First Reading Isaiah 43:1-7
1Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When 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. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. 5Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. 6I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Psalm Psalm 29
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 Luke 3:15-22
15As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. 21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
A DOVE DESCENDED
I saw something on the internet the other day that made me smile. Now by way of disclaimer, I haven’t checked out each of these claims, but I thought they were interesting bits of trivia. According to the writer of this post, “We’ve all heard that a group of cows is referred to as a herd of cows, a group of chickens is a flock, a collection of fish is a school, and an assembly of geese is a gaggle. However, less widely known is a pride of lions, a murder of crows, an exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a parliament of owls.
The author went on. “Now consider a group of baboons. “They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not, a Congress! That pretty much explains the things that come out of Washington these days doesn’t it!” which is how the writer of the post concluded. I thought that was cleaver. Sadly, this isn’t completely true.
I hate to spoil a good source of humor particularly at our nation’s elected officials’ expense, but the last part of the post isn’t true. According to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking service, even though the parts of the information I checked is correct, somebody just made up the idea that a group of baboons is called a congress. Actually, the proper term is a troop of baboons. I guess the baboons of the world relax. No one can properly defame you by calling you a Congress.
This is a good reminder that even while it’s convenient to believe what’s posted on certain social media sites, we can’t accept as truth everything we see on the internet. But I must admit, I was intrigued by one of the designations: I like the idea that a group of doves is called “an exaltation.” I looked that up as well, and while a group of doves is called several things based on the species, I was unable to verify if this is accurate. But I still like it, nonetheless. It’s a wonderful word, especially in light of our gospel reading for this morning.
Exaltation isn’t a word we use very often these days, except in referring to God, as in Psalms 34:3, “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Or in Philippians 2 referring to Jesus: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (9-11).
And with that in mind, consider our reading from Luke this morning. Starting at verse 21 we read, “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’” Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
Over the years the question has been asked over and over, did anyone beside Jesus actually see the Holy Spirit come upon Him like this? After all, as you read Luke’s account, you could interpret this passage as saying that Jesus alone was aware of the coming of the Spirit and the voice of the Father saying, “You are my son . . .” However, the Gospel of John answers this question.
St. John in his gospel tells us that John the Baptist gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain, is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify, that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:32-34).
In one compact event, Jesus’ baptism, the three persons of the Holy Trinity come together–the Son being baptized, the Father expressing His approval of His Son and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove . . . It’s no wonder on this Sunday each year we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. How much closer to exaltation can we come than the concurrent presence of the Holy Trinity? And a small dove was very much a part of it. So maybe we should refer to a group of doves as an exaltation. It’s a good reminder of what happened on the day Jesus was baptized. And there’s one more thing we should be reminded of, any time we read this passage; baptism itself is important for everyone. Whether the person being baptized is an infant, a youth or an adult, baptism is an important, and necessary, part of being a Christian.
From time to time I run into someone who will tell me that baptism isn’t necessary to be a Christian. The Bible teaches differently. In John chapter 3, Jesus clearly answers this question when in responding to Nicodemus He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Baptism isn’t just important, it’s required for entrance into God’s kingdom. Methodist Bishop and professor Dr. Will Willimon tells a wonderful story about a baptism he once conducted at a small rural church. A twelve-year-old boy wanted to be baptized by immersion. The boy’s pastor conveyed this request to Dr. Willimon.
Now the Methodist church, as does the Lutheran church rarely baptize by immersion. Both teach that the method of baptizing, whether by sprinkling, pouring or immersion isn’t what’s important. What is important is that we follow God’s command, that it’s God’s work and not ours and it’s the water and the Word, the presence of Christ that make baptism a Sacrament. And what is a Sacrament? Two things; Jesus commanded it, and Jesus set the example by participating in it. Jesus was baptized and He told Nicodemus, and us, we must be born of water and the Spirit to enter God’s kingdom. Because of the church’s teachings, bishop Willimon was willing to baptize him by immersion if that was the lad’s request.
Dr. Willimon arrived at the church that Sunday morning, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the front steps of the little church with a small boy. “Jeremy, this is the bishop,” the pastor said. “It’s an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.” Young Jeremy looked Bishop Willimon over and said only this, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we had a run-through beforehand.” “That was just what I was going to suggest,” Dr. Willimon said. They went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed them their newly purchased font.
Jeremy said, “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?” “Er, uh, you can leave them on if you want,” Dr. Willimon said. He obviously wasn’t an expert at these kinds of baptism. But they had a wonderful service. Bishop Willimon preached on baptism, the choir sang a baptismal anthem, then the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the baptismal font. Willimon went through the baptismal ritual. Then he asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism. “Yes, I do” he responded.
Then, addressing the congregation of that small church, Jeremy said, “I just want to say to all of you, that I’m here today because of you. When my parents got divorced, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say to you today, thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud, as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.” Willimon who is a very humorous man, says, by this time he was weeping profusely. Jeremy asked him, as Willimon led him up the steps into the pool, “Are you going to be OK?” “I baptized Jeremy,” concludes Willimon, “and the church sang a great “Hallelujah!”
That congregation was acknowledging and accepting a fine young man that God had now gathered into the church. It’s an important event, perhaps the most important event that will occur in Jeremy’s life, and in ours. I worry that sometimes we view baptism as just another ceremony, just another rite we go through in the life of the church. Baptism is important. Baptism is commanded, and this is why it matters.
It also matters for other reasons as well. For one, it says something about the person being baptized. The person being baptized now belongs to God. We hear people say defiantly, “I’ll do what I want. It’s my life.” Not so with a person who has been baptized. We now belong to God. As the prophet tells us in our first reading for today, God has redeemed us and we are His (Isaiah 43:1). No, we may not be everything God wants us to be, but we still belong to Him.
Father Ben Helmer, an Episcopal priest, tells about a baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to his church. The man’s first question was, “What do I have to do to be baptized?” As is the custom in the Episcopal Church, a bishop was also present to officiate this man’s baptism. On the day of his baptism, he stood at the small font. A tall, athletic man, he bowed his head as the priest poured water on him. In the same way we do in the Lutheran church, the bishop sealed his baptism with oil. As the oil is applied, the bishop or priest says to each newly baptized person that “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Afterward, this man shared how moving the experience had been for him.
The man told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until his retirement. He had often tried to help others find purpose in their lives. But now he had found that sense of purpose in his own baptism. This man is now a servant of Christ, says Ben Helmer, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas Day offering to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but Christmas day itself, he was at the clinic feeding those in need. Did it matter to that 55-year-old man whether he had been baptized? It marked a new chapter in his life. He had now received God’s grace. He is now a child of God, a member of the body of Christ. He now can enter the kingdom of God. So yes, baptism matters.
Father Tommy Lane, a Catholic priest, tells about the difference baptism made in the life of a prominent world leader, one that may surprise you. It was just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Father Lane was in his first years of theological study in Ireland. One of the professors was teaching them about the importance of baptism. The professor mentioned that President Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union at the time, had been baptized as an infant. The professor expressed his faith that baptism must make a difference in a person’s life, even the leader of a communist state.
It seems that Gorbachev’s grandmother had him secretly baptized by a Russian Orthodox priest. His grandmother and his mother put an icon of Jesus on the wall in every room in their house. Gorbachev’s father was a staunch Communist and put a picture of Stalin next to each picture of Jesus. Three years later after hearing his professor say that baptism must make a difference in Gorbachev’s life, Father Lane was studying in Rome when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Then on December 1, 1989 he went to St. Peter’s Square and watched President Gorbachev being driven into the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II. The two men met and spoke in the Pope’s private library for over an hour.
Was Mikhail Gorbachev aware that he had been baptized and belonged to God? If so, could that realization have affected his actions at that critical time in history? It’s an important question. After all, Vladimir Putin was also baptized into the church. We’re told that Putin regularly attends the most important services of the Russian Orthodox Church on the main Orthodox Christian holidays and has been responsible for the restoration of many Russian churches. No one would claim that Putin is a saint, but we can’t discount the effect that baptism has had on Putin’s life. Who knows what the future may hold? That’s just one reason why baptism matters. It matters because in baptism, God has claimed us as His own. The next reason baptism matters, is what it tells us about the church.
Christian baptism is a rite of the church. When we’re baptized, we’re baptized into a family. That family is the Christian family, the body of Christ. There are far too many people who are under the delusion that they can live a Christian life apart from the church. You may be able to live a moral life, you may be able to live a constructive and happy life, but the Christian life can only be properly lived as part of the body of Christ. We know that churches and their teachings vary greatly. Not every church is a place where their teaching and practices are Biblically sound. But church is where you’re most likely to receive proper teaching. I’d like to think that Bethel is one of those where sound Biblical teaching is taught. And yes, there are many others. Many outside the NALC. Here we are baptized into the body of Christ, and it’s only within the body of Christ that our commitment to God can be complete.
Another pastor shared the story about a young woman he once knew who was looking for a church in which to get married. She nearly drove her fiancé and her mother crazy, scouting out just about every sanctuary in the city, looking for just the right one–the one with the prettiest stained-glass windows, the one with just the right length of the center aisle, the one most accessible to the interstates, and so forth. Finally, she made a decision.
She ended up getting married in an old, cinder block, rectangular building with florescent lights, and an electric organ. A few homemade felt banners that the youth group had made in the ’60s or ’70s were still up on the walls. Why the change? She finally realized something very important. She realized that the church isn’t the building, it’s God’s people. She realized that this was the church where she had been baptized, where she had gone through confirmation class and had met her husband, where her grandparents’ memorial services had been held. This was where she had come to know something of the love and grace of God, and she finally realized that, yes, the building was important, it’s where we gather as the body of Christ; but what’s really important is receiving God’s blessing on their new life together among God’s people.
We sometimes chuckle about people who simply use the church to be hatched, matched, and dispatched. That is to say–to be baptized, married and then buried. The other side of that is that the church envelopes all the important events of our life. It should be central to our life. Baptism is our initiation into God’s family, the church, the body of Jesus Christ.
Now notice that today I have cited examples from a wide variety of churches–Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, liturgical. We may baptize in different ways, but all churches are united in this one way: that baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is a requirement of acceptance into the body of Christ and into God’s kingdom. Baptism is important. It’s important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. Every baptized person is claimed by God. But the most important thing that baptism says, is thatGod’s grace is available to all.
We’re not baptized because we’re perfect. We’re not baptized because we can make some profession of faith. This is the reason we teach and practice infant baptism. Baptism is God’s work, not ours. God works through the water and the Word to cleans us from sin, to claim us as His own, to remind us that we have died to the old Adam and are raised as Paul says, “from the dead by the glory of the Father, that we too might live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). Water is the tangible symbol that we have been washed clean and have been claimed by God.
A lady tells about a baptism service that took place in her church. One hundred and two people were scheduled to be baptized. The men wore black robes; the women wore white robes. During the baptism the dye from the black robes began to make the water look dirty, and she heard two little boys sitting behind her discussing the matter.
“How come the water is getting so dirty?” The first boy asked. “That’s their sins being washed away,” replied the second. Metaphorically he’s right.
Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas, is said to have been a rather nasty fellow with a checkered past. Later in life he made a commitment to God and was baptized in a river. The preacher said, “Sam, your sins are washed away” and Houston replied, “God help the fish.” Baptism is God’s work to cleans us, claim us and make us part of His church. However, we can’t simply stop there.
As Paul reminds us, we’re not to continue in sin just to show that God’s grace is available. Rather we’re to live out our baptism daily, like Jeremy, the 12-year-old boy who vowed his intent to make the people who were responsible for his baptism proud, by trying to live his life the way Jesus wants. God would prefer that we be like the 55-year-old man who is now serving Him by volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas Day offering to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. Baptism is important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. But most important, is what it says about the grace of God. For all who believe and are baptized, (Mark 16:16) we need to remember that God’s forgiveness has been given, we have been called and gathered into His church as His children to live lives, not to ourselves, but as we were created, for His glory (Isa. 43:7).