Sunday, January 8, 2017

Baptism of Jesus A

Isaiah 42:1–9, Matthew 3:13–17




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


For Christmas I sent my uncles Orin and Emery a copy of my book Coming Home to Earth. I wasn’t sure how interested they would be in reading it. Orin has been struggling with his eyesight, so I wasn’t even sure he would be able to read it. But I knew they would at least be proud that their nephew had published a book.


At the end of the Christmas season I like to read through in a leisurely way all our Christmas cards and letters. Emery and my aunt Nancy always send a nice letter updating us on their family. This year was no exception. I was almost ready to recycle it, when I noticed a handwritten note on the back. It was from Nancy:


Dear Mark, I have fond memories of the first time we ever saw you. Your mom + dad were at the seminary in St. Paul + had invited us up for supper. We got lost (but that’s another whole story!) + when we did finally arrive you were out in the front yard, down on all fours, licking water out of a mud puddle! You announced that you were a dog! That memory of you has brought me many smiles over the years. Maybe that taste of muddy water was the beginning of your environmental journey? Thanks so much for your book. The whole world needs to read it!


Love to you, Donna + all your family, Nancy


Today is Baptism of Jesus Sunday. I want to talk about a journey I have been on that began even earlier than when Emery and Nancy noticed me lapping up water from that mud puddle. This journey is a journey of faith. It began not in a puddle, but in a pool of water in the baptismal font in the front of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Iola, Wisconsin, on April 28, 1957. I was seven weeks old at the time, so my parents did not have to worry yet about me wanting to play in the water. I assume the water in the font was freshly poured.


I am sure it was a special occasion for my parents and the congregation. It must have been heart-warming for them to hear the pastor pronounce— “Mark, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”— and then to have him anoint me with the sign of the cross and say— “Mark, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”


Donna and I have been raising children for over 35 years. Our favorite bedtime ritual with our children has been to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and say to them: “You are God’s special child, and God loves you very, very much.” All six of our children have appreciated this ritual, too. It has reminded them that they are baptized, dearly loved, children of God.


This year we are observing the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That act has been viewed as a catalyst for the Reformation movement. One practice Luther did not reform was infant baptism. As Dan Erlander observes, Luther viewed “infant baptism as the purest and most beautiful picture of God’s gracious and unconditional love.”[1] Some later reformers thought Luther did not go far enough, and they did away with baptizing infants. But our Lutheran tradition has kept this practice. We too tend to see an infant at the font as a beautiful picture of God’s love.


The event at the font— what we might call “the bath”— is what we tend to think of as baptism. It is a one-time event in which God declares God’s unconditional love for us. To rebaptize someone would imply that God did not mean it the first time.


But the total baptismal experience includes a second part— a lifetime process of growing in our faith and learning the way of life of those who follow Jesus. From the day we are baptized until the day we die we are on a journey of faith. That is true whether we are baptized as infants or as older children or adults.


In our Lutheran tradition we teach that there are two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Luther taught that sacraments have three elements: God’s word of promise, a visible sign, and faith. According to Luther through baptism God promises us forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. To put it another way, God promises to love us for a lifetime and beyond.


In the case of baptism the visible sign is water. Water is the most common element in our lives. Approximately 60% of our body is water. Over 70% of Earth is covered with water. We can go several weeks without food. But we can only go about three days at most without water. Water is also essential for cleansing. The waters of baptism are a sign of God’s love washing in and over us every moment of our lives.


Faith is the third essential element in baptism. Apart from faith our baptism would have no power in shaping how we live our lives. Faith is trust in God’s promises. In a marriage relationship it makes so much difference if you know your spouse loves you. It makes all the difference in the world if we know we are loved by God. Faith is confidence that we are indeed loved unconditionally by God.


It is so easy to let our sins and shortcomings get us down. It can be hard to imagine when we are down on ourselves that God or a loved one actually loves us. We may feel unworthy of their love.


Baptism is God’s assurance that God is journeying with us through all that life may bring. God works with us in the struggle against sin. Despite being cleansed in the waters of baptism, our lives will inevitably get muddied along the way. God does not abandon us when our lives get murky. God will confront us so that we know where we have sinned or gone astray. God will suffer with us through the consequences of our sin and shortcomings. God will extend forgiveness to us. God will seek to bring healing and wholeness to us.


What loving parent does not want the best for their child when they bring their child to the font? In baptism God declares that God wants the best for the one who is being baptized. Baptism is God’s one time commitment that extends for a lifetime.


Baptism has been misused at times in our Christian tradition to separate the saved from the damned. We teach that baptism is the assurance of salvation. We do not have to worry about our salvation as we journey through life. We will have to deal with all sorts of uncertainties. But we can count on God’s love.


When Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Or taking a cue from Isaiah 42:1, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.” John the Baptist wondered why he should be baptizing Jesus. For Jesus his baptism marked the beginning of his ministry. It was so important to him to be assured that he was God’s beloved Son and that God delighted in him. Those who of us who were baptized as infants may not remember the event, but knowing we are baptized reassures us that we are beloved children of God and that God delights in us. God wanted that knowledge, that confidence, deeply imbedded in Jesus; and God wants that confidence deeply imbedded in all who follow Jesus. Imbedding that knowledge in us is a crucial aspect of baptism. But we are never simply baptized for our own sake. We are baptized for a purpose.


Jesus was baptized to carry out his God-given mission. In Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus the descent of the Spirit of God upon him reveals that the fulfillment of the servant promised in Isaiah 42. In Isaiah 42:1 the Lord makes clear what the servant’s mission is: “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Isaiah 42:4 indicates that the servant will be relentless in establishing justice: “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”


As baptized children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, an essential part of our journey of faith is to take up this mission of establishing justice. Baptized children of God will work for social justice, economic justice, racial justice, and ecological justice. That is who we are. That is an essential aspect of our identity.


Frankly our Lutheran tradition has not always excelled or even focused on establishing justice. The people of St. Andrew have a solid track record in doing ministry. But like many other congregations we have some growing to do in what it means to establish justice. This year as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it is a fitting time for God’s beloved children at St. Andrew to focus on establishing justice.


One of the reasons we may shy away from establishing justice is because it can get muddy at times. We are more comfortable with the pure waters of baptism that fill the font. When we venture forth on our journey of faith, the waters of baptism can get murky.


At the end of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


The good news is that our Lord’s love for us is sure even as we journey through the muddier waters of seeking to establish justice. We can count on the Lord being with us every step of the way on our lifetime journey of faith.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.





[1] Let the Children Come,” 13.