Monday, January 9, 2012

Why are we Baptized?

The Baptism of Our + Lord, January 8th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Mark 1:4-11
Why are we Baptized?

(Note:  The Saturday before this sermon, one of our members disappeared, apparently abducted.  Her disappearance, briefly referenced in the sermon, was a powerful reminder of why we rejoice in each Baptism.  No resolution of the situation has yet arrived as of this posting.  Please join your prayers to ours)
     Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, when Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, entered into the Jordan River to take on the cause of sinners.  And, happily and appropriately, today we celebrate the Baptism of Eleanor Iversen.  I thought celebrating two Baptisms on Christmas morning was great fun, tremendously appropriate to share new birth with Emma and Tristan Bieber on the day of Jesus’ birth.  Then last Sunday, as we remembered and celebrated the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, I thought, hey, this would be a great Sunday for a Baptism too, since Paul calls Baptism the Circumcision made without human hands, the Circumcision of the heart, done by Christ, the entry rite which replaces and surpasses the Old Testament covenant of circumcision.  But now today, I’m thinking maybe this is the best Sunday on which to be Baptized, as we celebrate the day Jesus Himself was washed in the waters of the Jordan. 

     I guess every Sunday is a good Sunday to be Baptized, even if it doesn’t line up with a particularly watery set of readings from Scripture.  But certainly it is good that today, as we are blessed to observe a Baptism, we are also blessed to hear again about the Baptism of Jesus, and to hear Paul talk about Baptism in his letter to the Romans, and even to hear how the Spirit hovered over the waters, in the beginning.  God seems  to be very much attached to the notion of giving life through water. 

     So Baptism is good, and this is a good day, but do we remember why?  Do we understand what has happened here today?  And what does today mean for the rest of Eleanor’s life?  What does your Baptism mean for you, for your daily life?  Well, no better day than today to tackle these questions. 

     But how to explain it?  Baptism is tough, people really struggle to understand it.  Baptism is the source of much debate, much disagreement, amongst Christians.  The Church has been baptizing people, adults, children and little babies, ever since Pentecost, ever since the beginning of the Christian Church.  To administer a Baptism is pretty straightforward, fairly easy.  But teaching the baptized to observe everything that Jesus has taught, which is what Jesus says immediately after His command to baptize, well, that is considerably more challenging.  We have at times fallen woefully short, as has the performance of the Baptized in actually living out their calling as God’s children. 

     Baptism is, from God’s perspective, the beginning of an eternal Father-Child relationship between the Almighty and a forgiven sinner, a close, daily, most-important-thing-there-is kind of relationship, between the Baptized, and Christ, who has given Baptism it’s power and meaning.  Baptism should never be considered a check in the box, or like some magic pill, taken, but never to be considered again, until death draws near.  And yet, all too often, that is how we treat it. 

     For Christians to abuse Baptism is a terrible and sad thing.  But all too common.   Throughout Christian history and still today, sometimes we Christians act as though after Baptism nothing matters, that the Baptized go to heaven, regardless of whether they stay within the faith.   In reaction to this, some Christians have been so offended that they rejected Baptism, saying it is nothing more than an outward observance, with no real saving action going on, nothing really central to Christian life happening.  This is doubly tragic, because this false idea both rejects what God has said in the Bible about Baptism and salvation, and it also throws out the key to Christian living, which is to daily return to Baptism, ever being refreshed in the grace and mercy that first washed us there.   

     I thought of a way I might be able to explain Baptism when I was on the phone with Eleanor’s mother Amy on Thursday.  As I called Amy to make sure I had all the spellings of everyone’s names correct, I was greeted by a unhappy, painful cry followed by some sad whimpers and moans.  It was Eleanor, not Amy.  You see, as Amy explained, Eleanor had received some baby shots that day, leaving her a little crabby.  As I listened, it occurred to me that there are some comparisons to be drawn between being Baptized and receiving vaccinations against various diseases.  But we need to be careful here, because while some things are the same between Baptism and the shots we get to prevent diseases, there are also some big differences.  Indeed, it is the differences which, Lord willing, will help us better understand, appreciate, and live out our Baptisms. 

     For starters, Baptism and vaccinations are similar in that both are received.  I guess some people with strong stomachs learn to give themselves shots, but most of the time this is not the case.  People don’t normally vaccinate themselves; somebody takes a needle and gives you a shot.  Even more, Holy Baptism is always done by God.  One member of the body of Christ, that is one baptized believer, usually a pastor, takes water and God’s Word and baptizes another person, thereby bringing them into fellowship with Christ.  But the pastor isn’t doing the real work.  The real work of salvation is, as always, being done by God, through the words and actions of the pastor.  So, even more than a vaccination, Baptism can only be received, a merciful act of God on the sinner.   

     Both Baptism and vaccinations are to protect you.  But this comparison doesn’t hold up very long.  Because while each vaccination is to protect you in this life against some particular disease, with ninety-some percent reliability, Baptism always works, against every evil.  But Baptism’s protection is not so much for this life, but rather for the life to come.  As we are so painfully seeing in the disappearance of Sherry Arnold, in this life God often, but not always, protects His children from evil.  But through Baptism, God has absolutely guaranteed complete protection, freedom from every bad thing, in the life to come.  Believe it.  God has promised. 

     Christian Baptism is 100% effective, the only thing that can mess things up is if the baptized person rejects it.  Baptism always works, believe it, because Baptism is the promise of Christ.  To believe in your Baptism is to believe in the things Christ has promised, and delivered to you through the water and the Word.  While many vaccinations wear off, requiring booster shots, your Baptism is always valid, delivering all of God’s promises of mercy and forgiveness, because God is the authority behind it. 

     In our day to day lives, as Amy and Neil go about their calling to care for Eleanor, as any of us lives and loves and is concerned for our family and friends, the diseases that vaccinations try to protect us from often take center stage.  They seem more serious, because the symptoms and suffering of diphtheria, tetanus or the measles are obvious, right in front of our eyes.  In truth, however, the spiritual death that Baptism rescues us from is much more serious.  Sin and the spiritual death it causes are not only the root of all the struggles we face in this life, but unless we are rescued, they will result eternal misery and suffering, life apart from God, forever.  Christ through His Baptism rescues from spiritual death.     

     Because they are fighting very different problems, vaccinations and Baptism work in completely different ways.  Vaccinations take some essentially dead bugs, viruses or bacteria that have died, or at least have been stripped of their power to inflict illness.  These dead or neutered bugs are then shot into your living body, to spark the right reaction in your antibodies, your own body’s disease fighters, causing your own body to build up a defense against some disease, without actually giving you the disease.    Baptism is just the opposite.  In Baptism, God comes to a person who is spiritually dead, and gives new life. 

     You, me,  and every descendent of Adam and Eve, are born spiritually dead, sinners, naturally turned away from God and neighbor, naturally opposed to God.  We don’t have any spiritual antibodies that can rise up and fight off sin, we need to be resurrected.  In Baptism, a new life is created in a spiritually dead person.  That’s what Jesus means in John chapter three when He says you must be born again of water and the Spirit. 

     Since Baptism creates a new life, the baptized require feeding.  Jesus commissioned the Eleven Apostles to baptize, and to teach these new disciples to observe everything He commanded.  That is, Jesus told the Apostles that the baptized will need a steady diet of the same Word which empowers Baptism in the first place.  Those new born disciples of Christ, will, upon coming out of the water, need to be nursed on pure spiritual milk, the Word of Christ, in order to grow, indeed, in order to stay alive.  You gotta eat to live, and the baptized feed on the Word of God.  Indeed, God is so concerned for feeding His newborn children that He uses His Word to institute an actual meal, the Lord’s Supper, where He uses His Word to make bread and wine into a life giving and life sustaining and life strengthening meal of forgiveness. 

     What then, is the significance of Baptism for our day to day living?  What new life does God desire in the Baptized?  Baptism is our identity, we are the Baptized, which is the same thing as saying we are Christians.  And so new born children of God, set free from sin, clothed in Christ, given the Holy Spirit, we are set free to live as children of God, little Christs, even, since that is what Christian means.  As little Christs, free from anxiety for our own future because Jesus is our future, we are called to love God, and serve our neighbor.  Which, as new born children of God, we want to do.  The life of the Baptized is a joy filled life of serving our neighbors and rejoicing in the love of God, poured out on us through Jesus Christ.  This is God’s life for you.

     Except when we don’t allow it.  Except when we live as though the water and the Word had no effect on us.  Baptized into Christ, we have perfect freedom, but sin lingers.  God in the mystery of His wisdom does not completely destroy the sinner in us at our Baptism, and so living out our calling is a daily struggle.  Which is also why the Baptized need to be fed, taught, raised up in, even forced by demanding Catechism teachers to memorize the Word of Christ.  Because, just as at our Baptism, the Word of Christ is the only thing that can set us free sin, the forgiving Word of Jesus. 

      And so, in closing, let me give you that Word.  It is good to review the mechanics of the Christian life, what Baptism is, how Christian life is meant to be, what we need when we fail to live as we should.  But these are good things only because of the One who is behind and in and fulfilling all these things.  Baptism is only good because Christ is in Baptism.  That’s why He came to John, the only sinless man in all of human history, coming to be baptized like a sinner, because that’s what Jesus came to be.  God’s Son came to become the sinner, standing in our place, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. 

     The Word of God, through whom the heavens and the earth were created, came at His Father’s bidding, taking on human flesh, becoming a man, for the sake of all men, women and children.  He came to become sin for us, drawing the sins of the people out of the Jordan onto Himself.  Even as He dispensed foretastes of heaven to the people in His miracles, Jesus was bearing the sins of the world as His ministry led Him toward Calvary.  The source of life for all mankind, Jesus the Son of God was abandoned, completely alone on the earth, convicted of our crimes, punished for our sins, dying our death, so that He could share His new life with us.  For death could not hold Him; He is the Lord of Life.  On His Cross He paid for all our sins, and so the Father has given Him authority to forgive all our sins.  This Christ does, gladly, freely, sending His Holy Spirit to declare this Good News, to Eleanor, to Sherry, to you, to every sinner. 

     All who believe and are baptized shall be saved.  This promise is for you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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