The text for the Sunday after Epiphany is almost always the Baptism of Jesus. This episode in the bible has always caused me some wonder. It doesn’t immediately make sense for me. And there are multiple ways that I credit things in the Bible as making sense. There is always just historical sense. I have no problem that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. But the bare historical is always the least. What is the theological import, and why was it done this way? You might call these things poetical sense. Things in the bible make poetical sense. Or at least to me they usually do. It had to be that way because that is the only way the story makes sense. That is the only way it rhymes and keeps meter. But the Baptism of Jesus doesn’t immediately strike me that way. And being a pastor, especially a Lutheran pastor, where Baptism is such an important thing, understanding this episode felt necessary. This sermon is my attempt to wrestle with why this baptism is important.
This sermon is a bit about the sacraments in general, a bit about the sacramental life which includes sufferings, and a whole lot about the well-spring of both which is baptism. Everything that is given and promised and attempted to be lived in the sacraments and the life they inspire, is already yours in baptism. God has placed you in his Ark. You are going to make it.
The occasion on the church calendar is the baptism of Jesus. If we stop and think about it, the baptism of Jesus doesn’t make sense. It is one of those moments that just feels wrong. Even John the Baptist gets this in his reply to Jesus. Jesus replies in two ways: a) let it be so for now and b) to fulfill all righteousness. This sermon explores how and why Jesus undergoes a baptism of repentance through his answers to John.
This text is one of the strangest in the Bible, but I think it might be one of the most important for churches that baptize babies to understand.
The sermon is a character study on Jacob. You can read the entire story yourself starting in Genesis 25:19ff, but the core of my take away is that Jacob came into the world a child of promise and proceeds to attempt to earn it or escape from it. And he continues in conflict…until he can’t. Alone, in the night, scared he’s losing it all…Jacob prays. And then Jacob wrestles through the night..until he gets his blessing.
The blessing once taken from a blind Father by trickery is granted face to face. The blessing once traded for is accepted freely. The blessing that once came by grasping…is gained by letting go. And the name is changed. Not that those blessings were not true, they just were not claimed. They were not believed. But now, walking with a limp, no longer running. Israel no longer strives in conflict, but rests on the promise.
We baptized a child today. In baptism that child is made an heir of the promise – Just like Jacob. The promise is true. It doesn’t matter what we do because baptism doesn’t depend upon us. But why this text is important, is because we can turn our back on that gift. To learn the lesson of Jacob is wrestle with the promise. To hold onto God and not let go until we have made the grace and the hope ours. The christian life, lived with a Lutheran accent, is about those wrestling matches where we receive as ours what God has already given. Where we learn to live by grace in hope, instead of conflict.
You don’t get much more raw than this text. This is the Jesus that tends to get submerged. This is the Jesus of a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22). So much of Christianity and church has been scrubbed and sanitized, domesticated and made safe…and then you read passages like this. And if you are going to be apostolic and orthodox, you have to make room for them. You have to talk about fire and division. And you have to see them as good news, because it is passages like this that are at the core of the Christian proclamation. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here. Settle before you are thrown in debtors prison until the last penny. (Luke 12:58ff)
We had a little malfunction with our audio equipment this week, so the recording portion of the sermon is a recreated reading. The hymn and lessons of the day are from Sunday. It is interesting, just one of those coincidences, that the sound system chose this week to “pop”. I say that because with most of my sermons, later in the day or on Monday when I write this posting, I have the general feeling of: this phrase would have worked better, I missed that fertile preaching ground completely, nobody got that allusion, and the list goes on. This sermon, after struggling with the text most of the week, in between trying to put the right words together for a funeral I dearly wanted to honor, didn’t have many of those criticisms. If you were asking me to pick out pieces for the portfolio, this one would go in there. And the system just fails. One of those thin spaces where you might actually believe we are not fighting flesh and blood, but something darker.
The wordle picture above is all scrambled this way and that. I thought that is highly representative of how the Holy Spirit is taught. We are big on the Spirit blowing when and where he wills. There is definitely a mystery in how the Spirit acts, but there is an underlying solidity as part of the promise of Christ. And that is what I think this sermon presents solidly. The Spirit has a role and typical means. In Luther’s words the Spirit, “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies”. The Spirit prepares us to bear the Word. The Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. And until we are ready, when we can’t bear it, Christ does. It is not that the Spirit says something new, but that the Spirit enables us to hear the old old story where we are. And the Spirit acts through the same old old ways – Word, Sacrament (baptism), Repentance and Holy Living. Those are the means of the work of the Spirit. Not sexy, just true. When the Spirit comes, He will lead you into all truth.
On the Christian calendar, this 1st Sunday after Epiphany is given over the Baptism of Jesus by John. We are reading from the Gospel of Luke this year, and Luke’s account is unique. First, the actual baptism is short, just two verses. Second, what captures the attention and imagination is John the Baptist’s phrase – “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. It seems pretty clear from the text that John was thinking of fire in terms of judgment. And that is a valid scriptural use or allusion of fire. But, there is a second use as well, that of the refiner’s fire. (Mal 3:2) And given Luke’s use of the Spirit and fire in Acts at Pentecost (Acts 2:3), it is that second usage that Jesus’ baptism points toward – a purification that does not consume.
Jesus, standing in those Jordan waters, stood with us and for us. He underwent the baptism of the Spirit and fire in the first sense. On the cross Christ received the fire of the wrath at sin for us. As a consequence, when we receive His baptism, we are not consumed but purified. The Spirit is placed within us which then kindles our hearts with faith and reforms our wills to follow the will of God best expressed in His law. Jesus’ baptism, Christian baptism, is full of power.
Now our adversary will try his best to deny that and get us to think it not so, but this is the thing about baptism. It is a promise of God – Father, Son and Spirit – all present at Jesus’ baptism where he set out on this course of standing for us. God’s promises are true. We just need to grab them with faith. The same faith that is kindled by the Spirit. It might not be an exciting emotional experience. We might not even remember it. But baptism is God’s promise. Our faith rests not our anything in us, but on what God is pleased with. God is please with His son, who underwent and commanded baptism.
Baby Linley mentioned in the sermon is the grand-daughter of my A/V support, so the podcast version might be a little later. There is something deeply fitting about having a baptism on Reformation Day. Baptism is of course shared by the entire church, but each tradition chooses to emphasize a different understanding. And that actually gets to the core of this sermon. I hoped to present a uniquely Lutheran understanding of the Gospel. And to truly do that you need to consider baptism.
Objectively in baptism God has made you part of the family. Its His baptism. Its his word and promise and work. Through his work you belong. Subjectively it comes by faith. It’s true, but you need to make it your own. You have to believe it. And then you become it. As Luther says about baptism in the catechism, “the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned…and the new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God”. We daily live out our baptism. We are daily becoming more like Christ. A Lutheran understanding of the gospel is a meditation on baptism.
For me the fullness of the gospel is best expressed by the Lutheran understanding. Everything else either adds something (Jesus and ______) or subtracts something (Sacraments just signs or just spiritual). That is why Reformation Day gets its observation. It is a yearly call to live our Christian Freedom bestowed in baptism. A call not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by Christ.
Bible Text: Ephesians 4:1-16 (background Gen 25:25-34, Luke 15:11-32, baptisms) Full Draft
The US has a famous list of birthrights: all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This sermon is not about those, but we as a people might talk about rights, but we rarely talk about either where they came from or how. The most precious ones are grants. And even more precious are the ones backed by the divine account. Governments may say that we have certain rights, but if the government gives it can also take away. Hence even Jefferson – extreme deist at best – rooting life, liberty and pursuit in a creator.
But turn from the political realm for a second. Salvation has come to us as a birthright. Baptism now saves you (1 Pet 3:21). The Christian has been born of water and the spirit (John 3:5). There is one body and One Spirit, one lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph 4:5-6). That is the good news. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Salvation, forgiveness of sins, is our birthright in Christ. And nothing external, not even the devil himself, can take it from us. The sermon recounts two biblical stories: Jacob and Esau and the Prodigal Son. Two stories of Fathers and Sons. Two stories of despising the birthright. That is the only way we lose our inheritance – to despise it.
The American Founders were wise people. They understood this also. They lived in a society that was schooled by the church’s teaching. Even the deists and Harvard Unitarians quoted and studied scripture. Asked of Franklin: What kind of government have we? A republic, if you can keep it. Also Jefferson’s quotes about the tree of liberty and blood. Our tendency is to despise things that we have been granted. They knew it in the political realm. How much greater in the spiritual?
So Paul starts with an exhortation – “I a prisoner of the Lord urge you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling (Eph 4:1).” Don’t despise your birthright.
Who are you? That is an identity question. And it is interesting to me that a world that is constantly giving you something to “build your brand” around or upon there is little talk or understanding of identity.
Colin Cowherd – ESPN Radio announcer – is one of the most bracing and upfront announcers I’ve heard. Especially in sports where most coverage is “rah, rah” type. He’d hate this, or not have the vocabulary to understanding it, but he’s one of the best moralists on the air. But back to the point. Tebow keeps winning – and keeps making Colin’s almost daily rant look dumb. For the first four weeks of the Tebow run, Colin was all about how this can’t work and all the reasons it can’t. For an announcer who is usually so left brained logical it hurts, you could here the emotion. His accumulated logic and wisdom wasn’t working and he didn’t like it. If he could be wrong about this, what else could he be wrong about. But then he stumbled across a new line – “Tebow knows who he is; you can do a lot, even if you are limited, by knowing who you are.” He’s talking about identity.
The world pummels us with appeals to base our identity in titles and positions. Or it entices us and bullies us to forming an identity around cool, or traditions or the right way. What Colin stumbled across, what Tebow and his coach should be recognized for, is that they didn’t listen to the siren calls – “you’ve got to have this type of quarterback/team”. The two groups that came to the Baptist are asking those identity questions. And John confesses. He holds on two the only thing he has – the Word of God – I am the voice calling in the wilderness. He revealed the hidden Word, the hidden savior. He witnessed to the light.
We as Christians know our identities. We are children of God. We are the redeemed of Israel. And like the Baptist we have been sent into the world to reveal the hidden Lord. And all we’ve got is the Word – a simple confession.
[FYI, I wish I had a picture of this, but the hymn captured is our Children’s Choir. If you hear a voice getting a little louder at certain time, one of the Choristers was right behind the Advent wreath. He decided it would be interesting to see if he could blow the candle out while singing. One of those please stop, because if you succeed I will bust a gut laughing and I know I’m supposed to discipline at that moment.]