On the Baptism
Sisters and brothers in Christ,
grace and peace to
you in the name of God the Father , Son (X)
and Holy Spirit. Amen.
year, right after Christmas and Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just like that – Christ is thirty years old, in the
Why do we do this? It’s so unnatural! Why do we move so fast, speeding up the
narrative – rushing the timeline ahead like that?
in part, it’s because of the miracle in the
The whole blessed Trinity is there – Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Who
wouldn’t want to rush ahead to see this!
quickly the spectacle starts fading. No sooner than we ponder it,
questions start flooding in – right there in the middle of the
heard this all before, we say to ourselves. We were there at
So, what’s the big deal then? Why turn Jesus’
baptism into a feast day? Why have it come right after his Nativity and
Epiphany? What’s all the fuss about? It only looks like repetition –
and nothing more. It tells us what we already know. But do we have it
not exactly. There’s actually something new here. There’s a
Christmas test going on, right at the Baptism of our Lord. And it is
this: Will you glorify Christ as an adult – the champion of the
As a rule people love babies more than tired out,
jaded adults. Babies are so cute and adorable. And so God, no doubt, was
smart as a fox in bringing his kingdom to earth in a baby.
is finally offensive to us (Luke 7:23; John 6:60) is made “sweet and
mild,” Luther sings, in this “darling Jesus-child” (LW 53:290-291)
(see my “That Lovely Little One,” The
Messenger, January 1996). At Christmas God is surely putting his
best foot forward!
while the immortal, almighty Lord God can be off-putting, to say the
least (Isaiah 6:4-5; Revelation 1:12-17), the Christ child born in a
barn with the cattle lowing, is more welcoming. Luther therefore rightly
concludes that the more we “draw Christ down into nature and into the
flesh, the more consolation accrues for us” (LW 52:12). For we can
more easily stomach an incarnate God.
this same point Luther famously argued that “all other religions….
bid us climb up” to heaven by Jacob’s ladder. Unlike these
religions, the “true Christian religion…. begins at the bottom.”
So “put away all speculations about the Majesty,” he argues, “and
embrace this… Virgin’s Child… being nursed.” In this way, he
concludes, you can “shake off all terrors and errors” (LW 26:30).
even with all that, there’s still more. So we cannot, we must not, get
stuck gazing at the baby in
Toughening Up Christianity
So today we hear at Jesus’ baptism that he’s the
one that not only gathers the wheat into his granary, or barn, but also
the one who will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire” (Luke
3:17). That is to say, he will protect all who believe in him – that
is, the wheat, the grain – but those who don’t, the chaff, he will
punish in hell forever. They are the goats whom he’ll send to that
“place of torment,” – which we know to be hell itself (Matthew
25:32-41; Luke 16:28).
hell is a ghastly place – filled with weeping and everlasting pain and
sorrow (Matthew 25:30). Jack Handey, in a recent imaginative piece, says
that hell “can be a lonely place, even with so many people around.
They all seem caught up in their own little worlds, running to and fro,
wailing and tearing at their hair” (“My First Day in Hell,” The
New Yorker, October 30, 2006)!
message is a test for all lovers of Christmas – the merriment, the
holly, the good food, the carols and the strings of brightly colored
lights. It tests our nerve! Can we – it in effect asks – glorify the
baptized Messiah who comes on the heels of Christmastide?
thinks we can’t. And how “appalling” it is, he says, that this
Savior, “installed into office by God Himself” is “not received by
his own” (John 1:11). For we want someone different. We want someone
who will bring us large, short-term gains. We’re looking for “an
earthly, human king such as Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)” who can
abundantly enrich our earthly lives.
Jesus isn’t another Alexander the Great. He forgoes most of those
short-term gains and holds out for the long-term ones. He comes to
redeem us from the “eternal curse, that is, from the power of the
devil, from sin and death” (LW 22:78-79).
preached on Christmas day in 1532, that Christ does not come “to seize
power from Caesar Augustus and teach him how to rule.” He instead
comes to “proclaim the treasure for troubled and anguished consciences
which Christ has earned for and committed to his church, namely, the
forgiveness of sins and everlasting life” [Luther’s
House Postils, ed. E. Klug (Baker, 1996) I:100-103].
This laying aside of worldly glory may be hard for us
to fathom. But try this. Think with me for a moment about being sick.
Think of illness – either when you’ve been down in bed sick or a
loved one has. Think how you’ve prayed for healing and it’s been
either delayed or it never comes. What do you do then?
you cry out against the Lord? Do you feel betrayed or let down? Some
Christians even throw in the towel because of such disappointments. But
how about you? What have you done when you’ve been pummeled in this
the Bible is clear that Jesus healed the sick, it also says he didn’t
heal all of the sick, all of the time (Mark 1:35-39). This leaves some
baffled and others dismayed. Why doesn’t he heal all of the time
(Matthew 13:58)? Isn’t it good to make everyone well?
surprising answer is that it isn’t! But how can that be?
first because quick healing ends suffering. But to suffer is good
because enduring illness produces character, like nothing else can
(Romans 5:2-4). For just as Jesus learned obedience by what he suffered
(Hebrews 4:10), we do the same. And obedience to God brings character.
And there’s no way around this negative pedagogy! All short-cuts are
closed off. Character-building requires suffering!
more important than even this, Jesus didn’t heal all of the time
because he had bigger fish to fry.
More than healing us of cancer and every other sort
of illness and trauma, he came to heal our rotten, sin-sick souls. He
came to heal sinners (Mark 2:17).
so he didn’t come dispensing antibiotics. He rather came to die as a
ransom for sin (Mark 10:45) – offering up his life as a sacrifice to
God (Hebrews 9:14; Ephesians 5:2). He came to make peace with God by his
death on a cross (Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20).
came to overcome our separation from God caused by our disobedience
(Isaiah 59:2; 1 Timothy 2:5). He came to save us from the wrath of God
(Romans 5:9; John 3:36). He came to rescue us from everlasting torment
in hell and make for us a place in his heavenly mansions (John 14:3).
just as Jesus told us not to labor for the “food which perishes”
(John 6:27), we shouldn’t long for uninterrupted earthly health
either. No, what we need even more than short-term health is long-term
health. We need the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68) – and only
Jesus has them (Acts 4:12). These words make us safe for eternity after
our days on earth are ended.
while it’s right to pray for the sick (James 5:5), it’s even more
important to pray for the salvation of the world (Acts 17:30-31). This
is Jesus’ chief mission. “The saying is sure and worthy of full
acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1
Timothy 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:3).
But can we abide by that? Lutherans know how
difficult Jesus’ message can be. It comes across to natural reason as
This teaching of “another righteousness” that is given because of
Christ, “the propitiator,” who makes God “gracious to us,” is
more than we can bear. A far “more plausible” message would simply
be the promotion of love – God loving us all regardless [The
Book of Concord, ed. Tappert (1580; Fortress, 1959) p. 139]. So what
do you think?
you like the thrash metal, rock band, Slayer
– famous for their album South
of Heaven (1988)? In their most recent album, Christ
Illusion (2006) (American
Recordings, CD 44422-2), they sing:
pestilence is Jesus Christ….
would’ve lead the Sacrifice
nailed him to the crucifix
the cult of purity
made my choice. Six six six.
Even though we probably wouldn’t be so brazen about
it, we might well be equally weary over it. For Jesus’ message can be
so demanding and narrow (Matthew 7:14).
So what shall we do? At just the right moment comes
another word to help us. It’s in Isaiah 42:4, and it says, “My
servant…. will not grow faint or be crushed.”
we believe this servant is none other than Christ Jesus himself [Brevard
S. Childs, The Struggle to
Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2004) p. 202].
And he comes to us in our weariness without himself being weary! His
strength and endurance and steadfastness is just what our weariness
needs. It combats it.
in part is what makes him our “mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6). So while we
cannot save ourselves from being weary over unbelief, Christ can, for he
does not grow faint or tire out. He is the great, the mighty One! (Luke
unto me,” he says. “All you who are weary, come to me and I will
give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). He can calm the torrents of your
disobedient souls. So there’s reassurance for us when our hearts
condemn us, “for God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20).
God in Christ Jesus is greater than we are. Christ is greater in that he
was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Christ is greater in that he bore our sins “in his body” on the tree
of the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Christ is greater in that “while we were
yet sinners” he had mercy on us and died for us (Romans 5:8). Christ
is greater in that though he knew no sin, he was “made to be sin,”
so that we who are sinners might share in God’s righteousness (2
The Only Savior
This is stupendous and glorious! It’s magnificent
and grand. No one else could have done this for us.
in fact, no other religion has declared that God himself “recoils”
on himself (Hosea 11:8; John 8:28, 10:30), dying in our place, to set us
free from the consequences of our sinful rebellion. Jesus has no
competitors! No one’s out there claiming, or has claimed, to be doing
a better job on the Cross than he did [The
Savior God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, ed. S.
G. F. Brandon (Manchester University Press, 1963) pp. 11, 28-33, 64-5,
79-80, 94-5, 127, 171, 188, 225].
didn’t die for us to save us from God’s wrathful indignation (Romans
5:9). Neither did the compassionate Bodhisattvas in Pure Land Japanese
By Faith Alone
Simply by believing in Christ Jesus, that is, by
entrusting your eternal destiny to his care and keeping, simply by doing
that, my dear friends, you will be saved. You don’t have to fear the
ravages of hell if you believe in him. For we are saved “by faith
apart from works of the law,” or by being good and moral (Romans
been asked more than once, “Do you really think you only have to
believe in Jesus to be saved? That you don’t have to be good at
all?” And I say back, “Yes, by the help of God, I believe that!”
I’m asked: “So then you don’t even try to be good?” And to that
I say, “Sure I do! I work my tail off trying to be good.” But then
they say, “Why do that if it doesn’t save you?” And to that I
reply, “Because I can’t do anything else for the One who did so
much, and suffered so much, to save me!”
fight we must all of our days – struggling to be decent and to care
for our neighbors. This is part of “the good fight of faith” (1
Timothy 6:12). It’s a life-long battle.
though none of this will make us “perfect” (Philippians 3:12), or
produce truly good works – intrinsically good works – since even our
best deeds are but “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV) – we still
diligently struggle on (1 Corinthians 9:17).
Even though we can’t be the best we should be, we
still can make headway. For some growth and progress are possible (1
used the example of birds flying some few feet over our heads – an
image he borrowed from the early church Fathers (LW 6:133; 16:311;
21:88). We can’t bat them down, he said, for they’re too far away
for that. And so too are involuntary sins. We may not be able to stop
looking at another with lust in our eye. But we can keep those birds
from nesting in our hair or biting off our noses! Those would be the
voluntary sins. So while we may lust uncontrollably after someone, we
can keep our clothes on, stay out of bed with that person, and not talk
to him or her.
we never do any of this to save ourselves. That would be “extortion”
– something Lutherans say isn’t even Biblical (BC, p. 566). We
should never feel forced to be decent and caring. We simply should do so
out of thanksgiving to God for all he has done for us in his dear Son
Jesus Christ. That, and nothing more, is what should undergird our good
glorify God today, because of his dear Son Jesus Christ. Look to your
Savior, the One who works tirelessly on your behalf (Hebrews 12:2), that
you may follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). Rejoice in this salvation
– even though it may seem foolish to those who are perishing (1
And then do good works in his name, for your
salvation is supposed to lead you into them (Ephesians 2:10).
this day remember that God shows no partiality – ethnically speaking.
Acts 10:34-35 says, “in every nation any one who fears God and does
what is right is acceptable to him.”
skin color, for instance, must never keep anyone out of church. That
would be racist. Even though in the past Christians deplorably have been
racist, fight against that today. God shows no partiality due to one’s
national origin – and neither should you.
God also doesn’t favor one gender over another or the rich over the
poor (Galatians 3:28). And so we too shouldn’t do so either. For we
know that the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8)!
But today, this week, let your good deeds focus on
fighting against racism in the church. Call on God to help you with this
good work and he will see to it that you make strides in the right
direction. For God is good and his mercy endures forever (Psalm 118:1).
sermon as it was preached, with some changes)