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Sermon for The Baptism of our Lord, Year C

Based on Lk. 3:21-22

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

When I was in grade school, a long time ago, one of the things that used to really bother me was when the teacher punished the whole class because of what a few people-or worse yet-even one person had done. Do you remember how that too? Quite often it happened when the teacher was having a bad day. Some kid or kids were also having a bad day. Therefore, they would persist in bugging the teacher and irritating the class.

The situation would become increasingly tense, until finally, the teacher blew up and announced impatiently, maybe even angrily: "Okay, just for that nobody gets recess today!" The result, as everybody groaned annoyingly, was that the poor people who had done nothing but mind their own business got caught up in the punishment along with the kid or kids who acted up. Everybody then proceeded to have a bad day. It's miserable and unfair having to pay for someone else's mistakes; about as much fun as having to pay for someone else's debts.

In today's gospel, we discover that is precisely what Jesus did when he was baptized by John. Luke tells us that Jesus, together with many other people were baptized by John. This important event drives home two very important points. First, Jesus accepts John's baptism for the forgiveness of sin, even though Jesus himself had no need to repent or be forgiven of his sin, since he was sinless. Jesus, in being baptized by John, is very much like the kids who minded their own business in class, but were nevertheless punished, along with the guilty party. Jesus, in being baptized by John, is symbolically foreshadowing his suffering and death on the cross. This was the punishment he took on our behalf, for our sins.

Second, Jesus accepts John's baptism in order to remind us all that he is in solidarity with us. The movement of baptism is God coming to us and God doing the initial acting, not the other way around. This is clear when the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the heavenly voice speaks. In being baptised by John, Jesus has come very near to us all. He shares all of our experiences, just as the innocent kids in the class shared in the same experience as the guilty party. However, unlike the innocent kids, Jesus willingly shares and takes on our punishment. God, in Jesus Christ, shares in our common life.

When I read Luke's account of Christ's baptism, it struck me how little information Luke gives us about the details as to how Jesus was baptized, and how brief his account really is. That brings us to another very important point we would all do will to remember.

Maybe many of you have heard that old story-the origin of which remains uncertain to me-which demonstrates some of the silly legal hang-ups we can become side-tracked with concerning baptism. It goes like this:

Once a Lutheran pastor and a Baptist pastor were discussing baptism. After a long, beautiful dissertation on the subject by the Baptist pastor, the Lutheran pastor asked if a person was baptised if immersed in water up to their knees. "No!" said the Baptist. The Lutheran then asked if a person was baptised if immersed in water up to their waist. Again the Baptist's answer was "No!" "Was a person baptised if immersed in water up to their chin?" asked the Lutheran. The Baptist again responded, "No!" "If you immerse a person up to their eyebrows, do you consider them baptised?" inquired the Lutheran. "You don't seem to understand," replied the Baptist, growing somewhat impatient with the Lutheran. "A person must be immersed completely in water, until their head is covered." The Lutheran then concluded: "That's what I've been trying to tell you all along! It's only a little water on the top of the head that counts."

Jesus was not concerned with erudite dissertations on the amount of water used or how it was applied. A careful reading of our gospel today shows us that Luke was not interested in such silly details either. The point Luke is making here is this: That Jesus was baptised not how he was baptised. Christians down through the ages, and sadly, even today have been and remain divided because they have become too side-tracked by silly details like how much water is to be used in baptism. To prescribe a rigid, unbending, detailed law concerning such a thing goes against the true spirit of the Gospel and Jesus himself.

One other very interesting point Luke makes in the very next verse after our gospel for today is that Jesus began his ministry. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus, according to Luke, began his public ministry. God, in and through baptism had now equipped, approved and sent Jesus out to his ministry. In a similar manner, God works in and through our baptism to equip, approve and send us out and minister wherever God has called us.

Baptism for Jesus, and for each one of us has everything to do with our daily living. Martin Luther was keenly aware of this point. In his Small Catechism, he explains it this way:

What does such baptizing with water signify?

Answer: It signifies that the old Adam (and Eve) in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new (person) should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God's presence. (1)

According to Luther, our baptism leads us into a ministry. One in which we daily rise, struggle, and fall, fail and occasionally succeed. A ministry striving to die to sin and evil and become alive to Christ. A ministry of service, love and justice-with Christ's own earthly ministry as our Perfect Model.

May each one of us, in our baptismal journey, "keep on travelling" towards a ministry of greater service, love and justice; realising that our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ is gently and powerfully travelling with us every step of the way.

1. Cited from: Theodore G. Tappert, editor, The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Eleventh Printing 1976), p. 349.


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