Sermon for Baptism of our Lord Sunday – January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This past week during one of the preschool chapel services I lead each Wednesday I asked the kids who they wanted to pray for during prayer time. One little boy told me he wanted to pray for his dad. Then he launched into a story about how his dad is on a ship and sleeps in a bunk. He told me that for Christmas he sent his dad one of those candy cane tubes filled with candy and how his dad used the crook of the candy cane to hang it on the corner of his bunk. He said all of this not with the usual bouncy giddiness our preschoolers often have. He spoke slowly, with an ache in his voice and a longing look on his face. He went on and on, and I just let him go because he obviously needed to talk about the dad he was missing. Well, that got things started. Two or three kids down the line another kid said her dad was in the desert and wouldn’t be back for a long time, so she wanted to pray for him. Same aching voice, same longing look. Another two kids down from her another kid wanted to pray for his dad, who he hadn’t seen for a long time. Unlike the previous two kids, I don’t think this one was due to a deployment. The longing was palpable. I finished up prayer time with a lump in my throat. These kids were longing to be in the presence of their fathers. They were longing for their season of separation to be over.
This program year we’ve been doing a Bible study on Sundays and Tuesdays called the Bible Project, which I think is the best curriculum I’ve ever led as a pastor. We are learning so much about how the books of the Bible are organized and how they fit together. We study a different book each week, and this big-picture view of scripture has been so rewarding. It’s such a different way of studying the Bible. I’m learning a lot myself!
Recently we’ve learned about the history of the people of Israel, the history leading up to the exile, when God’s people were marched out of the Promised Land, out of the land of their fathers, and taken captive – first by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. The people of God experienced a profound sense of separation during this time of exile. Their exile was geographical, as they were separated from their homeland. It was also relational, as they were separated from God. And so the people of God knew that ache a few of our preschoolers were feeling this past week. They knew that longing.
But unlike these preschoolers, this longing the people of God felt was their own fault! Their season of separation from God was the result of their own disobedience, their own sin, their own failure to live faithfully in the covenant God had established with them. God had warned them again and again that if they continued in their sinful ways, they would be handed over to their enemies. And that’s what happened.
Last week in the Bible Project class we studied the book of Isaiah, who was a prophet during this time. Isaiah pulled no punches in laying the blame for the exile at the feet of the people. But Isaiah also preached beautifully about how God would eventually bring his people home. We hear a powerful snippet from one of his sermons in our first reading for today: “Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name.”
In this sermon snippet, God speaks through Isaiah to assure the people that their season of longing, their season of separation, will come to an end. God tells them that he longs for his sons and daughters as much as they long for him, and the time will come when they will be together again.
In a sense, this reunion happened when the people of Israel returned from exile – as they returned both to the physical land of Israel and to a renewed relationship with God after the rebuilding of the temple. But as the biblical story continues, we see that that their old sinful nature was still there. It continued to rear its ugly head. At times the people could be in the temple itself, near the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies, but their hearts were far from him. And so the people needed something more. They needed a Messiah. They needed a savior.
And then one day, many centuries after the preaching of Isaiah, a man named John came stumbling out of the bushes. John claimed the very words of Isaiah as his own. He described himself, using Isaiah’s words, as a voice crying out in the wilderness. John called people to prepare the way of the Lord. He called people to repent, to turn away from their sin and towards God. John baptized the people with a baptism of repentance, a ritual washing symbolizing the washing away of their sinful ways. John was not the Messiah – he was always clear about that: “I baptize you with water;” he bellowed, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And then, right on cue, came Jesus. Luke tells us that Jesus was baptized along with all those others streaming out to John at the river Jordan. We might wonder, why was Jesus baptized alongside these common sinners? If Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was more powerful than John, the one coming with a more powerful baptism, why in the world is he being baptized by John?
There’s a lot of foreshadowing going on here. Jesus going under the waters and coming up foreshadows his death and resurrection. His baptism at the hands of John foreshadows his humbling himself on the cross. His immersion in the same muddy water as those countless sinners foreshadows his taking the sins of the world upon himself.
And all of this gives us a picture of what God the Father and Jesus the Son are accomplishing together: Jesus had come to end the exile that exists between sinful people and a holy God.
After Jesus was baptized, we hear that “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Everything that happens to Jesus in his baptism happens to us when we are baptized with this new baptism he brings. In our baptism heaven is opened to us – we have access to our Father in heaven, both today and forever! In our baptism we are given the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God. The fire of the Spirit burns away all the chaff, it burns away everything that separates us from him, purifying us as good grain, so that we might be gathered close to him. In our baptism we are made sons and daughters of God, beloved children with whom God is well pleased – not because of anything we have done, but because we have been joined to Christ.
We sit in our pews today like those preschoolers did on Wednesday. We have our own forms of exile we experience as we miss people who are far from us, as we feel lonely or displaced or confused or sad or afraid for any number of different reasons. But today we are reminded that God is indeed present with us. We are reminded that we are not alone. Today we are called back to the waters of baptism to remember the promises God made to us, to remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. The baptism Jesus brought brings an end to the spiritual exile we experience because of our sin so that we can live our lives in the presence of God, in relationship with the one who created and redeemed us.
If you are not baptized, perhaps today is the day God is calling you to seek this precious gift out. If so, I hope you’ll be in touch with me soon.
But for those who are baptized, it is in your baptism that Isaiah’s sermon was delivered to you personally. In your baptism you were called by name. You were given the promise that when you walk through water or fire, God will be with you. Because of your baptism, you don’t need to be afraid. God wanted to be with you so much that he paid a ransom for you – not with Egypt or Ethiopia or Seba, but with his own dear son, so that you might belong to him forever. God has done this in order to be with you, today and forever, because you are precious in his sight, and he loves you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church