Sermon 7


Extend Christmas!

On the Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3:22

January 7, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year, right after Christmas and Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Zoom! Just like that – Christ is thirty years old, in the Jordan River , being baptized by John the Baptist. Fast-forward we go – flying ahead of time, or so it seems!


Situating Jesus’ Baptism

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?

Well, in part, it’s because of the miracle in the Jordan River . The heavens are opened up, after all, and we can’t wait to see what’s going on. So we rush to the Jordan River , right after Christmas and Epiphany, to see what has happened.

There in the Jordan River , when Jesus is praying and being baptized, the heavens open over him and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon him. And God’s voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Fantastic! The whole blessed Trinity is there – Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Who wouldn’t want to rush ahead to see this!

But quickly the spectacle starts fading. No sooner than we ponder it, questions start flooding in – right there in the middle of the Jordon River .

We’ve heard this all before, we say to ourselves. We were there at Bethlehem on Christmas and we heard the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest!” And “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:11-14). We’ve heard it all already. We were there on Epiphany for the adoration of the magi, and we saw them bow down before the Christ child offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). So we already have heard that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son.


A Christmas Test

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 right?

Well, 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 Kingdom of God ? Or will you only adore the baby at Bethlehem – cradled in Mary’s loving arms? Will you cave in to cultural pressures and reduce Christmas down to “an item of popular biography”? [Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1978) p. 8].


That Lovely Little One

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.

What 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!

So 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.

On 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).

But even with all that, there’s still more. So we cannot, we must not, get stuck gazing at the baby in Bethlehem . We have to move on – just like the disciples had to at the Ascension (Acts 1:11).


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).

And 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)!

This 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?

Luther 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.

But 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).

Luther 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].


Enduring Sickness

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?

Do 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 way?

While 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?

The surprising answer is that it isn’t! But how can that be?

Well, 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!

But more important than even this, Jesus didn’t heal all of the time because he had bigger fish to fry.


Our Sin-Sick Hearts

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).

And 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).

He 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).

So 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.

So 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).


Our Repulsive Message

But can we abide by that? Lutherans know how difficult Jesus’ message can be. It comes across to natural reason as “repulsive [abhorreat].” 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?

Are 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:


The pestilence is Jesus Christ….

I would’ve lead the Sacrifice

And nailed him to the crucifix

Beware the cult of purity

Infectious imbecility

I’ve 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).


Christ, Our Mighty God

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.”

Now 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.

This 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 1:32-33).

“Come 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).

Yes, 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 Corinthians 5:21).


The Only Savior

This is stupendous and glorious! It’s magnificent and grand. No one else could have done this for us.

And, 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].

Moses 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 Buddhism, or Krishna in Hinduism or Mohammad in Islam. For the Koran, Islam’s holy book, even goes so far as to dispute Christianity’s claim of divine self-sacrifice. It does so by trying to over-turn the supposedly false proclamation that Jesus Christ actually died on the cross to save sinners (Q 4:157-158)!


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 3:28).

I’ve 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!”

Then 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!”

And 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.

Even 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).


No Nesting Birds

Even though we can’t be the best we should be, we still can make headway. For some growth and progress are possible (1 Peter 2:2).

Luther 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.

But 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 works.

So 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 Corinthians 1:18).


Fight Against Religious Racism

And then do good works in his name, for your salvation is supposed to lead you into them (Ephesians 2:10).

On 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.”

So 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.

And 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). Amen.


(the sermon as it was preached, with some changes)