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.”
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.”
When People Pray
They say confession is good for the soul. This is, of course, why we begin almost all of our services with the Brief Order for Confession and Absolution. We as sinful human beings are far too often self-focused and prone to sin, so we need to both publicly and privately remind ourselves of our short comings, confess or confront them, and go to our heavenly Father and ask for forgiveness. That said, I must confess that in preparing for this week, this is the first time I’ve read our gospel passage this closely. This, of course, also brings up a second short coming; we don’t always have the right attitude about reading the Bible.
For me, this proves that just reading the Bible casually, or even cover to cover to say we did, isn’t enough. We must study and listen to God’s word continuously and carefully. When we do, the Holy Spirit can work to reveal new things to us. Case and point is our gospel reading for today. According to St. Luke, John the Baptist was baptizing people on the banks of the Jordan River. And, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” We all remember this part of the story.
Each year on the First Sunday after Epiphany, liturgical churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. For us, this is a major event. The Son of God submits to being baptized at the hands of His eccentric cousin John the Baptist. St. Mark describes John as wearing clothes of camel’s hair, living on locusts and wild honey, making his home in the wilderness. John, understanding who the Messiah is, humbly admits that he is not worthy to even carry Christ’s sandals (Mt. 3:11). In fact, so humbled, he seeks to deter Jesus from being baptized at his unworthy hands. And yet Jesus insists that He be baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). By the way, we know that the Bible directs us in several places to lead righteous lives. The term to fulfill all righteousness means, “to submit yourself to life in God.” Let me repeat that: to fulfill all righteousness means, “to submit yourself to life in God. Please keep this in mind as we consider, once again, this remarkable scene.
[Jesus] who is without sin (2 Cor. 5:21) submits Himself to a religious rite that we associate with Jesus’ command for the washing away of sin and for our renewal and regeneration (Titus 3:5). The rite of baptism is so important to our identity as Christians, it’s required in one form or another of all who would become part of the body of Christ. We know that Baptism isn’t some optional ritual because Jesus reminds us in St. Mark’s gospel that, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (16:16). The conjunction “and” makes this a requirement, not an option. Next comes the part that I had not paid close enough attention to in the past.
Luke continues, “And as he was praying . . .”(note those words), “And as [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” As I said, I’ve heard or read those words many times. For most of us, it’s a very familiar scene portrayed in numerous pictures. What I want you to take note of is what comes next, immediately after Jesus’ baptism—”as he was praying . . .”
We all recall the many times scripture points out that Jesus prayed. So, why wouldn’t it be entirely natural that Jesus, immediately following His baptism, should pray? Prayer played a major role in Jesus’ entire ministry. Here He was, the very manifestation of God on earth, and yet He felt the need to be in constant communication with His Father. Contrast His example with the practice of many of us. Truth be told, too many of us have a limited acquaintance with our heavenly Father, all because we spend a nominal amount of time in prayer. Everyone accepts the fact that the way we get to know someone is we must communicate with them.
Herb Miller, in his book, Evangelism’s Open Secrets, tells about a student work director at a large university who was giving a guest speaker a tour of the campus ministry building. As they walked down a hallway, the guest saw a sign marked “prayer room” over a doorway. As they moved past the door to that prayer room, it became obvious that the director didn’t intend to show his guest that particular room. Curious, the speaker reached for the knob. As he opened the door, his nostrils were assaulted by a heavy musty smell.
He reports that “the room was stuffed with boxes, boots, clothes hangers, and junk. On the little altar stood a pair of worn cowboy boots, an old Gilby’s Vodka box, and a roll of toilet tissue.” Remember, this was the prayer room for the university’s campus ministry. Rather embarrassed, the director quickly explained, “We use this for a storage room during the summer. We just haven’t gotten around to cleaning it out yet.”
Herb Miller writes, “At first it seemed like a sacrilegious thing to the visitor—stacking a prayer room full of junk. But then he realized that the room was actually a parable of his own life. He was so busy traveling around the country speaking and doing good things, he had lost the habit of intentionally praying. The time he had formerly spent talking with God each day was now crowded full of other things.” Could it be that this is also the parable of our lives as well, preachers included!
We get so busy, that we crowd out one of the necessary practices for a truly successful life. Jesus never let that happen. Immediately after He was baptized, Jesus was praying, and notice what happened next. Luke tells us, “The heaven opened.” This is truly an exciting statement. When people pray, good things happen. “Heaven opened.” Some of you might remember the name, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. She was a self-trained nurse in the Australian bush country in the first half of the twentieth century.
Sister Kenny developed a new and successful approach for treating victims of the crippling disease polio. Her method, which was bitterly contested at the time within the medical community, differed from the conventional medical practice of the time. The conventional practice, referred to as “splinting,” called for placing the affected limbs in plaster casts, a practice that was not only quite uncomfortable, but ineffective as well.
Instead of putting polio sufferers in plaster casts, Sister Kenny applied hot compresses to the affected parts of her patients’ bodies followed by passive movement of those areas to reduce what she called “Spasm.” As the story goes, she happened onto this humane treatment when she was called to the bedside of a seven-year-old girl who lived out in the Australian bush country. The girl had extreme pain, a high fever, and the muscles of her leg and foot were contracted. Sister Kenny didn’t recognize the symptoms, so she dispatched a rider on horseback to a telegraph station twenty miles away to get expert advice. Finally, the reply came back, “The symptoms you describe indicate infantile paralysis. There is no known cure. Do the best you can.”
Out of necessity Sister Kenny devised the unique program of treatment for this dread disease that has already been described. And it worked. Later, when she received the recognition she deserved for her discovery, Sister Kenny was asked, “What did you do first?” referring to her medical procedure. “Did you tear up a blanket for the hot packs?” “No,” Sister Kenny replied. “The first thing I did was kneel down and say a prayer.” What happens when we pray? Heaven itself opens.
When people pray, good things happen. In Sister Kenny’s case she happened on a new therapy for hundreds of thousands of God’s suffering children. When Jesus prayed, on the day He was baptized, the heavens opened,and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” It’s an awe-inspiring scene, “heaven opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and God spoke, ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” North of England, they’ve been digging coal for over a century.
The miners digging the coal go miles and miles away from the central shaft, so there’s always danger of the men getting lost. One day, two miners lost their way out of the mine. Their lights finally went out, and they were in danger of losing their lives. After wandering around in the darkness for a long time, they sat down, and one of them said: “Let’s sit perfectly still and see if we can feel the way in which the air is moving because it always moves toward the shaft.” They had sat there for a long time, when suddenly one of them felt a slight touch of air on his cheek. He sprang to his feet, exclaiming, “I felt it!” They went in the direction in which the air was moving and reached the central shaft and freedom from their dark captivity. As you may know, the Hebrew word for Spirit [ruacḥ] is also the word for wind or breath.
In a very real way, we also need to sit down and be still in order to experience the movement of the wind of God’s Spirit in our life. Theologian Emil Brunner put it this way: “As children lost in a woods are fearful of the sinister darkness—and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the somber blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice—so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. `Where are you, my child?’ Our prayer means, `Here I am, Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark, terrifying world.’”
Anytime we pray, heaven opens. The wind of God’s Spirit blows . . . And we are renewed, regenerated.That’s one of the promises we receive in baptism. We can have new life in Christ Jesus. William P. Barker tells about a machinist with the Ford motor company in Detroit who had, over a period of years, “borrowed” various parts and tools from the company which he never bothered to return. While this practice wasn’t condoned by management at Ford, it was more or less accepted, and nothing was done about it. The machinist one day yielded his life to Jesus, was baptized, and became a devout believer. Most importantly, he took his baptism seriously.
The very next morning, he arrived at work loaded down with tools and all the parts he had “borrowed” from the company during the years. He explained the situation to his foreman and added that he’d never really meant to steal them and hoped he’d be forgiven. The foreman was so astonished and impressed by his action, that he sent a cable to Mr. Ford himself, who was visiting a European plant, and explained the entire event in detail. Immediately Ford sent a cable back: “Dam up the Detroit River,” he said, “And baptize the entire city!” We could only hope that every Christian takes his or her baptism that seriously.
When Jesus prayed on the day He was baptized, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Would that something like the machinist’s experience happen at some time in our life. This is the reason Luther encouraged us to remember our baptism daily, to be reminded that in the waters of baptism we are becoming a new person. We need to be reminded regularly of our identity as a part of the family of God. We need to recall daily that we are children of God. We also need to fulfill all righteousness by submitting ourselves to life in God.
The late Reverend Dr. John Claypool, an outstanding author and Episcopal priest, once told a moving story that came out of World War I. At the end of that terrible conflict, the government of France was faced with an unusual problem. In their army hospitals were over one hundred soldiers who had developed total amnesia caused by battle trauma. These men couldn’t remember their names, their families, their hometowns. They were totally separated from their origins.
Finally, the government announced to the whole nation that all families who had relatives missing in action should come to a certain hospital on an appointed day. For this occasion, a large platform was erected. With the families gathered around the platform, the soldiers were led out one by one in the hope that somebody would recognize them, and they could be reunited with their loved ones.
Imagine the relief and joy those soldiers experienced when they were reunited with loved ones and thereby rediscovered their identity. This is what happens when we’re in the habit of maintaining continuous contact with God through prayer. When Jesus prayed on the day He was baptized, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
We should never allow ourselves to become so busy that spending time with God in prayer becomes like the campus prayer room, nothing more than a storage closet. A room filled with junk and forgotten things. When we pray, heaven opens, and the Holy Spirit moves in our life, our relationship with God deepens and grows and God can not only bless us, but those around us as well.