Below is my sermon from Sunday, January 8, the Baptism of our Lord. While it touches on the biblical text, it mostly focuses on a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of baptism. When I reference the Small Catechism, you can find it in an ELW, or online here: http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#baptism.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you remember your baptism? Anyone? A lot of you are probably like me, who was baptized as an infant, and have no memory of the event at all. I’ve found out basic details from my parents—it was at Good Shepherd Lutheran, King of Prussia. My aunt and uncle were my godparents. My brother, who had just turned two, threw a massive tantrum in the middle of the sermon.
And I found this a few years ago. My baptismal candle. You know, those candles that we give to parents every baptism, to symbolize the light of Christ? I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom, and found it in its box, stuffed in the back of a drawer. Right where the light of Christ belongs.
There’s this thing about baptism, where we believe it is of foundational importance to our faith, and yet, for most of us in Lutheran churches, we have no memory of it happening. And today, the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord, is a good opportunity to reflect on baptism, and consider what our baptisms mean for us—and what we can learn from this passage of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
So, what is baptism? What gifts does baptism grant? What is the significance of such a baptism with water? If any of those questions brought back confirmation flashbacks for you, that’s because I’m quoting from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. It was written in 1530, as a guide to help the local pastors teach their congregations, and it has been the focus of teaching for confirmation for the nearly 500 years since.
If you would like to follow along with me, you can find the Small Catechism in the back of your hymnals. All the way in the back, on page 1164, you’ll find Luther’s explanation of the Sacrament of Baptism.
What is baptism? Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead, it is water used according to God’s command and connected to God’s word. This is actually the basic Lutheran understanding of a sacrament—either baptism or communion: a physical element, combined with the God’s command and promise found in Scripture.
What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it. This is something that we also profess each week when we say together the creed: that we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Well, what does that mean? The emperor Constantine took it so literally that he waited until he was on his deathbed to be baptized, just so he wouldn’t have an opportunity to sin later and screw it all up. But that’s not exactly what we mean by it. Baptism does bring about the forgiveness of sins, but not in such a simple way. It is an event, done once in our lives, but not once and done. We continue to live out and experience our baptisms daily.
Which brings us to Luther’s last point about baptism: What then, is the significance of such a baptism with water? It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Luther doesn’t say it explicitly, but underneath of this is the understanding that baptism, as much as it is about forgiveness, is also about identity. It is about who we are. If it wasn’t, our gospel story wouldn’t make all that much sense.
Jesus, beginning his public ministry, comes to John seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Well, that’s kind of weird, because the way we understand Jesus is that he had no sins for which to repent. He was born without sin, and lived without sin according to tradition. So why should he be baptized at all?
Baptism is not a simply a mechanism for forgiveness but rather announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity. Baptism, for Jesus, was less about forgiveness than it was about commissioning, the inauguration of his mission and ministry and assurance of God’s presence.
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. With Christ, we too, receive our identities and our commission in that font of water. As Luther says, we become a new person—a person who, because of forgiveness, is not bound by past mistakes or failures, but open to the future. A person who is not seeking to become worthy or acceptable by any false standards of the world, but who is proclaimed worthy and beloved by virtue of God.
We need to keep returning to that—to that forgiveness, to that grace, and to that love of God. It’s why Luther mentions a daily dying and rising: he knew that it was something we had to remember frequently, or we might forget or take it for granted. It’s why we begin every worship with that dying and rising: confessing our sins and hearing God’s forgiveness.
Because, like Jesus, God’s purposes for us don’t end at our baptism. That’s merely the beginning. At every baptism, as we light these candles, I say: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
And we together say: we welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.
Baptism is a commissioning: to be God’s people in the world. To live in grace and forgiveness, and to shine so brightly with the love of God and light of Christ that others take notice. God blesses us, claims us as God’s own, and gives us the most holy job of sharing that love with others.