3. Messiah – (That the hearer would employ Jesus’ title of Messiah/Christ with joy and peace – Jesus has the authority to do what he does.)
You would be surprised at how many people, my students included, who have the idea the Christ is simply Jesus last name. It is not a name, it is a title and when we call Jesus the Christ, we are saying something very important about his authority and the scope of his mission.
In ancient Israel they anointed prophets, priests, and kings. The word for that anointing gives us the word “Messiah.” In Greek the word for anointed is “Christos.” To be anointed meant that one had blessing and authority to do what you were doing, ruling as a king, speaking as a prophet, or presiding at the sacrifices of the people as a priest. We don’t anoint people today, but we have the same idea. One gets arrested for impersonating a police officer or a doctor. One needs a license to be a teacher. We inaugurate Presidents and Governors and say that their duties and authority start the minute those words are spoken.
Jesus, anointed by the Father and sent on a mission, has the authority to do what he does. He brings together the ancient offices of prophet, priest, and king. His ministry which follows upon this anointing demonstrate this authority. The demons own his authority over them. His prayers are heard and people are healed and fed. Leprosy flees from his touch. Stubborn ailments like blindness and deafness yield to his command. Even wind and waves must obey him. Perhaps most significantly, even death has to admit he has the greater authority. When Jesus speaks the dead are raised and the waters are calmed.
But the preacher may well want to point out that most importantly this Jesus anointed is able to bear the sins of this whole world, including my sins, including your sins. Jesus bears those sins into the waters of repentance today for us and he will bear them to the cross. He has the authority to do that.
The law here will rather depend on the person aware of their need for this and will work best when the person is wondering from which quarter their rescue comes.