But Now: The Power and Promise of Baptism

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, The Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 13, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

As we do each year, we celebrate the baptism of Christ on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. Why do we do that? What’s the big deal about our Lord’s baptism and by extension our own? This is what I want us to look at this morning as we prepare to welcome a new member into Christ’s family here at St. Augustine’s.

In our OT lesson this morning, we find God’s response to his people’s ongoing sin and rebellion. In the previous chapter of Isaiah, as is typical in prophetic oracles, God has warned his people about his coming judgment on their sins. He formed and created them to be his light to a world riddled with sin and darkness. God called his people Israel to be his true image-bearers whom God would use to help restore his good creation and its creatures to their right minds so that God’s goodness and justice and health would reign instead of evil and sickness and death. But God’s people Israel had been just like the nations God called them to help heal. They had worshiped false gods and become like them so that instead of bringing God’s light and justice to a sin-sick world, God’s people brought the darkness and evil of false gods and now they faced God’s terrible wrath and judgment (Isaiah 42.18-25). If you are like me (God forbid), you listen to these judgment oracles and give thanks that we’re not the rotten people God is condemning in them, just like we do when we watch Dr. Phil or any program that showcases the human condition at its worst. We do so because it distracts us and keeps us from looking at ourselves in the mirror, and more importantly it keeps us from looking at ourselves in the light of God’s perfect goodness and righteousness. And we do all this because we are terrified of God’s just judgment on us. We know in our heart of hearts that we are no better than God’s people Israel who suffered the ultimate rejection and disgrace of exile because of their sins. We are no better than they were because the entire human race is held tightly in bondage to the tyranny of that outside and hostile force the Bible calls Sin. Try as we might to make ourselves better (itself a symptom of our sin-sickness), we fail because none of us is stronger than the power of Sin. Don’t believe me? How are those new year’s resolutions coming along? I’m willing to bet that even at this point many of them have already bit the dust or are well on their way to the dustbin. 

Returning now to our OT lesson, we see that God has taken his rebellious people to the cosmic woodshed and warned them where their sins will lead, mainly exile and separation from God, the Source of all life. If that’s not enough to make us afraid, I don’t know what will, especially as we contemplate the fire of God’s just judgment that will ultimately make all things right again. This is not exactly Good News, my beloved. In fact, it’s just the opposite because we are all sin-stained. But just when we begin to have feelings of despair without hope, we hear these beautiful and comforting words from God himself, something that is massively important for us as we will see: “But now…” Hear God as he speaks to us: I’ve seen your sins, your folly, and your rebellion, this despite my constant love and faithfulness toward you. I’ve seen it all but I know you are powerless to rescue yourselves from your slavery to Sin and so I am coming to rescue and heal you of your sin-sickness. I formed you as a people and created you to be mine forever. So don’t be afraid because I have redeemed you. I call you by name; you are mine. Imagine that. I, the Creator God of this incomprehensibly vast universe, know you by name and love you, despite your insignificance in the grand scheme of things, despite your sins and rebellion against me. So don’t be afraid because I have the power to break your slavery to Sin, just as I rescued my people Israel from their slavery in Egypt. When you walk through the deep waters of life’s darkness and troubles, you will not be overwhelmed. You will not be afflicted by the fire of my judgment because I am the one who redeems you and will spare you from that judgment. Notice I did not say you won’t have to walk through deep waters or the fire of judgment. I am not promising to remove you from all the darkness of this world and yourselves that afflict you. But I do promise to rescue and redeem you, even if the darkness claims your mortal life. So don’t be afraid. I know you by name. I am with you, you are mine (Isaiah 43.1-2, 5a). 

Were there ever more tender words in all Scripture than these? Were there ever more despair-shattering promises than these? There’s more. The Lord goes on to tell his people, us included, that they are precious in his sight, so precious and loved and honored that he will give nations in exchange for their lives, which God did, e.g., when he brought his people Israel out of Egypt and Babylon. But that is so OT. In Jesus Christ, God upped the ante. God demonstrated that he loves us so much that he gave his own dear Son, Jesus Christ, God become human, in exchange for our lives. And now we are ready to look at why Christ’s baptism is so important to us because in it we see the “But now…” God the Father commissions God the Son to begin his costly and life-giving work to rescue us from our slavery to the power of Sin and break its hold over us forever. Not only that, in Christ’s resurrection, God the Father promises to destroy our last and greatest enemy, Death, so that we can live in the hope of eternal life in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. God did all this, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5, even while we were still God’s enemies, alienated and hostile toward God. Because of our union with Christ through baptism and faith, we no longer fear God’s condemnation because God himself has borne it in and through his Son’s body (cf. Romans 8.1-4). The “But now…” has arrived.

And let’s be clear about what did and didn’t happen at Christ’s baptism. Our Lord didn’t get adopted at his baptism as good heretics throughout the years have proclaimed. We only need to read St. John’s wondrous prologue (John 1.1-18) to see that that dog don’t hunt. Neither was our Lord baptized to have his own sins forgiven as other geniuses have claimed. Christ was sinless and in his baptism he was commissioned to set us free from our sins by going to the cross and dying a terrible and utterly humiliating death so that we would not have to suffer the ultimate death of God’s final condemnation of our sins, thanks be to God! 

Of course the dark powers, whose grip over us our Lord came to destroy, are not going down without a fight. We see it immediately in John the Baptist’s imprisonment that the Lectionary conveniently and unfortunately omits from today’s gospel lesson, and we see it in the continued attack on us as God’s people. This, combined with our own proclivity to sin, is what makes living the Christian life such a challenge at times. And it can also make us afraid. But the Lord himself tells us to fear not because he is with us and in his Son he has destroyed Sin’s power over us as well as the death it causes. This is more than just lip service, my beloved, because only the Lord has the power to overcome Sin and Death, and in Christ’s death and resurrection God has made good on his promise to us, a promise that we see beginning to unfold in Christ’s baptism. We don’t deserve any of these wondrous promises nor can we ever hope to earn God’s favor on our own. God did this for us out of sheer love, mercy, and grace so that he could restore his creation and creatures to life and health without destroying us. For you see, God created us for life and relationship with him, not destruction.That’s why today is a big deal for us who belong to Christ, and that’s why we celebrate Christ’s baptism every year.

As John the Baptist prophesied, our Lord Jesus has indeed baptized us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and this separates believers and unbelievers as a winnowing fork separates the chaff from the grain. We have already seen the necessity of God’s good and perfect justice and Christ will execute that justice when he returns in great power and glory. In the meantime, as his baptism signals, Jesus has given his life in exchange for ours so that we no longer need fear God’s judgment, and he blesses us with the Holy Spirit to help us live the fully human image-bearing lives that God calls us to live so that we can reflect God’s goodness and glory to the world according to God’s original creative intention for us. As we’ve also seen, the world will largely reject us (along with the One who has rescued us) when we give our lives to Christ because sadly many people and systems love the darkness more than God’s light—humanity’s slavery to the power of Sin is universal— and this is the awful part of the winnowing process. No Christian should ever take joy or glee in this fact because we are here only by the grace of God, not our own merits. We remember that the darkness runs through each of us. But this opposition should never stop or deter us from proclaiming the saving power of our Lord Jesus and inviting others into a relationship with him that we enjoy. If we really do claim to love others, especially in light of what we know about the coming fire of God’s judgment, how can we do anything but proclaim Christ to them? Neither should it stop or deter us from living as our Lord Jesus lived and lives, hard as that is at times. If you want an example of what that looks like, look no further than how this parish has rallied around Ken and his family as they walked through the deep waters of Tanya’s untimely and tragic death. The powers did their best to destroy her but the promise of resurrection means that the powers ultimately will fail and will be destroyed forever one day as death is swallowed up in life. God’s perfect justice will prevail. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ because it announces God has seen our distress and despite our folly, God has acted decisively on our behalf so that we can live. There is no longer any need to despair once we have turned to the light of Christ in faith, despite the fact that our faith journey is often quite messy and convoluted. Take heart, my beloved. God is greater than our messiness.

This is why our own baptism is so important because it announces our birthright and inheritance in Christ, an inheritance of eternal life despite our mortal death, of health, of healing and wholeness, of reconciliation, of freedom, of redemption, of forgiveness. Those who are baptized are baptized into a death like Christ’s so that we can share in a resurrection like his as well. Our baptism proclaims God’s great love for us and fulfills God’s promise to give us his Holy Spirit so that we can live as truly human beings, free from our slavery to Sin and Death, free from the fear that can so badly oppress us. Our baptism doesn’t promise us a sin-free life. We all know better. What it does promise is that God is good to his word and has acted decisively in Jesus his Son to make us part of the family of the redeemed, and to help us overcome the darkness of this world and life in the power of his Spirit so that we have a real future and hope, a hope based on the love and power of God, who alone has the power to accomplish the impossible, thanks be to God! This is the promise young Eli will enter in a few minutes as he enters the waters of baptism, and it is reason for us to rejoice because we remember our own baptism and celebrate our rescue from the deep waters of Sin and Death and the fire of God’s perfect judgment, along with Eli’s. And that, my beloved, is Good News, the best news of all, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.