Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sermon: Baptism of our Lord

13 January 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 3:13-17 (Josh 3:1-3, 7-8, 13-17, 1 Cor 1:26-31)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

We baptized Christians are God’s chosen people. He has called us by name and we are His. Just as He is our Shepherd, we are His sheep. So what does it mean to be chosen of God?

In our epistle, St. Paul tells us: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” So, God’s chosen are “foolish.” The Greek word for foolish is “moros” – where our word “moron” comes from. In other words, God chooses us morons as a way to annoy the smart people. But Paul doesn’t stop there.

To be one of God’s chosen is to not only be foolish, but to be weak, base, and despised. God roots for the underdog, and so to be a Christian is to be in last place – at least in the eyes of the world. There is a great wisdom in the Lord’s choosing of the most unlikely people to be His own. God is making the point that we dare not rely upon our own smarts, our own strength, our own mettle, or our own popularity to gauge our standing before God. As one of Luther’s last writings proclaimed, we Christians are beggars. We have nothing to boast about – except “as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”

In selecting ancient nomadic sheep-herders to be His chosen people, God was making it clear that being chosen is a matter of grace. For God did not choose the richest people, the most civilized, the most scientifically advanced, the greatest builders, the most literate, or even the most religious. God simply selected a man named Abram from Mesopotamia and revealed Himself to this man and his descendants, promising them a land and a national identity – from which would come the Chosen One of the chosen people, the Christ, the Savior of the world. It was the Lord God that made Israel great, not vice versa. It was Israel that was on the receiving end of undeserved mercy, and not the other way around.

When our Lord chose to dwell among us in the flesh, He chose a very ordinary girl in the eyes of the world to become His mother. And yet, by God’s grace, she was extraordinary in her faith. God took the form of a baby laid in a manger stall, who grew up in humble circumstances, surrounded by people who were neither famous nor rich by the world’s standards.

And in His earthly ministry, the Lord called to Himself a collection of ministers who were quite a motley crew of misfits, men who failed miserably under pressure, who come off looking like cowards in the Gospel accounts. Our Lord preached and won converts from among the cast-offs of society – lepers and demoniacs, prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors, thieves and even terrorists. Our Lord chose the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised to start His Church. And He did it to confound the overconfident, the self-satisfied, the smug, the self-righteous, and those admired in this world. For what is a better display of grace than for a person to be chosen whose unworthiness is laid bare for all to see? And what a better demonstration of grace than to deny the gift to those who, in the eyes of the world, deserve it?

Today the Church remembers the baptism of our Lord. God Himself stoops not only to take on human flesh, but to submit to a baptism He had no need of. Jesus willingly joins the ranks of the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised by coming to a baptism designed for sinners. He allows an unworthy sinner to cleanse Him “to fulfill all righteousness.”

And this humility, this obedience, this submission to the Father’s will immediately precedes the revelation of Jesus’s divinity. For the Father claims His beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased, passing over the worlds kings, priests, generals, scholars, men of might, men of fame, and men of wealth to announce to the world that His true Son is this One who submits to a sinner’s baptism of repentance. The Holy Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove, a common ordinary pigeon, the same ordinary bird that informed Noah that God and man were once more at peace. The Triune God is revealed to the world in a way that shows the Lord’s embrace of the lowly, His exaltation of the despised of this world.

For this Holy Baptism – both that of our Lord and of ours in the name of the Lord – likewise use something lowly: common water. Our Lord Jesus is not showered in rose petals or gold coins. Nor is He given a grand triumph or tribute. He is not bathed in precious oils or placed upon a regal throne. Instead, our Lord’s public ministry begins with a washing in river water among a sweaty crowd of ordinary people, sinful people, foolish, weak, base, and despised people. He is baptized by His cousin who is seen by the authorities as a rabble-rouser and a bit of a lunatic.

And though water is powerful – large amounts of it can turn turbines and generate huge amounts of power, it can surge in from the ocean to destroy entire regions of a land, and it can pound away at rocks, reducing them to sand over the course of time – baptismal water is, by worldly accounts, pretty weak. When Christians are baptized, it typically involves three little handfuls – a tiny amount of water that we claim is more powerful than any substance in the universe. The world looks at our claims regarding baptism, and thinks we are foolish, because a little water is weak, faith in such a thing is base in the eyes of the world, and we Christians are despised for believing it. And yet, look at the promise: salvation from sin and death, a restoration of perfection, of immortality, of communion with the Creator. Those three little handfuls dwarf the might of the Hoover dam, make a mockery of the devastation of Katrina’s storm surge, and in a single minute removes more sin than the ocean can wear down solid rock over the course of centuries.

God chooses “foolish things of this world” to reveal Himself – simple bread and wine, words spoken by a pastor, a few ounces of water poured on a baby’s head, and the proclamation of good news that the world considers foolish, weak, base, and despised.

This is how it is that St. Paul says: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” For in our weakness, we see the might of the hand of God (instead of our own strength). In our foolishness, we see God’s wisdom (instead of our own cleverness). In our baseness we see the Lord’s righteousness (instead of our own claim to uphold the law). In being despised, we see the Lord’s love and care (instead of relying on the world’s praise and adulation – which often come at the price of integrity).

Dear brothers and sisters, your baptism doesn’t seem like all that much – and that is exactly why it is so mighty, so holy, so rich in grace. Christian baptism is seen by the unbeliever as foolish, weak, base, and even despised – and that is exactly why we cling to it for dear life. Just as the Lord chose the Jordan River to be blessed by His Son’s presence, the water in baptismal fonts around the world has been chosen by God “to put to shame the things that are wise… to put to shame the things that are mighty.”

“But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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