Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 30:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the most important day in your life? There are a lot of important days, a lot of significant days in your life. But what is the most important? It is a day you celebrate every year: your birth-day. For obvious reasons, the day of your birth is the most important day in your life, because if not for that day, you wouldn’t have any of the other days in your life.
But, in fact, there is a more significant and more important day that came after the day of your physical birth: the day of your spiritual birth, your baptism. Everyone who is born physically, with a couple notable exceptions, dies physically. The life that begins with your conception and birth ends with your death. But you have been given a new birth, the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, the new birth from above by water and the Spirit. And that birth, into that life, is everything, because that life lasts past death. Baptism is everything, because Jesus is everything, and baptism puts you with Jesus, into His death which ends in resurrection, instead of simply dying your death.
Sometimes we think that our baptism is just one event among many, something that happened once, and then we move on. But your birth is not something from which you move on. It is an event, but it is the event on which everything else depends. It happened once, but it is the beginning of your life. Baptism happened once, yes, but it marked the beginning of your eternal life in Christ, which continues ever after. So we say not only, I was baptized, but I am baptized.
What does our baptism have to do with Jesus’ baptism, which we are celebrating today? Sometimes it can be hard to see the connection between our baptism and Jesus’ baptism, outside the word “baptism.” We talk about baptism in terms of the forgiveness of sins, of life and salvation. But Jesus’ baptism doesn’t seem to be about the same things. Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, where He is baptized by John. But John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. A baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins, toward the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the forgiveness of sins, but a baptism of repentance in itself. People go down to John to be baptized as they confess their sins.
But Jesus doesn’t have any sins to confess, and He has no need of repentance. So what is He doing there? This is the season of Epiphany, which is revelation. It is a light shined upon Jesus, showing us who He is and what He has come to do. So here is the first public epiphany, where the light shines on Jesus and shows us what He’s about. Jesus goes where the sinners are. He goes where sins are being confessed. Because He is the one whom God has sent to take away sin. He is the one who has come to lift up sin from our shoulders and take it away from us. He is not there with John to confess sins or to repent, but to take the sins that are confessed, to bear them. He is the forgiveness for whom John’s baptism is preparation.
And this is what Isaiah prophesies. He speaks of the God who has created and formed not just Israel, but all people and all things. He is not only the local God of Israel; Israel did not make and form Him. He made and formed them. He is the God who spoke everything into existence by the Word who would become flesh, with the Spirit who was over the face of the water. And this is what is revealed at Jesus baptism: the Word made flesh, and the Spirit over the water, and the Father speaking: “You are My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here God declares that Jesus is the one whom He has sent into His created world to redeem.
A redeemer is someone who is related to you, who can buy back what was sold or lost. Here, in the water, is the one who enters our life, our flesh and blood, our world, related to us in His true humanity, to buy back everything we lost or sold or wasted. It is and was His anyway; He made it all. And the Creator, the Maker, has appeared to do the redeeming and the calling as well. Though Israel did not make Yahweh, they had made their own gods. They had put their trust in other places and in other gods than in Yahweh. God’s created people had been refusing His Name and trying to make a name for themselves since Babel. They had lost what He had given them and they had been sold into slavery and exile. This is where their naming and their creating and their forming had gotten them.
We think we’re free if we can create and form our own identities, if we can make names for ourselves. We think that we have to make and establish what is trustworthy with our own hands. We reject the God who made and formed us, and spend our lives trying to buy back what we feel we have lost. To us the most significant thing is our own lives, and what we make of them. The most important action is to create for ourselves who we are. But it is all only so much slavery to ourselves, and it will all be destroyed like the tower at Babel. We end up diminishing ourselves instead of building ourselves, and it all ends in death. The idols we have formed and made cannot save, and they will fail us. Our names die with us.
So our creator and maker appears to redeem. God gives the Son into flesh. He gave Egypt for Israel, the first-born sons for His first-born son. But that was all prelude to Him giving a Man in the place of every person, the man in exchange for you. He gives the singular Man, the adam—not the first Adam or his descendants, but the New Adam, the Second Adam, fully man and fully God. That’s what Jesus is doing down there in the river: giving Himself already into the place of sinners confessing their sins. The baptism of Jesus by John is the beginning of His baptism into death for those same sinners. He goes through the water of sin and it overwhelms Him. He goes through the wrathful fire, and it consumes Him. But He does not fear, because He is the beloved Son, in whom is all God’s pleasure. He rises from the dead, and it is from His resurrection that your baptism has its power.
There is a straight line from the baptism of Jesus among sinners, to your baptism into the sinless One. And now what matters most is not the name you make for yourself in your life, but the Name God gives you in His life. It is all about the Name. In the next chapter, Isaiah says that people will want to be called by the names of the people of God, of Israel and Jacob, and so they will be called “To Yahweh,” belonging to Yahweh. They will write that Name on their hands. This is the Name God gave to Aaron with which to bless the people. Put My Name on the people, He says, and I will bless them: Yahweh bless you and keep you. Yahweh make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you. Yahweh look upon you with His favor and give you peace.
And this is the Name that Jesus bears and brings, the Name He gives to His apostles. Baptize all the nations into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And I will be with you. Do not fear. I am with you. No matter what happens, what fire or what water, what shame, what grief, what suffering, what sickness, I am with you. I love you. You are precious to Me. You are honored—that is, you are heavy with honor. Abundant. It is related to the word for “glory” in verse 7: the people I made for My glory. This is what God does: He takes the heaviness of sin and death on Himself in the flesh of Jesus, and He gives in exchange the heaviness of His glory and honor.
Baptism is everything. It means that not only is God wherever His baptized people are, because He refuses to be apart from His Name, but that on the last day, everyone who is called by His Name He will gather. Created, made, formed, redeemed, called, gathered. This is the work of God in Jesus Christ, the Beloved. No matter where, north, south, east, west, dead, or alive, Jesus will gather His baptized people. He knows every single one to whom He has given His Name. He knows those who are His, and His own know Him.
The most important day in your life is the day He put His Name on you, because it means that even when your physical life ends in this creation, it will be given back to you in the new creation. Your baptism isn’t only about your soul; it is about your body too, just as Jesus was baptized, died, and raised in His body. Whatever happens this year: water, fire, joy, grief, you are baptized into the Name of the risen Lord, and nothing can change that.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/7/22