The Baptism of Our Lord (January 7, 2007)
“Worthy and Well-Pleasing” (Luke 3:15-22)
Yesterday was an important day, but a day that sadly gets overlooked. It was the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany means “manifestation.” On the day of Epiphany, January 6, we celebrate the day when Wise Men from the East came to worship the newborn King and to present him with gifts fit for a king. That moment was the first time when Gentiles came to worship the Christ. Therefore, Epiphany is celebrated as the first time when the Light of the Good News of Jesus was manifested to the world.
Now, here we are, a day later, and we jump ahead in the story close to 30 years. What gives? Yes, Luke also records one other incident in the life of the young Jesus...when he was a 12-year old boy in the temple, confounding professors and parents alike. But as far as our Church Year goes, within a period of one day, we go from his infancy and toddler-hood to the day when he was baptized around the age of 30 (as Luke 3:23 informs us).
St. John wrote at the end of his Gospel, “Now there are many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) Similarly, there are not enough Sundays in the year to include every detail from the life of Jesus. We'll save that for Bible Study. But we need to move ahead. We can't stay for long gazing at the sweet little baby in the manger. We can't stay for long in the temple, listening to the young boy who is wise beyond his years. We can't stay for long in Nazareth and be amazed at the complete obedience of this carpenter's apprentice. No, we need to forge ahead and hear more about his life and ministry.
But before we do, we need to hear a bit more about someone we heard about during Advent and now once again in the season of Epiphany...the great prophet and forerunner of the Savior, John the Baptist.
John was a powerful figure out there on the banks of the Jordan River, with his strange, hairy appearance and his bold preaching of repentance. I wonder if people acted toward John like you and I might act when we meet a celebrity. I remember one time in particular when I met the comedian Gallagher. He's not as popular now as he was then. If you don't remember him, he's the guy who likes to smash watermelons and other assorted produce on stage with a big sledge hammer. I was in high school and in those days I read a lot of science fiction and was interested in space travel and astronomy. I signed up for a weekend class at UCLA called “Black Holes and Warped Space Time.” Arriving at the auditorium early on Saturday morning, I sat right in front of this guy with a striped shirt, floppy wool hat, mustache, and long hair. I did a double-take and realized I was sitting in front of Gallagher! Back then I thought he was hilarious and thought it would be cool to meet him. Nervous and tongue-tied, I turned to him and said, “You're Gallagher, right?” He replied, “Yes, I am.” I then asked, “What are you doing here?” He answered, “I'm taking a class on black holes and warped space time,” but he said it in a tone of voice that meant, “Leave me alone, you stupid kid.”
Now, of course, there's no comparison between John the Baptist and Gallagher. My point is that when we are in the presence of the powerful or popular or the famous or filthy rich, we sometimes get nervous and tongue-tied. We think to ourselves that we are not worthy to be in their presence. We fall all over ourselves and stumble over our words when we meet someone whom we idolize...like celebrities or sports stars.
Or, as in the case of the people who came out to hear John...when you meet someone whom you consider a prophet or whom you think is the long-expected Messiah. Luke tells us that “the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” It seems as though the people who came out to see John put him on a higher pedestal than John himself knew he deserved.
Although Jesus later said of John, “among those born of women none is greater than John,” (Luke 7:28)...still, John knew he was not worthy of being compared with the Messiah, the Christ. John knew that his ministry was only preparatory to the greater ministry of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world...the son of God whose baptism would also be accompanied by the Holy Spirit and fire. And so he said, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
Part of the confession in this morning's Divine Service says, “let us first consider our unworthiness.” Do we really believe this? Do we truly confess that, because of our disobedience of God's commandments, that we are not worthy to stand before him? Are you prepared to fall down on your face and kiss the dusty, dirty, sweaty, calloused feet of your Savior, seeing that you, too are not worthy to untie his sandal straps?
I think we all have too high an opinion of ourselves. We think we are worthy...or at least a little more worthy than the next guy. We will always find someone to compare ourselves to and secretly think to ourselves, “I'm better.” Didn't you feel that way when you heard about Saddam Hussein going to the gallows? Don't you feel that way when you hear about some criminal on the news? Do you sometimes feel that way when you think, “I'm the only one left in my family who still goes to church”?
This becomes even more clear when we suffer in any way. Our first thought is often, “I don't deserve this.” Who says so? We deserve so much more because of our sin. We are fit only to be baptized with the fire of God's anger over sin. We are fit to be burned up “with unquenchable fire” like the useless husks left over after the wheat harvest is gathered in.
The only thing that can put out that fire is water...and there's a lot of water here before us today. When Jesus stepped into the water of the Jordan to be baptized by John, he didn't do it because he needed it. Jesus had no sin to forgive. Jesus was baptized so that he could step into our place. Everyone who stood in line to receive John's baptism did so because they acknowledged their unworthiness before God. Jesus stood right in line with all of us there at the Jordan, as if to say, “As the sinless Son of God, I do not need to be baptized. But I do this in order to step into your shoes, to act as if I DID need this, and in so doing to bear the sins of all people from here all the way to the cross, where I will face my Father's burning wrath over sin so that you don't have to.”
There at Christ's baptism, the Triune God's saving action is “manifested.” The Son of God stands in the water, anointed as the Messiah who would bear the sins of the world. The heavens are opened. The Father's voice resounds, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, perhaps to remind us of another time when a sinful world was destroyed through water and when 8 people were saved in an ark upon the water. Noah sent forth a dove to see if the waters of the flood had receded, and it came back with an olive branch in its mouth. Since then, the dove with an olive branch has become a symbol for world peace. But that peace should never be separated from the peace that only God can give...the peace between God and man earned by our Savior Jesus. And this is not just pious talk about Baptism. It's a reality. In 1 Peter chapter 3, St. Peter talks about Noah's flood, and talks about those “eight persons” who “were brought safely through water.” He goes on to compare this to Baptism, and says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Now, we can have a good conscience because we are forgiven. Our sin and guilt and shame before God are washed away. We don't need to fear God's judgment any longer. Isaiah's words from today's readings are for us today, too: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” That's what happens in Baptism. God redeemed you at the cross. In baptism, God calls your name and makes you his very own. All that Christ accomplished for you at the cross and empty tomb are poured out upon you. St. Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of 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.” (Romans 6:4-5)
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” God says to you through the prophet Isaiah. You have passed through the water of the font, and you cling to God's gift of baptismal grace by faith. God was with you then, and he will continue to be with you today and always. “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” There still may be fiery trials you have to face in this life, but you will not be burned, because in Christ Jesus you have escaped the fiery wrath of God over sin.
United to Christ Jesus in Baptism, the heavens are opened for you. The Holy Spirit descends upon you and gives you faith that trusts in the blessings and power of Baptism. And God the Father now says to YOU, “You are indeed worthy of my love, because of what my Son has done for you. YOU are my beloved son. YOU are my beloved daughter. With YOU I am well pleased.”