Sunday, January 19, 2014

Whose baptism is it?

Sermon preached for the Baptism of Our Lord, Sunday, January 12, 2014.

The waters of the Jordan churned with life and death. Jesus came to the waters with His life and came out wearing our death~ We go in as the dying to die there under the waters so that God might bring forth new life in us. Today the waters of . baptism are as filled with life and death as the waters of the Jordan Jesus encountered when He was baptized by John.

The waters of baptism are not without controversy then and now. Jesus arose from those waters to face the skepticism of John's crew of followers and the nearly universal rejection of those whom He came to save. Churches still refuse to see in this water what Christ has placed in it and the truth of baptism continues to be rejected out of hand by too many Christians.

Not long ago I was approached by someone upset that Lutherans baptized infants. How can infants be baptized without faith? He asked me. Why do they need to be baptized since only willful sins condemn us? He was adamant that what counts is not baptism reading and agreeing with the Bible and making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and to live a holy and obedient life. I guess we are often confused about whose baptism it is and ever tempted to make baptism fit us instead of meeting Christ there in the water.

Whose baptism is it? That is the worthy question. When we make who is baptized and how that baptism happens the center, we miss completely the gift that God has hidden in the water.  When we turn baptism on what we do, we turn gift into burden.  As Norman Nagel loves to say, it is all in who is running the verbs.  If we run the verbs in baptism, it is a dead end.  Only if Christ runs the verbs does it lead somewhere.  Baptism is an event, a fact in time and space, but it is not merely that. We Christians do not claim that we were baptized but that we ARE baptized. God gave us a new identity. The old one that came to the font is dead and gone. A new identity is born.

As rich as baptism's symbolism may be, it is not merely a sign or symbol. Instead it is the promise that delivers what it says and bestows what it promises. This is why St. Peter can say baptism saves you. It is not an obedient act fulfilling the law of Christ but a sacramental encounter with Christ; it is Gospel.  So the death and life of baptism are not merely in the mind of the beholder but hidden there in the water itself. We are not our own. The one who came to the waters is gone and a new person has arisen in righteousness from those baptismal waters. It happened to Jesus, too. He was baptized into our sin; He who knew no sin became sin for us. Like a clean person who bathes in dirty water, Jesus went down pure but came out covered in our dirt. Just the opposite of you and me. We came as dirty as death but we came out of that water not only clean but holy and righteous in the eyes of God. Who we were died and who we are in Christ now lives never to die again. We are not who we were.

Christ is not only for us but in us. His is the new life we now wear . We are not on our own but live in Christ who lives in us. We are not individuals who make a choice but those who have been called with the great invitation of the Word, brought to the water, and been reborn into the family of God, the Church.

Each Sunday we walk by the font as a reminder that baptism is not only our past but our present and future. The water is sign and symbol of this new: life but also the agent and instrument of that new life. Christ came to the waters for us and now we come to the waters to meet Him and be reborn in Him.

Feelings are wonderful. Choice and decision are good. Knowledge and understanding are great. But this is now what we build, our hope, our life, and our future upon. They come and go. Baptism remains. Who are you? You are the baptized. That is your identity. Don't ever forget it.
You are not above Christ. It is not your baptism to make of what you think. Christ's commands us to meet Him in the water because there He comes to us, there we die and are raised with Christ to new and everlasting life. There in the great exchange we surrender our sin and its death and Christ gives us His holiness, righteousness, and eternal life. This baptism is Christ,'s and He is here in the water to give it its power to save.

Luther was often so depressed he found it hard to get out of bed.  Look at the lives of the great saints and you do not find ease but trouble, trial, doubt, and despair.  Thanks be to God that Luther had a godly wife who would remind him when his heart felt empty that the fact of his baptism remained and God’s sure promise endures.  This is what we do for one another.

When we rise up from the water, we find we are not alone. The Spirit of the Most High God dwells in us to kill off doubt and fear and put faith and joy in its place. The terrible loneliness of sin's prison of shame and death is gone and we are now given life in the Church, with all the redeemed of the Lord. The old life centered around me fades to the new life centered upon the we of Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The old self- centered focus of life is dead and in its place love for God, love for neighbor, love for righteousness, and love for service.

Whose baptism is it? It is not yours. It is not your obedience or decision or choice but Christ's saving will and purpose that give baptism its power. If it were yours, you could be baptized and keep the command and forget about it all. But because it is Christ's baptism, we are not who we were. We have been reborn and every day that we live is lived in the light of what Christ has done for us in that baptism. Jesus was numbered among us once so that we might be numbered with Him forevermore. This is the baptism that saves. Amen.

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