16. January 2011
The Baptism of Our Lord
When you hear the word baptism, what comes to mind? Water? Candles? White baptismal robes? Crying babies? The hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father?”
It is easy to get a bit formulaic in our understanding and confession of the mysteries of our faith. You will probably hear me repeat from this pulpit and in Bible study clichés and catch-phrases that I have picked up from my pastors, professors, the Catechism, and the like. While they are loaded with meaning in my mind, they may not mean much to you. Baptism is one such word. I may say “trust in your baptism” and to many this is a throw-away phrase.
When we say baptism, do not assume that others know what you are talking about. Do not assume that those in our midst have learned to recall and trust in their baptism. Do not assume that your children know and place confidence in their baptism. To most, baptism is just another word.
One does not have to look far to find many false ideas of Christian baptism. Just a few years ago, one such example was on the TV series “Lost.” A child was born to one of the survivors stranded on an island. Among the passengers of the flight that survived the crash, no priest, rabbi, or spiritual guide was found. This young single mother did not know if she could raise a child, especially on an island. Even more so, she was concerned for the welfare of the child, with the many dangers of the island. One drug dealer impersonating his dead brother, a priest, was asked if the child would go to hell without baptism. He said no … as long as she decided to be baptized too. Sappy music ensued and we saw both go under the water at the hand of the fake priest Mr. Eko.
While I enjoyed the show as a whole, this example and many more throughout the six seasons of Lost highlighted how far afield most people are when it comes to matters spiritual, especially baptism. For Mr. Eko, Claire, and her infant son Aaron, baptism was little more than talisman, a magic incantation, or perhaps a get-out-of-jail-free card.
This opinion of the show is shared by many. For most, baptism is an empty religious rite. Its only meaning is dependent on the recipient’s beliefs. There can be many valid baptisms, regardless of faith or word of God. For some baptism is a rite of initiation or acceptance into a congregation and its confession. For others it is a mark of commitment of the parents to raise the child as a believer. For yet others baptism is a purifying event that ought to be repeated as often as faith falters.
St. John the Baptist was similarly confused. Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?”
When Jesus came to him at the Jordan, his view of baptism was limited to his experience. He needed the testimony of Holy Trinity to learn that baptism was a mystery far greater than he could have imagined.
When he heard the word baptism, he did not think of it as a saving water and deliverance from death and devil. He needed his lightbulb lit, to be enlightened. He needed an epiphany.
John only knew that baptism was for repentance. Only sinners need to repent. Standing before him was the holy and blameless lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world. No guilt is found in him. No repentance necessary. If anyone needed baptism, it was the poor, miserable sap who has been baptizing people in the Jordan.
John came to learn what Jesus truly had in mind for baptism. It is far greater than ritual purity. They already have sackcloth and ashes for repentance. Jesus has something better in store for baptism. Confession gives way to the far greater, the gift of forgiveness and adoption as children of God. Christ’s baptism is the beginning of the history of salvation.
But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
When John heard those words – to fulfill all righteousness, he knew what they meant. The lightbulb turned on. That little cliché of Jesus may have little meaning to us but that meant the world to John. Just as the word baptism is loaded with meaning for us, to fulfill all righteousness was loaded with meaning for John.
John knew that Jesus was saying that his baptism is a necessary part of his redeeming of the world. John knew by Jesus’ little phrase that the baptism of our Lord is an essential part of the history of salvation. Now St. John gets it. He has had his Spirit-given epiphany. Jesus isn’t going to baptism for repentance, he’s going into the waters of the Jordan to begin his work of saving us, to fulfill all righteousness.
All righteousness begins with the promise to Adam and Eve. It continues with the incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. It continues further in the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. It culminates at the death and resurrection on Easter morn. It will be completely fulfilled on the last day when all who believe and are baptized in his name enter into heaven.
His baptism is intimately connected to his cross and passion. All righteousness is key phrase for the whole of Christ’s saving acts for all believers in his name. All righteousness is our confession of the Creeds. All righteousness is the creator of the heavens and the earth begetting a Son in our flesh, leading him to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, die, and be buried. All righteousness is raising this son on the third day, thereby granting to all who believe on his name the power to become children of God. All righteousness is the sending of the Holy Spirit, the comforter, to call, gather, and enlighten the Christian church on earth. All righteousness is joining his adopted children into one communion around his forgiveness, thereby granting them resurrection of their bodies and everlasting life.
Thus, Jesus’ baptism begins all righteousness. Because it’s part in Christ’s whole history of salvation, baptism is of the highest importance to the Christian. In baptism, our Lord took the sins of the whole world upon himself. The dirty waters of the Jordan were absorbed into his flesh. His suffering for our sakes begins when he is baptized like us. All his suffering and bloody anguish is poured into those waters for us, so that St. John the Evangelist speaks of our baptism as washing of Christ’s blood. Blood poured on on the cross. Blood poured over us in baptism. Blood poured into our mouths in the Holy Supper. All righteousness is really all about Christ’s own blood shed for you, so that you would find favor with God.
Thus, when a Christian hears the word baptism far more comes to mind. As Christians, the words of the Scriptures should echo in our ears:
“Baptism now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)
“We were saved through the washing of rebirth of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)
“Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:13)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” (Romans 6:3ff)
“Jesus Christ is the one who came with the water of his baptism and the blood of his death. He came not only with the water, but with both the water and the blood.” (1 John 5:6ff)
So also, as Lutherans, the confession of baptism in the Small Catechism likely rings in your head:
“Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.”
“Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declares.”
Jesus revolutionized baptism into a saving water of forgiveness and salvation. His baptism identifies him with us. He became like one of us, knowing no sin, in order that we might be like him, with his own righteousness. At every turn, Jesus assumed the life of the lowly, the despised, and the rejected, in order that they might be exalted, accepted, and loved by the Father. Baptism joins us to Jesus, making us co-heirs with him of the resurrection and eternal life.
This work was begun by Christ in his baptism and is now given to you. When you rise in the morning, when you go to bed in the evening, or when the tempted or scared, make the sign of the holy cross and remember – you are baptized. You have been made God’s child, redeemed from death and the devil, and have the promise of heaven. Baptism isn’t an empty ritual. It is a holy mystery and your salvation. It is the act of God daily sending his Holy Spirit and proclaiming from heaven, This is my beloved [child] in whom I am well pleased. Thanks be to God!
In Name of Holy Baptism: Father, +Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church