FIRST READING Isaiah 43:1-7
1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
PSALM Psalm 29
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due God’s name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the LORD is upon the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon; 6 the LORD makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD bursts forth in lightning flashes. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. And in the temple of the LORD all are crying, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forevermore. 11 O LORD, give strength to your people; give them, O LORD, the blessings of peace.
SECOND READING Romans 6:1-11
1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore 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. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
GOSPEL Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
HIS BAPTISM AND OURS
I heard about this father who was in church with his three young children, including his five-year-old daughter. As was customary, he sat in the very front row so that the children could properly witness the service. After the Hymn of the Day, the pastor was administering the sacrament of Holy Baptism to a tiny infant. The little five-year-old girl was taken by this, observing that he was saying something and pouring water over the infant’s head. With a quizzical look on her face, the little girl turned to her father and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?” Kids will say the darndest things!
I also read this one the other day and couldn’t help but share it with you as well. It seems that this certain little six-year-old boy had been quiet for some time, (and as parents and grandparents we know what that means!) so mom went to check on him. As she rounds the corner of the living room she finds her little man sitting on the window sill with his cat. And as she enters the room, she can hear him reciting his latest Sunday school lesson to the cat. Rather proud of the fact that he had paid attention in class, she decides not to say anything choosing instead to return to her chores.
Not much later, she hears the cat fussing, so she goes to see what’s going on. The little boy is now in the kitchen, standing on a step stool, cat in hand, over the kitchen sink, which is now full of water. Not sure what to make of this, the mother tells him that cats don’t like water. To this the boy sharply replies, “He should’ve thought of that before he joined the church!”
The theme of this first Sunday after the Epiphany is the Baptism of our Lord, the event by which the quiet carpenter of Nazareth becomes publically affirmed to be the Kingdom-building Son of God and began His Messianic career. The event becomes meaningful for us, when we see what bearing this affirmation has upon our own baptism, that sacramental act by which our lives became dedicated to Christ and His Kingdom.
The baptism of Jesus takes place in connection with the “Kingdom of God” movement led by John the Baptist, the fearless and eloquent prophet of the wilderness. Preaching outdoors on the banks of the Jordan, John announces that the long-awaited Messiah is about to appear and the Kingdom of God is about to be ushered in. Of those who seek entrance into the Kingdom, John demands repentance, a genuine change of heart, in place of mere adherence to the dead forms of their inherited religion. And those who repent step down into the river and John administers to them the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
The bold and direct appeal which John makes is illustrated by an incident which occurred one day. Tradition has it that as John is preaching to the crowd gathered in the wilderness, a group of people build a fire to cook their meal, and a bush catches fire. Instantly some snakes that lurked in the undergrowth come writhing away to escape the flames. Seeing this, John points his finger at a group of religious leaders, the Pharisees, and says, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth the fruits of repentance.”
Then comes the day that marks the high point in John’s ministry, the day of fulfillment. Jesus of Nazareth walks down to the river and presents Himself for baptism. The two young men were, of course, acquainted with each other. As a matter of fact, they were blood-relatives. The New Testament identifies Elizabeth, the mother of John, as a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus. John knew the character of Him who had grown up “in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” And now when Jesus asks John for baptism, John has something still more than the sense of reverence that one feels in the presence of a person of spiritual power. He had begun to feel, although he was still uncertain and hesitant, that this Jesus was none other than the one who was to come, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
John is awed and shaken to the depths of his being. “You come to me for baptism,” he asks, “it is I who need to be baptized by you.” For John, there was something highly inappropriate in the idea that He who could well be the Messiah Himself, the sinless one, should be baptized with the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To this, John consents and Jesus is baptized.
It’s in what followed immediately after the baptism that we, with John, receive the answer, both to the question whether this Jesus is the Messiah and to the question why it’s fitting that the Messiah, the holy and righteous One, should receive, along with sinful people, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The heavens were opened, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, and “Lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ ”
It’s important to observe that this consecration by the Spirit and the words by which God’s seal of approval is placed upon Jesus as the Messiah are clearly the fulfillment of the prophetic word in Isaiah 43:1, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” Jesus wasn’t appointed by God to be the kind of Messiah that the people expected, a glorious national hero who would lead them to war against Rome. Jesus was to be the kind of Messiah described in the book of Isaiah. There we learn that the Messiah is the Suffering Servant of God, the only righteous one who identifies Himself with the sins of the many, bears their sins as His own so that they may share in His righteousness.
The baptism of Jesus was baptism into obedience to the Father’s will and love for the lost. It was His consecration to suffering and to death. The road to Calvary began at the Jordan. Through His Baptism, He entered the path that would lead to the cross. His baptism wasn’t complete until He had fulfilled His mission as Savior of sinners and could say from the cross, “It is accomplished.” That’s what He meant when He said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am agonized until it is accomplished.” Tetelestai, it is accomplished, is the very same word with which He announced from the cross the fulfillment of His life-purpose.
In this light, there’s no longer anything puzzling about Jesus being baptized with John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We see the depth of meaning in His words to John, “thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The Messianic Kingdom was to be established on the foundation laid by the redeeming death of the Messiah. As the prophetic word had expressed it centuries ago, “he, the righteous one, my servant, makes many righteous by bearing their iniquities.” (Isa. 53:11) To this task Jesus was baptized. It was in doing it that He received the assurance of being well pleasing to God. This was the consecration that brought an opened heaven, a revelation of God’s plan of salvation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Here, then, is the key for understanding the meaning of our own baptism into Christ Jesus. For Jesus, baptism meant that He was consecrated to be the Messiah. For us, baptism means that we are consecrated to be the Messianic people. The baptism of Jesus meant that the one righteous one took upon Himself the sins of the many and became one with them. Our baptism means that we, the many, become one with Him and in Him.
When the church of Christ, at His command, baptizes people, it is in reality Christ Himself who baptizes. Baptism is never merely a human act, either of the one who administers it or the one who receives it. It’s a divine act, the act of Him who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. “By one Spirit,” says Paul, “we are all baptized into one body.” We are engrafted as branches of the true vine, Christ. The apostle Paul, in our epistle text, describes Christian baptism as baptism “into Christ.” And just as the baptism of Jesus pointed forward to His death, so Christian baptism is a baptism into participation in His death. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” says the apostle, “have been baptized into his death.” But it doesn’t end there, for he adds, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).
Baptism is the starting point of life “in Christ.” What happened to Him happens also to us. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). What needs to be stressed over and over again is that baptism is the working of God, not a work of ours.
This is the constant emphasis in the New Testament. “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). When we baptize, it’s something that is done to us, not something that we ourselves do. It’s for this reason that the church, from its very beginning, has baptized even little children, who can do nothing. The New Testament church could not forget the Lord’s word, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
There are some who will ask, but did not the Lord also say in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”? Isn’t faith necessary if baptism is to mean anything? The answer is, of course it is. But let’s not forget this: our faith is always a response to what God does, and baptism represents what God does. It’s not an adult’s baptism or a child’s baptism, a believer’s baptism or an unbeliever’s baptism, but God’s baptism. We may respond in faith to God’s word and then receive God’s gift of baptism. Our experience may follow the sequence in the baptismal command, first baptizing them and then teaching them God’s word so that they may receive in faith what God has already done. (Matt. 28:19-20) The important thing is not whether we were baptized as children or as adults, but that baptism is a command. We also need to realize that baptism encompasses our whole life from beginning to end.
Just as the baptism of Jesus included all that was to follow and was fulfilled only in His death and resurrection, so too our baptism anticipates our entire life right up to the hour of death. Our whole life, not just the moment of baptism whether it was early or late, is included in what God did with us in our baptism. What was done to us was that we were united with Christ; we therefore became His and we are no longer our own. Through Christ our life was taken up into God’s life. The one business of our life now is to realize and give effect to what God did and gave. In baptism, as Paul says, we died to sin and can therefore no longer live in sin. Baptism takes effect in us as we daily die to sin and daily rise with Christ into a new life.
This is the essential significance of our baptism, as Luther points out in the Small Catechism. He asks, “What does such baptizing with water signify?” and answers, “It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily sorrow and repentance, be drowned and die, with all sins and evil lusts; and again a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Bishop Eivind Berggrav was fond of quoting the answer given by a Norwegian pastor to one who asked, “If the old Adam has been drowned in baptism, why do we have to keep on drowning him day after day?” The answer was, “The old rascal knows how to swim.” The new life is a daily return to the grace of baptism for power to wage a victorious battle against the old sinful nature which stubbornly seeks to regain the upper hand.
Today our Lord says to us, as He once said to His first disciples, “With the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39). It’s our prayer that our lives may be united ever more closely with His saving life. As this takes place, the heavens will open to us too, and gently and peacefully as the lighting of a dove the Spirit of God will settle upon us. And we too will hear in our hearts the voice that says, “My son, my beloved.”