Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptism of our Lord, Series C

Sermon on Luke 3:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 13, 2012 (Baptism of our Lord)

When you have a fire you want to put out, do you put water or gasoline on it?  Obviously, you would put water on it.  If you thought the correct answer was gasoline, remind me to be in the next county the next time you have a fire in your fireplace.  Obviously we put water on a fire we want to put out because water does not burn.  It may evaporate and form steam, but in doing so it takes away heat from the fire so that the fire goes out.  But John says that Christ will baptize us in fire and the Holy Spirit.  Obviously when you and I were baptized it was water that was poured on us, not fire.  But according to John, Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Now, some Christians think that John is talking about some kind of “spiritual” baptism in the form of an emotional experience of some sort, that is separate from baptism in water.  But we Lutherans confess with St. Paul that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.  So there can’t be another, extra baptism that John is talking about; he must be talking about the same Christian baptism we all received.  The key to understanding what John means is to realize that Holy Baptism is not simple water only, but it is water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word.  Another way of saying that, taking our cue from the words of John the Baptist in our text, would be to say that the water of Holy Baptism is a special kind of water.  It is water that burns.

Fire is a useful thing, but it is dangerous if it is not properly contained.  Fire provides heat for our homes, it causes our cars and trucks to move down the road, it is one means by which the power company generates electricity, and it can be very pretty to watch if you have a fireplace or an outdoor campfire or bonfire, as well as being useful for cooking food.  But it provides all these benefits by destroying something, namely the fuel that is given to it.  And of course sometimes fires get out of control and start using as fuel, things that it is not supposed to destroy such as houses and other buildings, or sometimes even dangerous chemicals that give off poisonous chemicals in the smoke when they burn.  Sometimes it may even try to use us as fuel, or suffocate us with the airborne residue we call smoke.  Fire is a dangerous thing, because although it provides us with heat and light, it does so by consuming or destroying its fuel, and sometimes the wrong thing becomes fuel for the fire.

But there are other uses for fire that rely on the fact that fire is destructive.  This is how fire becomes purifying.  When you hold a knife in the flame, the knife doesn’t burn, since it is made of a metal with a very high melting point, but all of the impurities and the germs on the knife are burned away, and so the knife is sterilized.  Metals are refined using extreme heat, because it is only in a molten state that impurities can be removed, and in fact some kinds of impurities burn off when they get too hot.  It is this use of fire that John is talking about when he describes the baptism of Christ as being a baptism in fire.  Our sins, our impurities, are removed from us in Holy Baptism.  When we come forth from the waters of Holy Baptism, that which is not pure in us, the Old sinful Adam, has been put to death and a new, pure man in Christ has been created to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Another way of saying this is to say that we who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead we too should walk in newness of life.  We were buried with Christ by Baptism into death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead so we also should walk in newness of life.  When you were baptized, you died, in other words.  It sounds pretty harsh to say it that way, but it’s the truth.  When you were baptized, you died, and then you were raised to a new life.  Granted everything that was given you in baptism is still hidden under the cross.  The Old Adam will not be completely killed off until you leave this life, and the New Man in Christ will not be completely whole until you are resurrected on the Last Day.  But nevertheless it is still true that in Baptism you died and were resurrected, because your baptism was not a one-time event but a reality that covers your whole life.  The continuous forgiveness you receive by faith every day, and the forgiveness you receive from my mouth every Sunday in Holy Absolution, are simply part of your Baptism, where the Old Adam is daily drowned so that the New Man can daily come forth and arise.  This is how the water of baptism functions as fire in your life.  It destroys the Old Adam so that the New Man in Christ can arise.

If all of this is true, though, and Baptism purifies us from our sinfulness, then we need to ask, why did Christ need to be Baptized?  After all, He was without sin in the first place.  He didn’t need to be purified of His sins, because He didn’t have any.  In fact, John asks Him this very question when He comes to be baptized.  Our text, which was written by St. Luke, doesn’t record that conversation, but St. Matthew does.  The answer is that just as we were baptized into Christ’s righteousness, He was baptized into our sin.  When He was baptized, He was beginning His public ministry, He was taking on His role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And He didn’t just make that sin vanish; He took it upon Himself and bore it to the cross.  It was at His Baptism that Christ became the one who takes away our sin, and it is for this reason that His Baptism in the Jordan River is important to us.  Christ was baptized into our sinfulness so that we can be baptized into His righteousness.

This season in the Church Year is known as the season of the Epiphany, after the festival of the Epiphany, also known as the coming of the magi, which we celebrated last Sunday.  The word Epiphany means “shining out” or “shining forth.”  The idea is that the Gospel lessons during the Epiphany season show us how Jesus shines forth as God even though He is also man, and even though He is living as a humble and lowly servant of us all.  Here at Jesus’ Baptism, where He begins His public ministry as the Lamb of God who takes up and takes away the sins of the world, His divine nature shines forth through the testimony that the Father and the Holy Spirit bear of who He is.  He is the Son of God, in whom the Father is well-pleased.  He is the one to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  He is God become man so that mankind might be restored to fellowship with God.  The Father declares that He is well-pleased with the Son, because the Son is sinless.  And because the Son is sinless, He can carry our sins to the cross and leave them there.  The whole Trinity testifies to the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

This is why, by the way, we were baptized “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  The whole Trinity was involved in our Baptism just as the Trinity was involved in Jesus’ baptism.  Since Jesus is God the Son, we who are baptized into Him are also brought back into fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The Father who sent the Son and who approves of Him now approves of us because we have been clothed with Him.  The Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus bodily in the form of a dove has entered us and cleansed us from our sins, and He has given us the power to amend our sinful lives.  The presence and the work of the entire Trinity at Jesus’ Baptism tells us that this same Trinity is active in our Baptisms and in the baptismal lives we now live as God’s people.

Since Christ is the Lamb of God, and since He has washed our sins away in Baptism and continues to wash them away as we lead the Baptismal life, He is the one who purifies us.  In a few moments we will eat the same body and drink the same blood which were washed in the Jordan river that day.  He is the one who takes away our sins, and he does so also when we eat and drink of Him.  Some nutrients, when they are eaten, have the effect of stimulating the body to rid itself of the toxins and harmful substances it has accumulated.  The most obvious example, of course, would be eating fiber to keep your “plumbing” in good working order.  Well, since Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away sin, He also drives out sin when He is eaten and drunk.  His body and blood are known as the “medicine of immortality,” which will give a person eternal life when he eats and drinks of them.  This medicinal food of Christ’s body and blood is available for you here, today.  Come, let us receive Him and so live eternally.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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