First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9
1Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. 9Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. 3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. 4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; 6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox. 7The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 8The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. 9And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!” 10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King forevermore. 11The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
Second Reading: Romans 6:1-11
1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We 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. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
13Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Thank God We’re Already Dead
I’m sure you’ve noticed the change in décor this morning as you came into the sanctuary. Gone are the decorations that welcomed us into the Advent and Christmas seasons. Gone is the Chrismon tree and the candles in the windows. And while the blue and white of the seasons, for today, remains white, next week we’ll find the green of the ordinary season back on our altar. For the next 6 weeks or so, we’ll pause and reflect not only on the birth of Jesus, but on the beginning of His ministry, as we transition from the Advent of our Lord into the Lenten season and its focus on the sacrifice, passion, and death of our Lord, all before we celebrate His resurrection. So, it’s appropriate that we, at this the beginning of the Epiphany season, should also pause and look at another new beginning.
Our Epiphany season this year, like most, starts with the Baptism of our Lord, the official beginning of His public ministry. And of course, we all recognize that for us, baptism marks our new beginning as children of God. And as we look at Baptism, I think it would be good for us to also consider a statement Jesus made, because it’s an appropriate remark as we consider our new beginnings as members of Christ’s body.
In John 12:24 Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Baptism for us involves both death and life.
For those who have taken in the sights of New York city, you may have taken a tour of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Inside the Nave, off to the left, is the baptismal font which is unlike anything you’ll ever see. It is a large deep pool that is elevated, about chest high. A casual visitor might confuse it for a hot tub; it’s large enough for three or four people. However, there are no spa jets, and the water, when touched, is quite cool. If you ask the pastor about how baptisms are performed, he’ll respond by saying, “Just like anywhere else. Some people choose to be immersed while others prefer to stand outside the font, and water is sprinkled on their heads.” He concluded his response by saying, “The most important thing, is that, however we do the baptism, sprinkling or dunking, we have to use enough water to kill people.”
Think about this statement, “we have to use enough water to kill people.” One pastor shared with me that he has been accused of using a lot of water when he baptizes people. On one occasion, right after he graduated from seminary, he took a pitcher of water and dumped it on the head of some unsuspecting child. The mother was shocked, and thought he was trying to drown her son. He concluded his story by saying, “Theologically speaking, I was.” St. Paul tells us two important things about baptism in his letters. First is found in our epistle reading for today, “We die when we are baptized” (Romans 6:3). Second, in 1 Corinthians Paul said, “I die daily” (15:31). These statements are very important as we remember our baptisms, and it’s why Luther preached that we should remember our baptisms daily.
In the Small Catechism, under the section titled The Daily Purpose of Baptism, Luther asked and answered the following question: “What is the significance of baptism with water? It signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil desires, should be drowned by daily repentance and sorrow for sin, and be put to death, and that the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Now whether we remember our actual baptism or not, you and I died at the baptismal font. That’s one of the keys of what it means to be a Christian. In our tradition, we baptize little children and we don’t often know what to expect. The baby could start screaming, (thankfully this hasn’t happened to me as far as I remember), or the baby could coo and smile. Either way, the cuteness factor is pretty high. But Paul reminds us that something deeper is going on.
At the moment of baptism, we’re so deeply united with Christ that we’re “buried” with Him. Our entire life up to that point has been finished off, and now something new begins. Christian baptism isn’t a ceremony on anybody’s social calendar. It isn’t a predictable little ritual at a certain time in a person’s life. At its deepest meaning, baptism is the event when we’re marked with the Cross of Christ forever, as clearly as a Jewish child being circumcised. From that moment forward, life is going to be different.
In one of her short stories, Flannery O’Connor tells about a four-year-old boy named Harry Ashfield. He lives in an apartment with parents who neglect him. Their lives are more focused on drinking, partying, and recovering from hangovers. A cleaning lady named Mrs. Connin takes young Harry to hear a preacher down by the river. Harry has never heard anything like that preacher. As the preacher stands hip deep in the river, he tells about Jesus and a kingdom of God where every child is safe. Little Harry is now listening intently. “Hey, preacher,” cries out Mrs. Connin, “I’m keeping a boy from town today. I don’t think he has ever been baptized.”
The preacher says, “Bring him to me.” Turning to Harry, he adds, “Have you ever been baptized?” Harry asks what that means. The preacher says, “If I baptize you, you’ll be able to go to the kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?” That sounded pretty good to Harry. He thought that meant that wouldn’t have to return to the neglect of his parent’s apartment. “You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” And he takes the boy, swings him upside down, and plunges him into the water. The child comes up, gasping for air. Then the preacher says, “You count now.”
At the end of the day, Mrs. Connin takes Harry home. Everything is different for him now. He wants no part of his parents’ parties. He’s no longer comfortable being cooped up in their apartment while they ignore him. All he wants is to go back down to the river, where he can jump in and go looking for the kingdom of Christ. Paul says, “The old life dies when we get baptized.” The sins, including original sin are killed off through Christ’s death. All our destructiveness is destroyed. Everything that kept us from the joy and freedom of the gospel is now loosed, and we’re free to live in the love of Jesus Christ. However, we must let the old life die.
In a book on leadership, Garry Wills writes about Harriet Tubman, the remarkable slave woman who led African slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. Mr. Wills writes, “when Harriet Tubman was a teenager, she tried to stop the beating of a fellow worker. Her master hit her on the head, and the blow broke her skull. Harriet lingered near death for weeks. For the rest of her life, she suffered from occasional catatonic spells due to the injury. But the injury also set her free. The blow that cracked Tubman’s skull struck off her psychic chains. She had already died once; she had nothing to lose.”
Sometimes people can have an experience when they were as good as dead. When they emerge, everything is fresh and new. They’re no longer bound and held captive as they once were. In a very real sense, life begins after something has died. Remember the Jesus’ words from St. John’s gospel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” St. Paul says that this experience lies at the heart of the Christian life.
For the last couple of chapters here in Romans, Paul has been arguing on behalf of grace. As he continues to remind us, God saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’re also made righteous, not by our own righteous deeds, but by the righteous work of Christ’s sacrificial love. On the cross of Jesus, God has forgiven us even before we knew we needed to be forgiven. The grace of God surrounds us. We can’t earn it; we can only accept it, trust it, and welcome its power in our lives.
When you think about it, it’s a pretty good deal. We sin and God forgives. But we must be careful not to turn God’s costly grace into cheap grace. The self-centered cynic says that God’s unmerited grace means we can keep sinning and God will keep forgiving. In fact, the self-focused person will say, we can do something really, really bad, and God will let us off the hook. You see this is cheap grace. We must remember, God’s grace freely given cost Jesus His life! This is why our Romans passage is so very important.
We need to stop and really listen to what Paul tells us in the first verse; as people who have died to sin, the answer to if we should continue to sin so that grace may abound is a resounding, “No!” We’re to stop sinning. As baptized people, we must not keep on sinning, precisely because we have died to a life of sin. Look at what happened: The old us (the old Adam) was drowned in the baptismal font. We were made a new creation, raised to live a new life. All the powers that hurt and destroy no longer have dominion over us.
A man was sharing with his pastor that he had a gambling problem. He told the pastor, “It started small: the football pool, a few lottery tickets. Before he knew it, he was taking grocery money and losing it in the slot machines in Atlantic City. Then it got worse. He confessed, “I lost my job, I lost my house. I lost everything and everybody dear to me. I sank so low that I wanted to lose my life. Then I realized I had already lost that life. Everything was gone, and I couldn’t pretend otherwise. That was the day when my life began to turn around.”
Far too many, so called Christians, want to coast along and get by on their our own steam. All they want is the cheap grace that justifies their continued life of sin. They don’t want any interruptions to affect their schedule, their pocketbook, or what they do after dark. Yes, we all fall short and get into a little trouble now and then. Yes, we are simultaneously sinners and saints. We live with the tension of having received God’s forgiveness, and the temptations that cause us to stumble every day. However, Paul is rather blunt when he claims that we cannot live unless the old life has died. There are some people who are lifted right out of the dust, because they were willing to let go of the wreckage they once suffered.
I read about a woman who had recently returned from the hospital. She was there because she lost her gall bladder. What she wanted to talk about was losing her life. “I married a man when I was twenty,” she said, “and my son was born six months later. Shortly after that, my husband drove off and never came back. I didn’t know if I would ever make it.” But she did. Forty years later, she says that ending became her beginning. A whole new life began when it looked like she reached the end of the road.
From time to time, we lose jobs. We give up routines. We watch our children grow up and move away. We change addresses. We lose marriages. We mourn the loss of loved ones. All of these losses are real, and hurtful – and they’re also reminders that we cannot completely become Christians until we say, “Good-bye” to the old ways. In an Epiphany poem by T. S. Eliot called “The Gift of the Magi,” one of the three Wise Men reflects on seeing the newborn Christ child, and he says, “Were we led all that way for birth or death? There was a birth, certainly … I shall be glad of another death.”
It’s a curious line. In Jesus, death looks like birth. When Jesus was born, the whole world was silently, secretly, changed. Because of the child in that manger, because of the things He has said and done, everything is different. So, Eliot puts those words on a Magi’s lips, confessing that he is “no longer at ease in the old dispensation.”
St. Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Each day we must remember our baptism so that we can die to sin and be raised so that we can walk in the newness of life.