Sunday, January 9, 2005

Baptism of our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Martin Luther lived in his baptism. When confronted by the devil, he did not try to turn him away with words or reject him by his own power. When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, “I can avoid this” or “I can make it go away.” No, Luther knew he had no power over sin by his own will. He answered the temptation with “I am baptized.” He knew that it was only by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the mercy of God, that the devil could be turned away. The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God.

Luther lived in his baptism by remembering it daily. Luther taught that all Christians should wake to the remembrance of that moment when they became children of God and that we should go to sleep with that same thought. In his small catechism, Luther writes that as soon as we get out of bed in the morning we should make the sign of the cross and say, “Under the care of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.” We should do the same in the evening before we go to bed. Living under such a remembrance helps us to realize that God is with us daily, walking with us, guiding us, and helping us to serve Him in this world. This is the kind of life Jesus lived, the life we see modeled in the scriptures. Jesus also lived in His baptism.

That might seem like a strange thing to say because Jesus was who He was. He was the incarnation of the living God – Christ, Messiah, Son, Emmanuel. He did not need a baptism of any sort, yet He went to John to be baptized, a baptism for repentance. He had no sin to be forgiven or separation from the Creator which needed reconciliation. He was the living Word of God in flesh.

Yet, Jesus was also man. His baptism was far more than just an act of example for the rest of us. He went under the waters of the Jordan because through this act He identified completely with you and I, taking upon himself the very nature of man and all that goes with it while still remaining without sin. His baptism also defined His identity, as God reached out of the heavens to claim Jesus as His own Son. By going to John, Jesus demonstrated His humble obedience to the will and purpose of God. It was right for Jesus to be baptized, even if John thought it was wrong.

John was not willing to do as Jesus asked. “But John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The English translation of this passage falls short of sharing the conversation between John and Jesus. It is not as if John said “no” once and then gave in, more likely John argued with Jesus. Finally Jesus answered, “Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffereth him.” This is how God willed it to be, so John gave in to Jesus’ request.

This is an interesting choice of words in the American Standard Version translation. Other versions say, “Let it be so now.” As we look at the effects of the tsunami in Asia, we can see real suffering. How will John suffer in this? All he has to do is dunk Jesus in the Jordan. For John, who recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, he knows he is not worthy of even touching Jesus’ sandals. How could he possibly baptize the One whom he knows has no need of baptism? He would have to submit to God’s will and accept that God sometimes calls us to do things we do not want to do and that we do not think we are worthy of doing. It is through weak, broken vessels that God fulfills all righteousness.

In this passage, Jesus is asking John to endure what He is asking him to do because through it God will do a wonderful work. After Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit came down upon Jesus while the Father spoke for all to hear. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was claimed and anointed at that moment to be sent into the world to do the work of God. While Jesus had nothing to repent, this was a turning point in the life He was living in this world. From that moment, Jesus was set on the path to the cross, the path that would ultimately fulfill all righteousness.

I wonder what the crowds heard that day, what kind of voice they heard coming from the heavens. Obviously it was audible to those who were there, because God did not speak to Jesus but to the people. He is announcing and identifying the man Jesus as His beloved, His chosen One. Yet, as we look at the description of the voice of God in the Psalm for today, I can’t help but wonder how it sounded to those listening. David writes that the voice of God is like thunder. It breaks the mighty cedars, brings forth fire and shakes the wilderness. The voice of the LORD is like a tornado, tearing apart the forests. How could the people who were there that day listen without falling down in fear? Such a voice would make me tremble.

In the Psalm David writes, “And in his temple everything saith, Glory.” In the sanctuary of God’s presence, the people need not tremble with fear despite the apparent turmoil on earth. Jesus, the living and breathing temple in which the fullness of God dwelt on earth, is the sanctuary in which we can take refuge. Perhaps the voice of God that day was like thunder, but Jesus was there to bring peace and calm to the world.

The prophet Isaiah offers a lengthier rendering of what God might have been thinking that day as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. Jesus identification is more than just a son, He is the chosen one. Isaiah writes, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.” The image we have is of a powerful man. Yet the prophet writes of a suffering servant, a man enduring pain and persecution. “He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.”

This description of the servant is followed by a promise. “I, Jehovah, have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thy hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house.” God will be with the One He has chosen and He will accomplish amazing, miraculous things. The blind will see and those held in bondage will be set free. As we continue through the church year we will see the stories that tell of the things Jesus did while He ministered. But He did more than heal those who were physically blind, He revealed God to world giving sight to those who were blinded to the truth. He set the people free from a bondage more difficult to overcome than the chains of prison or of illness. He set us free from sin and death to live and love in this world.

Isaiah finishes this passage with a word from God, “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” God will make all things new through this suffering servant whom He has sent to save the world.

That day at the Jordan, Jesus was claimed, anointed and sent into the world to do God’s work. The baptism of John was one of repentance, but Jesus made it something new. Today all those who come to the font of baptism in a Christian church are cleansed and forgiven, but we also experience baptism like Jesus. We are claimed as children of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to share the grace of God with those who do not yet know Him. Yet, at the Jordan Jesus did not need to be forgiven, He was sinless. He did not need to be claimed, He was the Son of God. He did not need to be anointed; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not need to be sent, for His purpose was always to do the will of God.

We do not need baptism for these things to happen. God forgives without water. God claims without witnesses. God anoints in His time and His way. God sends us into the world often without even our own knowledge. Have you ever had something happen and not until after it was over realize that it was an act of God? Not knowing why you make a phone call or turn a corner you find there is someone at the other end who needs God’s grace. You were there because God sent you even though you did not know it at the time. So, why do we bother to be baptized?

Humans are physical beings dependent on our sensory experiences. When we are children we know love by the touches and kisses of our mothers. When we are children, we learn about the world through our eyes, ears and mouths. Even as adults, we experience God and His creation with our senses. We see a sunset and we praise God for making such a beautiful world. We smell a roasting turkey and we thank God for giving us a home, food and a family. We touch one another and know that it is only by the grace of God that we would be so blessed. Even in our church services, we experience God through our senses. We hear the music and the Word. We see and touch God in the faces and the hugs of our fellow Christians. We smell and taste God’s grace in the Eucharist.

This is why the sacraments include physical elements. God knows that we need tangible things on which to grasp so that we can see and know the intangible. God is Spirit. We can know Him through spirit but such a knowledge leaves room for doubt. In the Old Testament, God’s promises were accompanied by other signs, such as circumcision. These were signs to the people so that they would remember what God has done and will do for them. So, too are the gifts of the sacraments. In baptism, we experience the promise of God with our whole selves.

Though Jesus was God’s Son, the living Word in flesh, I imagine He too needed some assurance of His identity. This day at the Jordan, when Jesus went forth in faith to begin His ministry in the world, Jesus received what He needed. He was given a word from God, “You are my beloved.” He was washed with the waters of change and anointed by the Spirit. He could go forth to do whatever it was that God called Him to do. And if He ever had a moment of doubt, He could remember His baptism and the promise that came when the heavens opened and God claimed, anointed and sent His Son into the world.

We have the same assurance. As we read through the scriptures, we see the story of a man who was living in His baptism. Jesus woke and slept in the promise of God and lived every moment in between doing what God was calling Him to do. We can live as Christ lived even when we think we are unworthy or unable. When we are tempted or feel unworthy, we need only look to that moment and in the words of Martin Luther say, “I am baptized.” As we remember our baptism, we can go forth in faith and obedience to the commandments of Christ, to love Him and one another and make disciples of all nations. This is living in our baptism, and it is there we will truly find joy and peace. Thanks be to God.

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