Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord (trans)

14 January 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 3:13-17 (Isa 42:1-7, 1 Cor 1:26-31)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is full of surprises.

He presents Himself to His cousin John in order to submit to a baptism of repentance, a washing away of sin by water and the Word. Obviously, this stuns John, for even as an infant in his mother’s womb, the Holy Spirit revealed to John who Jesus is. And John knows full well that this is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“What are you doing here?” says John. He suggests that the proper thing would be to change places. But John is wrong. The proper thing is not always what reason and the senses say is proper. Rather the proper thing is what our Lord says: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness…

Jesus is not submitting to a sinner’s baptism to admit, repent of, or be forgiven of sins. Rather He submits so that we sinners can admit, repent of, and be forgiven of our sins – which are washed away by water through the Word. And this Word is in the water itself.

Fifteen hundred years later, a fellow baptizer and preacher, whose head many wanted on a plate as well, would pen the question: “How can water do such great things?” The answer is: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things.” The Word is not only the Bible. Nor does the Word mean only the baptismal formula spoken over the water – but is truly the Word, that is Christ Himself, “in and with” the water that makes disciples, forgives sins, saves, and gives us a washing of rebirth.

Baptism without the Word of God, that is, without Christ, is only water. But when the Word is implanted into the water, as we confess in the catechism: “it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three.”

And this, dear friends, is made possible because the Word, that is, the Word made flesh, has sanctified the water of the Jordan, and indeed, as Luther’s famous flood-prayer confesses to God: “You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” The water in this font is as holy as the water of the Jordan – for our Lord has made it so.

Though our world is fallen, though creation reeks of sin, though much of the water on our planet is brackish or polluted – even as our sinful nature is corrupted – things are not to remain this way. Dear brothers and sisters, God broke into creation to redeem that creation, to re-create, and to make new!

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” to redeem our flesh, and our dwellings. Jesus, the Word of God “by whom all things were made,” who “created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it,” enters the water like the sinful world drowned by the flood, like “hard-hearted Pharaoh,” like a body descending into a tomb – and from this position of death, of sin, of tainted creation, He breaks to the surface, having consecrated all waters, all creation, and indeed all men in the name of the Godhead, the Omnipresent made present in our limited creation, the Omnipotent given to “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Jesus had no reason to be cleansed by baptismal water, but baptismal water had need to be sanctified by Him!

Jesus, who is holy, nevertheless submits to being declared holy by the priests. Jesus, who is the God of the covenant, nevertheless submits to circumcision under the law. Jesus, who is sinless, nevertheless submits to a baptism of repentance under a prophet. Jesus, who is king, nevertheless submits to being declared a king by a lesser man, who posts the declaration above His cross. Jesus, who owes no wages of sin, nevertheless submits to death on the cross as a ransom for those who believe and as victory over death itself. Jesus, who is God, submits to manhood to save mankind.

This is what He means by: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

And this was not to be the last surprise of the day, for as our Lord emerged from the water, “behold , the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him.”

Thus we see the Holy Spirit’s work – which is never apart from the Word of God, from the Son, from the sacramental means by which He is present among us, “the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” If the Holy Spirit is given to our perfect Lord as He is washed with baptismal water, how much more are we, the redeemed, the ones who stand in the wake of our Lord, surrounded by the same “Lord and giver of life.”

And as if God the Son showing up in space and time, humbly waiting in line to be given a sinner’s baptism, and, the very Holy Spirit descending into space and time in the visible and humble form of a dove, are not enough of a surprise, imagine the “shock and awe” of hearing the voice of God the Father Almighty resounding as a voice from the heavens themselves, rending the air with a mighty Paternal proclamation: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” In this Most Holy Baptism, we have the triple miracle of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity showing up in space and time, being completely accessible to the senses, all out of love for His creation and for the redemption of His creatures.

And yet, this is not where the surpeise and the miraculous wonder end. The baptism of our Lord Jesus begins His ministry, His sojourn of three years walking the earth before His death and resurrection. At the very end of that three year ministry, our Lord gives the great commission to the eleven disciples, the men who are being ordained as apostles, the men whom the Lord is placing into an office of authority to act on His behalf in preaching the Word, forgiving sins, and bringing people into communion with the Holy Trinity. And how does He tell them to do this?

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” To be brought into the redemptive work of God, to be recreated, to be born again, to be cleansed from all sins, to be renewed and restored to new life is to be baptized. And the miracle of the Word, that is, the Son, being present in the water; the Holy Spirit’s descent; and the Father’s voice of Paternal acknowledgment, love, and delight are all present for us in this ongoing Holy Baptism applied to each one of us.

For the Trinity is still at work. The Persons of God continue in self-revelation for the surprising purpose of saving and making new. And this divine power is still at work in all of our miraculous baptisms, which as our Lord instructs, are indeed carried out, even as was His…

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

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