The Baptism of our Lord, January 11, 2009 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in West Oakland, California
The Baptism of our Lord, January 11, 2009
Genesis 1: 1-5 Psalm 29 Acts 19: 1-7 Mark 1: 4-11
Remembering our Baptisms through Jesus’ Baptism
We are baptized into Jesus Christ our Lord, the Lamb of God, in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We had the same lesson in Advent, where we regarded John the Baptist. Here in Epiphany, however, we will regard the Baptism of our Lord and encourage each other, at the same time, to remember our own baptisms.
The Gospel of Mark does not have the story of Jesus’ birth, but begins with his baptism. Baptism is Mark’s Christmas. In the commentary I read to prepare for this sermon, it says that the birth of Christ is only recorded in Luke and Matthew, while the baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels, plus Acts and Romans. By that we want to say that the baptism of Christ as well as our own is very important. John said that the one who came after him was far greater than he, and he was not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals, and that was something even beneath the dignity of a servant to do. We are baptized in Jesus name and John said that he baptized with water, but Jesus baptized us with the Holy Spirit.
In the baptism of Jesus our Advent prayer was also answered. Do you remember how we prayed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! (Isaiah 61:1) (Of course, Jesus’ holy birth is also the answer to that prayer.) But as Jesus comes up out of the River Jordan, out of his baptism waters, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove.
It does not just say, “The heavens opened” so that they might be closed once more. Mark says that the heavens were torn apart in such a way that they cannot be fixed. The heavens are torn just like the curtain in the temple before the holiest of holies, was torn from top to bottom at Jesus’ crucifixion. Now God has come to be among us, out of heaven, out of the inner-most sanctuary of the temple, to be out and about and among us, so that those who live their lives against him need to tremble, and those who belong to him, baptized in his name, can jump, skip, and dance in the delight of the light and love of their lives.
It is most likely that only Jesus saw the heavens tear open. We have read and heard and know the whole story. But no one knew much about what was happening at the time. John had an inkling of it and pointed Jesus out to some of his followers, who then followed Jesus. But even though we know the story and we even know that 2.3 billion people in the world are now baptized in Jesus’ name, we remain pretty much buffaloed, unless Christ opens our eyes. What could it mean that the heavens were torn apart? We still have to struggle to understand what Jesus knew and what he meant. For example, what does his baptizing in the Holy Spirit mean for us?
One thing it means is that we have to regard and remember our own baptisms. My sister recently gave me my father’s account of my baptism, which he had recorded in his official pastoral register. I discovered that I was baptized on December 18th 1943. Do you know the date of your baptism? It is very important. Shouldn’t we remember it like our birthday? There is a song I have always loved. It’s called, “Let All Together Praise the Lord!” (Number 47 in the Lutheran Book of Worship) and reading my father’s words, I found out that they sang it at my baptism, when I was only nine days old! I’ve always loved the song and just the other day a made a verse of it into a poem again:
God unlocks the gates of Paradise once more
No fiery swords of the Cherubim guard it like before.
Christ is the entrance, Christ the door.
Let our praises rise up to the gracious skies
That song must have gotten into me when I was nine days old! Little John the Baptist, still in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb, jumped for joy when Mary, pregnant with Jesus ran, to her. He witnessed to Christ even in embryo!
Jesus did not need to be baptized, but we do, because our sins have to be washed away and we need a fresh, new divine birth from God. For Jesus who had come from God, it was the assurance he needed once again to know he was God’s Son, well-pleasing to God, God’s beloved, and filled by the Holy Spirit. We need to remember our baptisms so that we become ever more conscious and assured that we, too, are God’s children, God’s beloved sons and daughters, because in our baptisms Christ was born in our hearts. Like the heavens, our own hearts become torn open in order to receive the Holy Spirit from heaven and we pray that God will never close them again to ward off the compassion that comes from on high.
The divine birth takes place through faith, and without faith, which is like oxygen, the divine miracle can become a still-birth. But in the gift of faith, the Christ-child in us will be nurtured, grow, and mature. Ah, we want Christ’s baptism of the Holy Spirit for us!
I still find myself comparing our birth and our baptism. Our faith fulfills our baptisms by way of receiving a new birth in Christ when we rise up out of the water. Our natural births are quite an experience. I can’t say I remember mine, although I must have been born. I’m here. I was right there when Nora gave birth to our three sons. I was trying to make her relax with the Lamaze breathing method, and I myself was so up-tight that I sprained a muscle in my shoulder trying to put on a white coat! When we are born we are quite vulnerable. But when we come out of our baptism water, whom should we fear. God is now with us! Emmanuel!
Whenever I’ve done a baptism consultation with families and sponsors, I’d ask them to remember their baptisms whenever they bathe, wash, and shower. Then remembering, be assured that you too are a child of God, receiving the Holy Spirit and knowing that Christ is with you. Because of your baptism, you can face temptations, even possibly suffering. Because of your baptism, your death will not be the end, but you will go through death to be with the living God. Death becomes a passage-way, a Passover into your life in heaven, beyond this sorry, sinful, and violent world. Our baptism is our visa, our passport to join all those who have gone before us to be with the living God.
When Luther of old was tempted, he did not say, “I am a believer!” or “I am a Christian!” He shouted, “I’ve been baptized!” Let’s shout it together: “I’ve been baptized!” (If you have not been, it can be arranged.) Once in Coney Island a Jewish mother, married to one of our members, was having her children baptized. We agreed ahead of time, so that her family could not prevent it, that she would suddenly kneel down and get baptized as well, before her family could realize that it was happening. The children and their mother were baptized that day.
Baptism is what God does for us, before we could do anything except cry, poop in our diapers, and nurse at our mother’s breast. But that is when God said, “You are my beloved child and it’s in you that I am well pleased.” That love and acceptance from God is what our hearts ride on, even when we grow old and we can hardly get a glass of water without getting out of breath. We have to pray for Marian Davis. She told Pastor Richard and me how she had that much trouble breathing. But God will not stop loving her, smiling upon her, and feeling pleased with her. God feels wonderful that not only Marian, but all of us, that we all belong to him. God loves us.
In our lesson, we notice that Jesus, too, has not done anything yet and that grace and love comes down from heaven upon him. The Holy Spirit descends upon him and the power from on high fills him. But let me warn you, the things of God always go the opposite to what we expect. Being pronounced God’s beloved Son brings him right into the fierce three temptations of his forty days with the devil in the desert.
But because of our baptisms, the Holy Spirit is with us just like the Holy Spirit was with Jesus through it all. The Spirit of God will be with us, at our side, in our hearts, over us, under us, above and below us, and the temptation to be less than we really are, is overcome in the power that comes from on high.
But aren’t we all God’s children just because we’ve been born? Why do we have to be baptized? God wants us to be baptized. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). One of those commands is for us to be baptized. So in our Small Catechism we read, “Those who are baptized and believe shall be saved. Those who do not believe will be condemned.” Now it does not say, “those who are not baptized,” but “those who do not believe.” Baptism is, however, commanded by God’s word, because of the new birth that we receive by faith through it.
Even our natural birth is like a baptism. The water breaks, the baby comes out of the water, and when the mother tears, the baby comes out of the water and the blood, like John saw flowing out of our Savior’s side. Out of the water and the blood, a new human being enters this world. And I don’t know how she does it, but the mother forgets everything she went through and has another one!
Birth is like a baptism.
The children of Israel had to go through the Red Sea and came out on the other side, escaping Pharaoh’s vengeful chariots. I bet they got wet! Just look at Moses! In Hebrew his name means “drawn out of the water.” He was floating in the bulrushes of the Nile in a wicker basket, when Pharaoh’s daughter spotted him.
And even in secular evolution, scientists claim that life rose up out of the water. And we too rise up out of the waters of baptism to be new creatures in Christ.
Then look at our creation story that we heard in our first lesson. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind of God, [the breath of God, the Ruach Elohim, the spirit of God], swept over the face of the waters.” It’s very much like a cosmic baptism by which God brings about the creation.
In our baptisms our old Adam and Eve, our old selves drown, and we rise up out of the waters new creatures, new selves in Christ. Read about baptism in your Small Catechism:
What does baptism mean for your daily living? It means
that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, and that day after day, a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever!
“We are creatures who need to breathe in air. When we are dunked under the water, we cannot breathe. But baptized we breathe in the Holy Spirit. We inhale God’s grace and strength and exhale God’s love for others. So take a deep breath! Feel God’s Spirit making you a living soul! Feel God’s love and compassion, as you breathe out, because you are God’s beloved child. We are all sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us shout once more, “We’ve been baptized!” “We’ve been baptized!”
We belong to Jesus our Lord. We know his voice and he knows our names. They are recorded in the book of heaven. With the power from on high available to us for the asking in prayer, God will do great things through us here at Bethlehem, to glorify God’s Holy Name until by the Holy Spirit all tongues on earth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.