Tonight as we continue our “Lenten Catechesis”, our journey is going to begin in a place where our Scripture lessons don’t take us: to the banks of the Jordan River. There, we see a man dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, who’s diet is locusts and wild honey. He has been there preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People have been listing to His preaching, His warning of sin and the judgment it threatens to bring, and the need to turn away from it. But John also tells them why this is so important: Someone else is coming. He has been telling the crowd around him “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) To describe his preaching in Lutheran terms, John is preaching a message of Law and Gospel, telling the people of their sin, and also telling them that the Savior they’ve been waiting for is coming.
But John isn’t just preaching. He’s also baptizing. Something to keep in mind here as we go along this evening, the Greek word in the New Testament that we get our word “Baptize” is a word that literally means “I wash”. It’s also well worth mentioning that in many different places of Scripture, sin is described as a spot, or stain, or dirt, something that needs to be washed from something in order to be made clean. Into that water in the Jordan River, we have all sorts of people who have heard John’s preaching, believe that the Savior is coming, and to prepare their hearts and minds for His arrival, know that they need to repent, or turn away from their old sinful ways, and have faith in the Savior who will make them clean. So you could say that as those people are baptized, or washed, in the Jordan River, the sin they are turning away from is being washed off of them. So we can very easily say that as John goes about his office of preaching and baptizing, that is some pretty filthy, dirty, disgusting water there on the banks of the Jordan.
And in the midst of that crowd, stands the one person who does not need this washing, because this is the Word made Flesh, the Son of God. John recognizes Him right away, pointing to Jesus and saying to the crowds gathered there: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Remember, this is the One who is without sin, who has no need to repent of anything and be washed of anything. Even John knows this, which is why He says “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14) And yet, Jesus says this must happen “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:15b) And down into that water goes Jesus.
Now remember what we said, this water is teeming with the sins of all of those repentant sinners there. And here Jesus is, about to step into that very water. The spotless, sinless Son of God. And yet, what happens? He goes right into that water and John baptizes, or washes Him with that very dirty, filthy water. It is as if those sins that were washed off everyone else were now washed onto Him.
And why? Because remember what John said of Jesus when He arrives on the banks of the Jordan. This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. If He is going to take it away, He first has to take it onto Himself so that He can truly take the punishment for it.
And so that we would not think for a moment that this is some huge mistake by Jesus, as He is baptized, as the water containing the sin of all of those repentant sinners is washed onto Him, the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and God the Father says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)
And why is the Father pleased? Because this is just one stop on His Son’s way to the cross. Where all the sins of all of the world will be placed onto His shoulders. Where He will suffer and die for the sins of the world. Where our salvation is won. Where our sinful nature goes to die. And when He gives up His life and His body is placed in the tomb at the end of the day, our sins also die with him, and are placed into that tomb.
But remember, Jesus doesn’t stay in the tomb. He rises again. As He arises on Easter, he defeats the ultimate power of sin’s curse. Death is defeated. The wages of sin destroyed. The devil’s hold is no more. And just as Jesus rises again to new life, all of those who die to sin are also raised up with Him.
And to ensure that this happens for His people for all of time, before He ascends into heaven, Jesus has an important commandment, that takes us back to the beginning of His journey when He tells the church what it is to be about at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Mark’s account tells us Jesus also adds in “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) In other words, Jesus commands His church to baptize. So that those who follow Him can receive the blessings He won for them at the cross and empty tomb, so that their sins can be washed off of them and placed onto Him. So that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may claim each as His own.
The early church in the book of Acts followed this. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter declares to the crowd assembled there: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39) Throughout the New Testament, we hear many accounts of people who hear the Word of God, both Law and Gospel proclaimed to them, the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of that Word to confess their sin and need of a Savior, their belief in Jesus Christ as that Savior, and that they and in many cases, their entire households, men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds, are baptized and continue to be fed and nourished by the promises spoken to them in God’s Word.
And so it is with us as Lutheran Christians yet today. We baptize here in this place. We do so not because we trust that simply pouring water over someone’s head three times is an automatic “Get out of hell free” card and once you are baptized, you never have to do anything else and you’re finished with this Jesus thing. We do this because there are great promises that our Lord Jesus Christ has attached to that water.
Indeed, in the Small Catechism, we read: “It is not the water that does these things, but the Word of God connected with the water and our faith which relies on that Word. For without the Word of God, it is simply water and not Baptism. But when connected with the Word of God, it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says to Titus ‘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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy.’(Titus 3:5-8a)”
Baptism gets its power by the Word of God. It is through that Word we hear the message of the Law. We hear of our sin. We hear and recognize that we daily sin against God in thought, word, and deed. The truth we confess in our liturgy that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Then, we hare the good news of the Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ is indeed the sacrificial, spotless Lamb of God, who took on our human flesh, lived the perfect, sinless life you and I could not, and willingly takes the burden of our sin upon himself, so that He can suffer and die for it, and rise again to defeat its power over us and give us new, eternal life with Him. Dying and rising. Death to life. Sin removed, sin atoned for.
That’s why when we confess our sins, and hear the words of gospel in the absolution, we can say that we are daily returning to our baptism. You heard that spoken to you in the reading from Romans 6 when St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” (Rom. 6:3-5)
For the Christian, baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, baptism isn’t really a one time thing. It’s a lifelong thing. It’s a daily thing as we hear, read, and study God’s Word, as we put to death our sinful life by confessing and repenting of our sin, and rise to new life every time we hear the good news “Your sin is forgiven, not because of anything you have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for you.”
Think of it this way. If someone were to approach me and ask me if I am married, how would I respond to that question? I’d say “Yes, I am married.” It happened on October 29th, 2005, but I wouldn’t say “I was married.” If I said that, it would say “I was married, but I am not anymore.” Instead, we would say “I was married on October 29th, 2005. I am still married today. There have been some good days and some not so good ones along the way, but I’m still there.” Nothing is going ot change that unless I or Lindsay were to simply walk away and reject that.
It’s the same with Baptism. Most of us were likely baptized as an infant or small child. I know a few of you were baptized as a teenager or even an adult. But in each case, you’re answer to the question of “are you baptized” wouldn’t be “I was”, it would be “I am.” And you receive the blessings of the cross through that, the assurance that salvation is yours on account of Jesus Christ as you hear in His Word.
However, we do have to make this point. Not all who are baptized will be saved in the end. Remember what we heard in Mark’s Gospel “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” The best way I use to describe this is to think of this analogy, which is especially useful for us in the midst of a Minnesota winter. Imagine you received a gift of a warm winter coat. That coat is going to keep you warm in the worst of conditions that a Minnesota winter can bring. You didn’t do anything to receive that coat, it was simply a gift to you, given to you by someone else going to the store and buying it for you. Now once you have it, there are two things you can do with it. You can wear it, believing that it will keep you warm, and you’ll stay warm outside on winter days like we’ve had. Or you can simply say “oh, thank you” and stuff it in a closet and forget about it. If you do that, and you go outside without it, you’re going to get cold. You’ve rejected the means, in this case the coat, that will keep you warm. It’s still yours, the promise of staying warm outside is still there in that coat, but by your leaving it in the closet, never returning to it, you won’t receive the benefits that coat has to offer you.
It’s the same with Holy Baptism. If we view it, and treat it, as if it’s something we do once, and then never return to church, never hear the Word of God and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, it’s not that those promises attached to God’s Word are not valid, they still are. The problem there is, you’ve left the coat in the closet and gone out in the blizzard so to speak. You can’t receive the benefits of your baptism if you don’t exercise your faith, if you do not return to your baptism, to put to death your sin and receive anew Christ’s word of forgiveness in the Gospel.
As a parish pastor, one of the greatest joys I have is to baptize someone. In a couple of cases, I’ve even baptized a parent and their child at the same time. But it’s not because there’s something special about me that makes that baptism valid. But Holy Baptism is not an end, it’s a beginning, the beginning of a life of daily drowning our old sinful self, and rising anew in Jesus Christ. May you find comfort in the fact that you have been washed and claimed as God’s forgiven, redeemed child, and that the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation won for you by Jesus Christ at Calvary’s cross are yours, and may you live a life where daily, through the Word of God, your faith in Christ is strengthened, your sinful nature is drowned and killed, and you are raised to a new life with Christ, knowing that there is coming a day when you will die to life in this fallen world, and raised to eternal life with Christ forever. Amen.