13 February 2008

"The A-B-Cs of Lent - Baptism, Part I"

Here's my homily from tonight's Evening Prayer service for the first week in Lent. In keeping with the catechetical nature of Lent midweek services, I borrow heavily from Pr. Bill Cwirla's sermon series from several years ago, "Five Sermons on the Sacraments" (I printed them off back in 1997, and I assume that he preached them not too long before that.) I am indebted to Pr. Cwirla's wonderful craftsmanship of words and ideas, and I thank and give credit to him for great ways of teaching God's gifts.

“The A-B-Cs of Lent” – Baptism I
Titus 3:3-8; Matthew 28:16-20; Small Catechism, Baptism, Parts 1-2

Tonight we begin a sermon series called, “The A-B-Cs of Lent.” What are the “A-B-Cs of Lent”? They are Absolution, Baptism, and Communion. These Sacraments are quite foundational to our life in Christ and our life in His Church. So, for these Lent Evening Prayer services, we will look at the Sacraments and how they shape our life.

When you examine your Bible, you won’t find the word “sacrament.” We actually borrow it from Latin since it translates the Greek word “mystery.” And what’s a mystery? It’s something that is hidden from our reason and senses, but something that God reveals by His Word. Also, the word “sacrament” can be used in different ways, and has been through the Church’s 2000 years. Early on it simply meant “a sacred rite, or act, of the Church.” Some have counted seven Sacraments, others, nine, and still others, twelve. Seven was the agreed upon number in the West during the Reformation. The seven were: Baptism, Confession, Lord’s Supper, Ordination, Marriage, Confirmation, and Anointing the Sick. Lutherans keep and acknowledge these rites, but we also believe and teach that the first three are different from the others. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are gifts that deliver God’s salvation, rites that show God is gracious to us through His crucified and risen Son.

Now, as Lutherans, we do not have a box labeled “Sacraments” into which we put whatever fits our definition. We really have not been interested in arguing over how many Sacraments there are. We simply have, trust, use, and enjoy the gifts that Jesus gives in His dying and rising. In fact, you could say that Jesus Christ is our only true Sacrament. He is God’s gift of life and salvation from Whom all other gifts flow.

Now back to our “A-B-Cs.” Baptism, Absolution, and Communion have certain things in common. They are holy. They belong to and come from the Lord. And they deliver everything that Jesus died to give us—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. They connect us to the cross. No, we weren’t there when they crucified our Lord and nailed Him to the tree 2000 years ago. But He is here for us, even now, in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. But Christ’s gifts are also unique. Each Sacrament delivers something unique. And as we see what is unique about each gift – each of the “A-B-Cs” – we can extol, thank, and praise the Giver of these precious gifts. That’s our goal for these Wednesday evenings through Lent.

So, tonight we begin with Baptism. (Yes, I know my alphabet just fine, and “B” comes after “A”, but I also know that Baptism is the true beginning! ☺)

What is Baptism? As we said just a few moments ago, “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.” Depending on how you’re counting them, Baptism is two or three things: water, command, and promise. That’s Baptism.

Baptism is not just plain water. So true! But it is water. Let’s acknowledge that. No water, no Baptism. How much water? God didn’t say. Certainly enough to get you wet. Water is the material means, the creaturely instrument that God uses. Remember how God uses water in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit hovered over God’s created water at creation; all things were made by water and the Spirit. In the days of Noah God judged the unbelieving world by means of water, and yet saved believing Noah and his family. God led His people Israel through the water, out of slavery and into freedom and life. God cleansed Naaman, the Syrian army general, of his leprosy and restored his skin to that of a young child. Jesus stepped into the water of His Baptism to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus turned cleansing water into the best wine at Cana of Galilee. Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” On the cross blood and water flowed forth from Jesus’ pierced side. Jesus commanded that disciples be made by washing with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You see, water is essential for all of life. In a drought, crops fail, lawns and gardens wither, and people and animals suffer for lack of water. Each one of us is born in water, literally. So, it’s no surprise that our second, heavenly birth also comes through water. It’s where we are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from above by our heavenly mother, the Church. Water sustains our life. Our bodies are over 75% water, and without water we quickly die. One early Christian pastor compared Christians to fish swimming in the water with big Fish Jesus. Take the Christian out of the living water of Baptism, and he/she will surely dry up and die of dehydration. Water also cleanses. We wash our bodies and our clothes with water. Just think of life without baths or showers, and you’ll appreciate the gift of cleansing water.

Tonight we also hear St. Paul call Baptism “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the washing of regeneration, rebirth, re-creation. Through it we are born anew with a heavenly birth, not of our will, but of God’s will. Just as He did at creation, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters. Again, God speaks His creative Word. We become new creatures in Baptism. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (And for St. Paul, “in Christ” means baptized.) Some early churches had scenes from the Garden of Eden painted on the walls by the baptismal font. Baptism is Paradise restored through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The old has gone; the new has come. God and man are reconciled, at peace, at one, in harmony.

Baptism is also a washing of renewal—not only a life-giving water, but also a life-sustaining and cleansing water. This water made alive by our living Lord washes us from the leprous filth of our sin. The filth of our lies, our deceits, our adulteries, our lust, our anger, our prejudice, our greed, our complaints, our gossip—all that flows out of our hearts unbuckled from God—it all gets washed away in this flood of God’s grace.

So, we must not despise this water, or treat it lightly. It’s quite common in our day to look down our noses at material things when it comes to religion. We love the materials things that we eat, drink, wear, and buy, but somehow we don’t want our religion to be too material. But what God has joined together, we must not separate. Water, word, Spirit—they’re all together in Baptism. Let’s not despise the setting – water – that holds God’s precious jewel of Baptism.

Baptism is water connected to Christ’s command. He established it; He commanded it. We heard that tonight. It’s His Baptism—not the Church’s, not ours. We also heard how Jesus is always with us in the baptizing and the teaching. So the Church keeps the command of Christ when she baptizes and teaches. That’s how disciples are made. Jesus gave us no other way—no special gimmicks, no slick programs, no number-crunching movements to replace baptizing and catechizing. Everything a Christian congregation does should orbit around these activities of baptizing and teaching. Let’s always ask ourselves, “How does this activity or that plan relate to baptizing and teaching? Are we teaching people into Baptism? Are teaching people out of their Baptism?” If we can’t make that connection, perhaps we’d best not do it.

Jesus’ disciple-making command, though, gives us confidence. Jesus is with us in this activity. He authorizes it. He approves it. He promises to be with us in it. Yes, you see a man’s hand pouring the water, but it’s still God’s hand. Yes, you hear a man’s voice speaking the words, but it’s still God’s Word and work. Some may ask, “Why do you baptize?” We simply say, “The Lord commands it.” Some may ask, “Why do you baptize babies?” We simply answer, “The Lord commands it.” Some may ask, “Why is Baptism necessary for salvation?” We confidently say, “The Lord commands it.” It’s His Baptism; we just work here!

And this water connected with God’s command is also combined with His Word of promise. Not every washing can be a washing of regeneration and renewal. Not every bath is a Baptism. Baptism is God’s washing of water with the Word. And when Christians say the word “Word,” we mean first and foremost Jesus Christ, the Word-made-Flesh. Baptism is the washing of water with Jesus, His perfect life, His suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the fount and source of Baptism. He is the rock from which the refreshing waters flow to quench the hot thirst from our sin.

The Promise of God in Baptism also makes the water bloody—bloody with the blood of God’s Son. The blood of Jesus is the detergent in the water. Our robes are plunged into this bloody water and made white in the blood of the Lamb once slain for us sinners. The Word—Jesus—delivers the blood. He makes the baptismal water “a divine, heavenly, holy, blessed water.” Only with Jesus can something be called holy. Jesus is with us in that water. The Holy Spirit is there with us too, hovering as a dove. And the Father is there with us, saying, “This is My beloved child.”

So, to despise Baptism or treat it lightly is to despise or treat lightly God and His Word, Jesus. This is why Baptism is not just some symbolic ceremony, not just a little religious thing to do when aunts and uncles can come to town, not just a good excuse for a family gathering, not just a “christening” or dedication, not even just a “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” card to spring on God on the Last Day. All of that diminishes the power of God’s Promise. All of that denies that the Word—Jesus—is living and active in the water of Baptism.

What blessing and benefits are given with this water combined with God’s command and promise? “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” St. Peter sums it up in one word, when he says, “Baptism…now saves you.” Then he says, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

“Salvation” means “release, rescue.” It means to be brought out of a narrow prison cell into a wide-open place filled with light and air. Baptism gives us room to breathe, to work, to pray, to praise and give thanks, to serve others. As Luther said, “To be saved is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter the kingdom of Christ and live with Him forever.” We are born in bondage to sin and death and cannot set ourselves free, no matter how hard we try or how much money we spend. But in Baptism Jesus sets us free from our captivity by applying His death and resurrection to us.

When were you saved? St. Paul and St. Peter teach us to say, “When I was baptized, washed with the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” You could say you were saved from the foundations of the world. But you weren’t there. You could also say you were saved when Jesus died on the cross. But you weren’t there either. You were there at your Baptism, though. And God was there for you to save you and wash you. There, in that washing, Jesus applied Himself and His name to you, personally. There His death became your death; His life became your life.

So Baptism requires all hearts to believe. It’s not enough merely to have water poured over us. We must believe the words of God’s Promise attached to Baptism. Yes, receiving the blessings and benefits requires faith. And it also gives the faith. Sometimes God creates faith first, by means of His Gospel words, and then He bestows Baptism, as with an adult or older child. Sometimes God gives Baptism first, and then creates faith, as with babies and younger children. The order is God’s business. He alone raises the dead, and He does it when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel.

So, to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior is the same thing as to believe in the Baptism that He gives to save you. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” May God grant this to us all. Amen.

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