The First Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord (The Baptism of Christ)
January 17, 2010
Text: Luke 3:15-22
Dear Friends in Christ,
At the risk of committing a homiletical faux pas, I am really preaching two sermons this Sunday. As you are aware, there was a terrible earthquake in Haiti. The reports I’ve heard indicate about fifty thousand bodies have been unearthed. There are estimates that another one hundred thousand bodies are yet to be found. With disease, violence, and starvation, the total is expected to reach about five hundred thousand. That’s like one of the Twin Cities. Why did this happen? We don’t know what is in God’s mind. We can say that God caused this to happen. He is Lord and ruler over all things. Nothing happens without His consent. So this was done by God for His purposes. What those purposes are is hidden from us. At most, we could offer a guess. And since God’s ways are so much higher than our ways, any guess we would offer is probably wrong.
However, Scripture is not silent on such things. We read in Luke 13: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’” Here Christ warns us not to pass judgement upon those who die in a tragic way. Nor are we to presume that we are any better then they were. But we are to always take these events as a warning. Tragedy should remind us to repent, lest we also perish. We too could die suddenly in some tragedy. We need to be prepared by living a life of repentance. St. Paul would also remind us: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) Haiti has been a big mission field for the LCMS. We know that there are many Christians in that country. And so we also can look to this promise that God will work this out for the good of His people.
Now to what is properly the sermon for today and today’s text, the Baptism of Christ. Luke gives us the shortest account of the Baptism of Christ. He really only dedicates two verses to Christ’s baptism.
Out text starts with the people wondering about John. Was John the Messiah? He was preaching about the kingdom of God. He was warning of God’s wrath to come. He was telling people to repent of their sins. He was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. One must ask why the expectations were at such fever pitch. Scripture does not give us the reasons, but it does give us what some of those reasons could have been. In Daniel, there are two prophecies which have a nearly identical meaning. There were three empires. They would come and go, as empires do. Then there would be a fourth empire. This one would be different. It would be an indescribable beast with iron teeth. It would also be filled with corruption. But it would be more powerful and more dangerous than any previous empire. During this fourth empire, the Messiah would come and shatter that empire, scattering it into dozens of tiny nations. Well, since that time, there had been Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome. Rome fit all the descriptions in the book of Daniel. There was also a great deal of information shared at the time of John’s and Jesus’ birth. These things happened in public. People knew about it. It didn’t take long for people to start connecting the dots. The only problem was that they tended not to connect them in the right way. So they first ask if John is the Messiah. No. He is not. In fact he is a mere shadow compared to the one who is to come.
John teaches that the Messiah’s coming is at hand. He is already present. His winnowing fork is already in His hands. In other words He’s ready to divide the believers from the unbelievers and to condemn those who reject Him. This is a merry message. John is telling the people to beware lest they be destroyed. The only proper preparation is indeed repentance.
This struck people as odd. Why did they need to repent? They were God’s people after all. It was the Romans who needed to repent. After all Daniel had promised that the Messiah would destroy the Romans. That is true, God had made such a promise through the Prophet Daniel. But people didn’t understand what it meant. The Messiah would destroy Rome, but not as a political leader. The Church would offer a solid, healthy alternative to increasingly rotten Rome. So Christ would not overtly destroy Rome. He would subvert Rome with the preaching the Gospel. And we know from history that this is exactly what did happen. And out of the old Roman empire came dozens of little nations. But the people were looking for a political revolutionary. So repentance was not what they were looking for.
Then the strangest thing of all happens. Christ is baptized by John. Baptism was for repentance. So of what sins was Christ repenting? He was the sinless Son of God, after all. Well, Jesus was repenting of our sins. Christ’s Baptism is the formal beginning of what was promised at His birth - the great exchange. Here Christ is taking our sins upon Himself. He is formally assuming His saving work. He is taking our place before the Judgement. In this way, Christ makes the waters of Baptism saving water.
In America we don’t regard Baptism that highly. Many American churches don’t baptize infants. Even churches that do baptize infants rarely express any baptismal piety. This shows how tightly heresy grips the American church across all denominational lines.
In Baptism Christ unites us with Him. He takes our sins upon Himself in His baptism. His righteousness is placed upon us when we are baptized. We cannot claim this. This is something done to us. And thus our whole lives flow out of baptism. Baptism is not this cute little thing we do with babies. It is our formal adoption as a son of God. It is when our sin is taken from us and laid upon Christ. We are to live our whole lives as the Baptized - as ones who have the name and sign of God placed upon us. In Baptism we are marked as God’s own property. Thus there is no Christian faith apart from baptism. Let me repeat that. There is no Christian faith apart from Baptism. All true faith either flows out from baptism or flows toward Baptism. Thus we say that a person cannot be saved apart from Baptism. It is however possible for a person to be saved before they are baptized if they are called home before the process is complete. But one who rejects Baptism, rejects Christ, and thus also the salvation that Christ gives. For it is in the water made holy by Christ’s words and promises that the gift of salvation is transmitted to us. It is in the water that we become heirs of God.