Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Romans 6:1-11
Luke 3:15-22

We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.

At the beginning of a Lutheran funeral service, the minister says, “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new 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.” Baptism makes us one with Christ.

Luther in his small catechism answers the question, “What gifts or benefits does Baptism give?” with “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Now, there are those who say that Jesus is baptized as an example for us, after all, he had no need for the above stated benefits of baptism. Jesus did not need forgiveness for sins, because He was perfect and sinless. Jesus didn’t need to be rescued from death and the devil, neither had power over him. He did not eternal salvation because he is eternal. So, why did Jesus need to be baptized?

His baptism was a beginning. It was the beginning of His ministry. From this moment, He was walking toward the cross. Did anything change the moment Jesus went under the water? Was anything new when the heavens were opened before Him and the voice of God called Him Son? No. Though we do not hear much about Jesus’ life before His baptism, we do know that even at twelve He knew that God was His Father.

In Matthew, John did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he should be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus said, “Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Jesus was about thirty years old when he was baptized by John. This was the age when men entered into the priesthood, and washing was part of the ritual. It was one of the legal requirements for entering into the priesthood. The other was anointing with oil. The oil of anointing is associated with the Holy Spirit, and so when the dove descended upon Jesus, everything was fulfilled for Jesus to have the authority of a priest. This authority was required at the cross, when Jesus the priest offered himself as the perfect lamb as a final sacrifice for our sin.

The answer to the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized is not simple to answer, but I appreciate a perspective that I read during my research. The writer suggested that Jesus was baptized to consecrate the sacrament. In other words, Jesus was baptized so that our baptism would be a holy action. While our baptism leaves behind the filth of our sin, He took upon the filth of all sin for all men over all time at his. He left the water clean, not literally, but sacramentally, so that we will be made clean.

Whatever the reason, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. When he came out of the water, a voice came out of heaven and said, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” I wonder what this sounded like to those who were watching. Did they hear the words of God or did they hear something like thunder? The voice of the Lord is powerful, as we hear in the passage from the Psalm. His voice echoes above the sea and it thunders. It can break the cedars and make mountains skip. It is like lightning and makes the desert quake. The voice of the Lord twists the might oaks and strips the forests bare. But the voice that Jesus heard was fatherly, kind, proud. It is full of love and grace.

Just as God sits enthroned over the waters of the earth, including the flood, so too He sits enthroned over the waters that make us clean at baptism. He is our king, and when we are baptized, the voice of God speaks tenderly over us, calling us His own.

God is certainly powerful and mighty, but He is also tender and gracious. His words bring both wrath and hope, as we can see in the text from Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of hope in times of trouble, hope for a return to the homeland and restoration for the people of Israel. Yet, in the same text, Isaiah speaks about the destruction of others. He gives the people of Egypt, Cush and Seba as a ransom for the people of Israel. Historically, this may refer to the fact that Persia conquered those places. Perhaps God gave these victories to Persia because they treated Israel in exile with such kindness and then released them as God had promised.

As a matter of fact, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they took the best and the most intelligent Israelites to Babylonia. These captives were given positions of authority and they were able to gain wealth. Life in exile was not so horrible.

Eventually the generation who were taken from Jerusalem died, leaving behind a people who had never known life in the Holy Land. They had certainly heard stories, but those stories would include knowledge that the beloved homeland was little more than a heap of rubble. They had a good life in Babylon. They were educated and gifted. They were respected. They had adapted to their new life. Perhaps the promise did not have such a lure for them. Would they really want to leave the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?

Now, let’s think about this as it relates to our life of faith. We have to admit, being a Christian isn’t always the most exciting thing in the world, is it? At times it is even frightening; ask any of the martyrs from the past two thousand years, or the saints in third world countries that suffer because of their faith on a daily basis. Our neighbors can party all night and sleep in on a Sunday morning. Though most people don’t go around doing bad things just for the sake of doing bad things, they live according to societal rules and not an impossible set of spiritual or religious expectations. They can, for example, never murder their enemy, but they can justify hate while Christians are expected to love their enemies and even forgive them. It is not easy being a Christian, so why would we want to leave the good life for this new life?

We do so because of the promises of God. While life in this world as a Christian might have its struggles, the benefits of our baptism cannot be experienced in any other way. We might experience forgiveness from people we have wronged, but we’ll never know the kind of forgiveness that we receive from God. We will all die, but in Christ we will live forever. We might think that we don’t need to be saved, but we do, and we are only saved by the Word and the promise of God.

Salvation is one of the focuses of Luke, who as a doctor and scientist recognizes the miraculous nature of God’s grace. For Luke, the story of Jesus’ baptism is one that shows that God’s work is far more powerful than anything done by man. John tells the crowds that he is not the Messiah, and then tells them that the Messiah will come and baptize with more than water. “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The promise found in baptism after Jesus is more than that which John gave. He was preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, but baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit welcomes us into eternity.

As baptized children, we are forgiven. We know we are forgiven, even when we fail. We are saints, but we are also still sinners. We will continue to sin, despite our best efforts. There are those who claim that because you have been baptized that even your wrongdoing is no longer sin. They justify any bad behavior by the promise of God. “It doesn’t matter any longer, because I am forgiven.” And yet, is this the life God calls us to live? Yes, when we do wrong we are forgiven because God has promised and is faithful, even when we aren’t. God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our sins.

There are even those, like some of the people in Paul’s day, who thought that sinfulness would bring out God’s grace in even greater abundance. In Romans 5, Paul writes, “And the law came in besides, that the trespass might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly: that, as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” They use this truth to justify their own sinful behavior.

But Paul says, “NO!” We cannot keep sinning and justify it as a way of revealing God’s grace to the world. We are made one with Christ and one another in and through our baptism, and as such we are called to a new and different life. This new life is not boring, or frightening, or easy. We will face struggles and experience persecution. We’ll suffer the consequences of our sin and we’ll eventually die. But we’ll do so under the grace of God and with the promise of eternal peace. The power of sin and death is broken by God’s power; our old self is dead and we are free to be everything God is calling us to be.

We read the words from Romans at our funerals because it is then that we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to us at our baptisms. We are made one with Christ, and we know that because we died with Him, we will also live with Him forever. The water at our baptism may have been nothing but water out of the tap in the sacristy, but when Jesus went into the Jordan River so many years ago, He changed the water forever. Now when His words are spoken over the water, it cleans us in a way that water never will. It makes us holy. It makes us God’s beloved child now and forever.

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