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.”
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 Matthew 3:13-17
13Then Jesus 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.”
YOU ARE A CHILD OF GOD…UH OH
A retired pastor once related the story of baptizing a two-year-old boy one Sunday morning. After the child had been baptized, the pastor, following the service rite, put his hand on the little boy’s head and addressed him like this. He said, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Most of the time, this part of the rite goes unnoticed, but this occasion was different. With a sudden look of seriousness, the little boy looked up at the pastor and responded, “Uh-oh.” The people in the congregation smiled, of course. But, writes the retired minister, the child’s response was appropriate. The pastor called it a “stunning theological affirmation” from the mouth of a child. You see, the kid was right. Baptism ought to be and is an “uh-oh” kind of event.
Baptism shouldn’t be approached as a mere rite of the church that we go through without the proper contemplation and prayer. This is true whether it’s our baptism or the baptism of someone in our care. Whether the person is two days old, two years old, or even 102 years young, baptism represents a movement from a world of darkness to one of light, from the kingdom of strife to the kingdom of love, from the stark reality of certain death to the promise of glorious and everlasting life. We need to remember that Baptism, and the beneifts that come with it, are God’s undeserved gifts to us and therefore should never be regarded lightly. And beyond the seriousness of this Sacrament, we also need to keep several other things in mind.
First, we need to understand that Baptism isn’t optional. We all know and understand the importance of following Jesus’ last earthly command, that is to go, to make, to teach and to Baptize. (Matt. 28:19-20) That’s our call as disciples. But as followers we also need to understand that Jesus didn’t mince words with Nicodemus, Jesus answered Nicodemus by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Second, Baptism is a Means of Grace. In Titus we read, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (3:5) In the waters of Baptism, God forgives us of all sin, original included, by drowning the Old Adam and brings us forth as new creatures in Jesus Christ. This is the gift that we understand and communicate, that Baptism is God’s work in us to renew us and give us new life.
Another reason that baptism is an “uh-oh” experience, is that it represents responsibilities on our part. We, or the child whom we present for baptism, become part of the body of Christ. That means we also become part of the church. It means that we’re commanded to love our fellow believers, as well as the world for whom Christ died. It means that we become part of the church’s ministry and mission. What’s more, we need to accept that this is no small thing. That it’s a life-time commitment.
One source says that, in Hellenistic times, when one was baptized, they were considered a different person to the point that they were absolved of any debt, because the debt was incurred by the former self. Now that would be a pretty good deal if that were still true today. Indeed, in times long ago, it’s said that the newly baptized believer could marry a former relative because his taking on a new life meant they were no longer related. That’s a drastic change of situation. The point is that baptism was taken very, very seriously back then and it should be taken just as seriously now. But this still leaves us with the question of, “why did Jesus go to John to be Baptized?”
In our gospel lesson for this morning, we recall the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Think for a moment how uncomfortable John must have felt when Jesus came to him to be baptized. “What’s going on here?” John surely wondered. “I’m not ready for this. I’m but a simple prophet. This is the Christ! What am I doing baptizing Him?” Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented Him, saying, `I need to be baptized of you, and do you come to me?’”
It’s easy to guess what went through John’s mind. I wonder, though, what Jesus was thinking? Why would He, the sinless Son of God, submit to baptism by John there in the wilderness? Some Bible scholars tell us that the fact that Jesus was baptized by John was an embarrassment for the early church. For many years after John’s death, he still had many disciples, just as Jesus had disciples. They continued to follow John’s teachings, separate from the early Church and may have actually been competitors to the early church. Some of them even claimed that John was superior to Jesus since Jesus came to John to be baptized. That makes sense if you think about it. So, why then did Jesus do it? There are some likely possibilities.
For one thing, Jesus may have wanted to identify with the ministry and message of John. We know from prophecy that John was the forerunner of Jesus; he was sent to prepare the way. Jesus could have simply wanted to pick up what John started and expand that ministry. There’s no question Jesus greatly admired His cousin John. “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus said on one occasion, “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist . . .” (Matthew 11:11). The last time I checked, 100% of the people who have ever lived have been born of women. Jesus is paying John an enormous compliment. And the respect Jesus had for John’s ministry is unquestioned. The respect Jesus had for John’s message is equally impressive.
John came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 3:2) Interestingly, according to Matthew 4:17, Jesus’ first sermon was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The same theme. This is important. There are those who would portray John as hard on sin and Jesus as soft on the same subject. Everyone associates John with the need for repentance; few of us associate Jesus with the same word. But check the Gospels. Their message on the subject of sin was the same.
Jesus’ teachings were as uncompromising as John’s. Jesus was compassionate with sinners, yes, but not with sin. Jesus, having the heart of the Father, understood in a way John couldn’t, just why sin must be rooted out of our lives. Sin destroys. Sin destroys individuals. It destroys marriages. It destroys churches. As a matter of fact, it destroys everything it touches. That’s why it has to be taken with all seriousness. You’ve heard me say this before, but we don’t like to use the word sin anymore, and that’s tragic. It’s tragic for two reasons. First, it’s tragic because it allows us to evade the sad truth about our behavior until it is too late.
Cornelius Plantinga has a book titled Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. In his book, he tells about a scene from the movie Grand Canyon. An attorney played by Kevin Kline is in a hurry to get home after a basketball game. The main roads are jammed up, so he tries a short-cut. Suddenly he realizes he’s lost. Even worse, he’s driven his luxury automobile into one of the most desperate areas of the city. Then the nightmare begins. His car stalls. He phones for help, but before it arrives, a group of young hoodlums surround his car and begin to threaten him. He looks helpless, trapped in the car. Finally, a tow truck arrives. The driver (played by Danny Glover) steps out to hook up the car. The young hoodlums protest.
The driver takes the leader of the group aside and announces firmly, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude”–referring to the lawyer–“is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.”
We live in a world where many things are going on that are different than God intended for His world, and those unhealthy thoughts and actions are the product of sin. We need to be soberly aware of the deadliness of sin and its consequences, so that we’re not sucked into something that’s destructive to ourselves or to others. Sin isn’t some harmless play thing. Sin has consequences and is our enemy. The second reason why it’s tragic for us to exclude the word sin from our vocabulary is because without a consciousness of our sin, there’s no consciousness of our need for salvation. This is an insight we gain from Barbara Brown Taylor.
In her book Speaking of Sin, Ms. Taylor names one chapter “Sin is Our Only Hope.” Simply put, she argues that the key to experiencing salvation is to, first of all, be aware that we need saving. That means we must recognize our sin. When we recognize our sin, the doors open up for God’s grace to flood into our lives. Jesus’ opening words to His ministry echoed the words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus understood the destructiveness of sin even more acutely than did John. Perhaps Jesus came to be baptized by John as a way of identifying with John’s message and his ministry.
A second reason Jesus came to be baptized may have been that this was His way of announcing the start of His own ministry. He was thirty years old. He had helped His mother raise His younger brothers and sisters. He had served His young adult years in the carpenter shop. Now it was time for Him to fulfill His calling. Baptism at the hand of John was His way of proclaiming to the world that He was ready to begin the ministry that within three years would send Him to the cross.
If it seems that being baptized by a rough-cut preacher like John the Baptist was very humbling for the Son of God, remember that humbling Himself was what His whole ministry was about. As St. Paul once put it, Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He did this because that was the only way He could fulfill His mission of seeking and saving the lost. He laid down His life for us. United Press International sometime back carried an unusual story about a bank official who became a hero in a most unusual way.
Andrew Parker’s family, along with many others, was on a ferry which was sinking in the English Channel. Fortunately, this was near a small island. Unfortunately, between the sinking boat and a small dock jutting out from the island there was a six-foot span of turbulent water. Safety was close at hand, but none of the people on the ship could jump six feet. So, Andrew Parker decided to build a bridge . . . with his own body. He stretched his six-foot-three-inch frame across the gap to become a human bridge in order to allow the twenty persons on board to get across.
His wife Eleanor was the first to try out the human structure. She said, “I stepped on his back and I was petrified!” All of the people aboard the ferry made it across. Once across, all of them clung to the small island until rescuers from a large ship could throw them a rope. Parker helped everyone climb the rope. “People were screaming, and my daughter thought she was going to die,” Eleanor Parker declared. “She said, `Mommy, if I did something wrong, I didn’t mean to do it.’” In the midst of all the confusion and pandemonium, Andrew Parker himself became a vital path to safety. Now go back some 2,000 years.
A humble carpenter of Nazareth set out not only to build a bridge between God and humanity, but to become that bridge. It began there on the banks of the Jordan when He chose to begin His public ministry at the hands of John the Baptist. He was baptized as an act of identification with John’s message and ministry and as a means of initiating His own ministry, a ministry marked by humility and love.
And there’s a third reason He may have presented Himself for baptism that day beside the River Jordan. He was indicating to us the path we’re to take in our Christian discipleship. We, too, are to submit to baptism as an act of identification with Christ’s message and ministry. In Baptism, we become part of Christ’s family. This is no little thing. Nothing on earth can tear us away from Him once we’re part of His family. We have a place of safety and security within that will never fail us once we put our trust in Him and give ourselves to Him in baptism. Author Jack Gulledge puts it in a unique way.
Jack tells about the River Jordan which flows southward through the Holy Land. He notes that for the most part this river is neither beautiful nor peaceful. For one thing, it’s 25 percent mud and plunges downhill at a furious pace, falling nine feet per mile. “The 158 mile river begins in the snows of Mount Hermon at a point 260 feet above sea level. By the time it empties into the Dead Sea, at a point 1,287 feet below sea level, the water has reached the lowest point on earth. “Ironically, the river that has inspired thousands of hymns sung by millions the world over . . . today serves as a thirty mile barrier between Israel and Syria.
“Amid the unbeautiful, sometimes furious river, east of Jericho, there’s a lovely bend called . . . the Ford of the Partridge. It’s a place of great beauty, shaded by willows and eucalyptus trees, much as it was in New Testament times. Here, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. “How symbolic,” writes Jack Gulledge. “The place of Christ’s baptism is a spot of beauty and peace amid a furious flowing river of hate and strife.” Gulledge notes that when Jesus’ enemies tried to seize Him, He “went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed . . .” (John 10:39 40).
He adds, “Whether at this location on the Jordan, or another, Jesus found refuge from the trials of life, at the place of His baptism. And we can, too. When difficulties seem more than we can bear, remembering our baptism puts it all into perspective.” We remember how Martin Luther faced difficulties in his ministry, he would remind himself that he had been baptized. That gave him that sense of peace Gulledge is describing.
“Uh-oh,” said the young boy when his pastor stated the meaning of his baptism. That young man was correct in his assessment. Baptism is a big deal. And we too, need to recall daily the importance of this Sacrament. We need to remember the gifts that God showered on us and the responsibility we have as His children. Baptism is a Means of Grace, but it isn’t optional. It’s a Rite given through the church, but it’s a gift that’s all God’s work.