Saturday, January 9, 2010
Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 10, 2010)
“The Heavens Were Opened” (Luke 3:15-22)
“The people were in expectation,” today's reading from St. Luke begins. Under the thumb of the Roman Empire, there was a general feeling that it was now time for the Messiah to make his appearance. Was it now time for the long-awaited deliverer to come and restore the glory of the nation of Israel?
Could this unusual man who was baptizing people in the Jordan be the Promised One? There he was, calling people out to the wilderness, just like the Israelites so long ago were in the wilderness after they left Egypt under Moses' leadership. Then, under Joshua, they passed through the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. But years of rebellion and idolatry led to God bringing destruction upon them from foreign invaders. The nation was split in two. The tribes of the north were scattered by the Assyrians. The people of Judah in the south were taken into exile by the Babylonians. After 70 years, a remnant was allowed to return. But the glory of the nation was never the same.
Now, here was John, who in many ways resembled the Old Testament prophet Elijah. He was leading people into the wilderness in order to repent of their sins to pass through the waters of the Jordan once more. Earlier in the chapter, Luke says John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) Was this John's way of purifying the people before finally revealing himself as the Messiah?
John knew what the people were thinking, and so he said to them, “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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John wanted everyone to know that he was not the Messiah. He was the one sent by God to prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah. In all humility, John acknowledges that this Coming One will be much greater. John acknowledges that this Coming One is so great, that even a slave's task of untying sandal straps is too much of an honor for John.
John also says that this Messiah will baptize, too. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will be like a farmer with pitchfork in hand, tossing into the air what has been mown down in order to separate the wheat from the worthless leftovers. The wheat will be gathered into the barn. The chaff will be burned up in the fire. John is implying that these are the two contrasting destinies of all people. You are either wheat or you are chaff. You will either be gathered into God's eternal kingdom of heaven or you will endure an unquenchable fire in hell. John sure didn't pull any punches did he? His preaching ultimately got him locked up in prison, not to mention losing his head … literally. (Matt. 14:10)
But before all that happened, Jesus came to John and was baptized by him. The text says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'” The Triune God was manifested to us, as the Son of God stood there in the water, God the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form upon Jesus, and God the Father's voice resounded. Moreover, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit into his office as the Messiah, or the Christ. Those two words mean the same. Messiah is Hebrew. Christ is Greek. Both mean “The Anointed One.”
“The heavens were opened.” Did you get a picture in your mind of a sudden cloud break in a dark, overcast sky? The clouds part, and a bright beam of sunlight bursts through. We don't have weather records that far back, so I can't tell you if it was overcast on the day Jesus was baptized. But those words “the heavens were opened” can give us a clue as to the meaning of Jesus' baptism for us. You see, apart from Jesus, the heavens are closed to us. Because of our sinful nature and our sinful disobedience to God, there is absolutely no way we can enter into heaven and God's eternal kingdom of glory. Heaven is closed to us apart from Christ, the Messiah, who came to be our Savior, not from an oppressive empire but from the oppression of sin, death, and hell.
Picture yourself standing in line to get into heaven with all those wanting to get in. No matter how hard you knock, no one answers. No matter how long you stand outside, the door never opens. And all attempts to break your way in with your own efforts are futile. You can't break in, because by nature, you have a heart that robs God of his glory. You and I are standing in line outside the door of heaven with the rest of humanity enslaved to sin. Left to our own devices, the doors are slammed shut. And like a brush fire in the October hills of Southern California, God's “wrath is quickly kindled” against us. (Ps. 2:12)
But God has not left us without hope. The heavens are opened through Jesus. Walking to the head of the line of all those wanting to get in to heaven is Jesus. As the sinless Son of God, he is the only one worthy to enter, and he has left the door open for all who are baptized into his name and who trust in his saving death and resurrection.
When Jesus was baptized by John, it's as if he went to the head of the line as our substitute. Standing in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus acted as if he was a sinner. Jesus acted as if he needed to repent. Baptized by John, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended upon him, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God the Father had every reason to be well-pleased with his Son. He was without sin. Perfectly obedient. The Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world. Jesus' earthly life began when he was incarnate in the womb of Mary, born in Bethlehem, worshiped by shepherds and Magi. His Baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. It was the beginning of his march to the cross where he paid the price for the sin of the world and announced, “It is finished.” God's justice for sin was satisfied.
Jesus' Baptism set apart all baptismal waters from that point forward. In our baptism, we follow right behind Jesus, walking “in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4) We were plunged into the water. Our sins were washed away. Our old sinful self was drowned and died. We marched with him to the cross where our old self was crucified with him. Having died with Christ, we were set free from the slavery and condemnation of sin. Washed with water, we are covered in the shed blood of Jesus. We are justified, with no righteousness of our own, but with the righteousness of Christ credited to our account.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah. “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Is. 43:1-2)
You are redeemed in Christ, purchased and won with his precious blood shed at the cross. The Lord has called you by name. You were given your name when you were born. But you were also named in Baptism. “How is this child named?” the pastor asks adults and sponsors. “How are you named?” the pastor asks adults. The name is announced. And that name now takes on new significance. You are now named as one who belongs to God.
You pass through the flood of baptism. You were drowned, but you were also raised to new life. Now, the floodwaters of sin and death can never overwhelm you. You've already drowned and died and risen again with Christ in Baptism.
You will pass through the flames of trial and trouble, but they will not harm you, because Jesus suffered the fire of God's wrath at the cross for you. You do not need to fear the consuming flames of hell. In Christ, you are not chaff. Through water and the Word, the Holy Spirit brings forth in you the fruit of faith which trusts in Christ, and you become the wheat which God will one day gather into his eternal barn.
The heavens are opened. In his Baptism, Christ Jesus went to the head of the line for all of us and opened the doors of heaven through his perfect life, death, and resurrection. In your Baptism, you are made to be sons and daughters of God. And now, because of Jesus, your Heavenly Father says of you, “With you I am well-pleased.”