“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:1-17 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about water. As I was thinking about our worship on this day known as the Baptism of Our Lord, my mind began to wander as I was thinking about water.
When you think of water, what comes to mind for you? There are a few things for me. One of them is a memory from my childhood, when I was about seven years old. My dad loved to fish. So, on weekends, when the farm work was finished for the week, we’d travel as family to one of two rivers nearby. If we went an hour or so east, we’d run into the Missouri River - a river that was particularly known for its walleye. If we went a little northwest, we’d come to the Grand River. This was a muddier river and, because of it, was known for its catfish.
It was on one of these fishing trips that we were accompanied by two of my great uncles - Philip and John.
Now, I’m sure you can’t imagine this, but I was kind of a little brat growing up. I was the youngest, a little spoiled, and was kind of sneaky. On this particular fishing trip, I was in pretty rare form. As my dad and my two great uncles stood on the riverbank, casting for catfish, I decided it was my job that day to pester the heck out of them. I decided I would sneak up behind them and pour a small bucket of water on each of them.
Well, this only lasted a few times before my great uncles had had enough of me. The next time I began to sneak up on one of them, they were fully prepared. My Uncle John grabbed me. Then, my Uncle Philip grabbed me. They picked me up, one holding me under my arms and the other holding my feet. They started to swing me back and forth and, then, on the count of three, they promptly threw me in the river.
Now, fortunately, the Grand River was a pretty shallow river. It was more like a creek. And I knew how to swim, so there really wasn’t any danger involved. But, it is an experience I have never forgotten. The water was cold. I was fully clothed and got soaking wet. And I spent the rest of the day, somewhat uncomfortable in my damp clothing. (It was still worth it, though!)
For us, as children, water was something that fun to play in, especially during the warm days of summer. But, for my father, who was a rancher and a farmer, water meant a lot more. We lived in an area that didn’t have irrigation, so the feed crops my father grew were completely reliant upon the weather.
Water was critical for our animals. There were many times that my father would have to go down to our creek in the winter and break through the ice so that they were able to drink. In the summer, he or my brother were constantly repairing the windmills that pumped water from the ground into big tanks for our livestock to drink. Our family’s livelihood was critically dependent upon water.
In our more urbanized lifestyle today, we rarely have to think about water or its availability. We just turn on the shower and it’s there. Or open the refrigerator door and grab a bottle to drink. And, here, in Louisville, where, last year, we experienced the wettest one on record, we’re almost mindless in how we use water.
Today’s story is set near water. The Jordan River. It’s where our story opens as we introduced to John the Baptist. Some 30 years has passed between our story last week about Herod and the flight of Joseph and his family to Egypt to escape. Matthew describes him as a voice crying out of the wilderness. He occupies a place on the margins. On the margin of Jerusalem. On the margin of this center of power - this city that is the cultural, religious and political center of Judah. And, yet, even though he is on the margins, John’s ministry draws people out from the city and from the surrounding areas. Large crowds, our text tells us. So large that John is referenced in all four of the Gospels. And even by Josephus, a Jewish historian from the time.
Our story today tells us that these large crowds included Pharisees and Sadducees, two groups in opposition to each other in Jerusalem. Each fighting for power in Jerusalem. It’s no wonder that John calls them “You brood of vipers.” It's the start of a conflict that begins with John and, as we move through our Matthew text, we’ll see that it continues with Jesus. Our story also begins to show us a difference in the ministries of John and Jesus. John, who’s ministry is removed from the central location of the powerful elite. Jesus, who’s ministry begins on the margins, but will move into the centers of power, bringing challenge and conflict.
There is one thing, though, in today’s story the connects everything. It is the water. Or, more specifically, the water of baptism.
Last September, we began our lectionary cycle with the story of Noah and the great flood. This is often called the second creation story. God’s reboot of creation. When water was used to cleanse a world that had become so very evil. A way for God to start over with a human creation to whom God had given free will. A human creation that, even after the flood, consistently seemed to separate itself from God and seek power for itself.
How interesting it is that God then uses this same, simple element of water and with God’s Word claims us as God’s own. In baptism. Where, with the water and the Word, we are washed clean through the power of Christ’s cleansing death. Claimed, just as Jesus was claimed, as God’s beloved ones. God’s own. In whom God finds happiness. This is the power of our baptism. The power of the water with God’s Word. As Luther writes, “Baptism is an external sign...which so separates us from the world [so that]...now baptized we are thereby known as a people of Christ.”
He speaks of the threefold aspects of our baptisms: the sign, its significance, and of faith. That the sign consists of the physical thrusting into water in the name of the Triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, particularly, that we are not left there, but are drawn out again. He uses a German expression: aus der Taufe gehoben, which means that we are "lifted up" out of the baptismal water.
This is the second aspect of our baptisms, then. The significance of our baptisms. That it is a dying to sin and resurrection in God’s grace. Where our old person - our old sinful person - is drowned. And a new person, born in grace, comes forth and arises. It is a washing of regeneration. A being made new. This significance, though, Luther writes, is not completely fulfilled in this life. Our spiritual baptisms, the complete drowning of sin, last as long as we live and are completed only in death. We give ourselves up to the sacrament of baptism, claiming our desire to die, together with our sins, and to be made new. God accepts this desire and grants us baptism. And, from that hour, begins to make us new people, by pouring into us God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.
That, then, leads us to the third aspect of baptism: faith. Faith means that we firmly believe all of this. That we believe that, with our baptism, we have entered into a covenant with God to fight against sin and to slay it, while God promises to be merciful to us, to deal graciously with us, and to not judge us with severity. Luther writes that this faith is the most necessary aspect because it is the ground of our comfort. Philip Britts, who was a British writer and poet, pastor and naturalist from 70 years go, writes that “Faith is like water at the roots...If we have faith, we can face the sun, we can turn the heat and the light into life-giving fruits, into love...Faith is a gift like the rain and, like the rain, it is something to be watched for and prayed for and waited for.”
This is baptism, then. Christ the water, incarnating God’s water of creation, flowing continuously in the Spirit, who waters the believers, who, then, themselves, become the spring of living water in the world.
In the water of baptism, with God’s Word, we are made new. So walk wet. Remember your baptism. Remember that God has created you for God’s purposes. It is God and not sin that holds a claim on your life.
In your bulletin, you have a small piece of paper. I invite you now to reflect upon an area of your life that requires renewal, repentance, or a new beginning. Pray about this in silent confession. Write or draw something on your paper to symbolize it. And, then, when you are ready, come to the font and submerge your paper in the water and watch it dissolve. And give thanks to God for the chance to begin again. To, once again, be made new. Amen.
Preached January 13, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Matthew 3:1-17, Psalm 2:7-8