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01.13.13 Our Baptismal Deliverance Isaiah 43.1-7 Sermon Summary

by on January 14, 2013

Baptism, while personal, is not private. It is public and political. Jesus’ baptism changed his life. Baptism changes our lives as well, and baptism is God’s means of deliverance.

Sermon Summary

  • Four images of baptism
  • “Ransom” and the death of Jesus
  • Three shifts in perspective related to baptism
  • The sacraments and God’s deliverance of the world
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection
  • The context of Isaiah’s writings

When Jesus was baptized, it changed his life. In his baptism, Jesus was claimed by God, identified as God’s beloved and delight. What is more, Jesus’ baptism launched his mission as the Messiah.

Today we think of baptism from many angles. Of course baptism demonstrates our cleansing from sin. The earliest indications we have about the rite of baptism suggest it is related to purity rituals used in Judaism at the time of Jesus. But is this all baptism means—the cleansing from sin? The question is a poignant one for those in traditions who baptize infants. How much sin does a baby have? And what about the sin in our lives after baptism? Don’t we need to be baptized over and over again, since we sin over and over again, if baptism primarily means the cleansing of sin?

Because of questions like these, and because the Bible has so many references to water, the primary element in baptism, theologians have identified a number of images for baptism beyond just cleansing of sin. Baptism does represent our cleansing of sin, but it also means much more than just that.

In the baptism of Jesus, especially when put in conversation with Isaiah 43 (for the context of Isaiah, see below), we see that baptism means we are claimed by God. Isaiah evokes the creation of Jacob, synonymous with Israel. This is not the general creation of “Adam,” which in Hebrew means simply “humankind.” This is a special reference to a particular creation, one God calls by name, that is, Israel. In baptism we are claimed by God, set apart from the rest of creation.

Another image of baptism arising from the life of Jesus and the poetry of Isaiah is that we are delivered by God. Isaiah images the passing through waters. Of course, ancient Israelites in Exile would remember God’s deliverance through the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan River. And when Isaiah invokes “walking through fire” without being harmed, ancient Israelites would remember the burning bush that Moses encountered—a bush on fire without being consumed. They would remember the journey through the burning dessert across which God delivered them. They would tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into the fire but were unharmed.

Perhaps most importantly, baptism represents the fact that we are beloved of God. Isaiah explains God’s deliverance of ancient Israel on the basis of their being “precious, honored, and loved” in God’s sight. What God says of Jesus at his baptism, God says of us in our baptism into Christ: we are God’s beloved child in whom God is well pleased.

Isaiah gives a depiction of the love of God: the concept of “ransom.” For Isaiah, “ransom” doesn’t refer to a payment to someone. Nor is it a payment for something, like sin. For Isaiah, “ransom” is simply the exchange God is willing to make to demonstrate God’s love for ancient Israel. God is willing to make an extravagant exchange for his people, specifically the people of Egypt, Ethiopia, Seba, and Persia. God loves that much.

And this is what makes the death of Jesus so significant. It isn’t a payment to someone, or a payment for sin. But it is a demonstration of the exchange God is willing to make in order to show divine love to us. God is willing to let Jesus die to show his love for the world.

With these images of baptism—cleansing from sin, being claimed by God, being delivered by God, and being loved by God—our perspective on baptism shifts. It shifts (1) from fear to faith. Twice in this passage, Isaiah says, “Do not fear.” Exiles fear two things: that God has abandoned them, and that they are on the verge of extinction. Many people fear these same things today: that God has abandoned them and that they will not make it through their trials. But in baptism God says, “I have created you. I have redeemed you. I am with you. You are precious, honored, and loved.”

With a fuller understanding of baptism, our perspective shifts (2) from a moment to a lifetime. No longer do we look at the moment of our baptism, where our sins are forgiven. We look to our lifetime in which God purifies us from all sin. Baptism occurs in a moment, but its affects endure a lifetime. God saves us from the effects of sin in baptism, and delivers us from sin throughout our lives.

Finally, baptism calls us to shift our perspective (3) from the personal and private to the public and political. Yes, baptism transforms us individually, but God’s intent is that through our individual transformation, the world will be transformed as well. John’s baptismal message, while profoundly personal, had public implications when he had conflict with the authorities. Jesus’ baptism launched his ministry which also led to conflict when it went public. In the same way, our baptism launches our ministry.

You might say, But I can’t do it; I can’t do what John and Jesus did, live faithfully and come in conflict with the powers of this world. And you are right, except that in baptism we are given abilities beyond our own by the Holy Spirit. This is why John and Peter were sent to Samaria. The believers in Jerusalem knew that following Jesus in the power of one’s own strength was impossible. They sent John and Peter to complete, or perfect, the baptism of the Samaritans by complementing it with the power of the Holy Spirit.

God’s baptismal deliverance is intended for all. Isaiah casts the vision: everyone whom God has “called, created, formed, and made.” In Isaiah’s vision, it includes the nations, that is, the non-Jews. When Jesus and Paul proclaimed that, it came as a surprise to their audiences as well. But Jesus reveals to us, in the triune nature of God, that God who is creator is also God who is redeemer. To be one is to be the other. Because God is the creator of all, God is also the redeemer of all.

A beautiful reminder of this fact is that, while God saves us from beyond creation, God does not do so without creation. Jesus was part of creation. The bread and wine of communion are part of creation. And the waters of baptism are part of creation. Just as God’s Word shattered the cedars of Lebanon and appeared as flashes of lightning, just as God used the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, just as God uses the nations of Egypt, Ethiopia, Seba, and Persia, so God is pleased to save us through created means.

And so baptism and the Lord’s Supper together remind us of God’s baptismal deliverance—that pronouncement made in and by Jesus Christ: that we belong to God, and through the transformation in our lives that results from this assurance, the whole world can experience God’s deliverance.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • What has baptism meant to you? How does learning that it is more than just cleansing from sin—that it is being claimed, delivered, and beloved of God—change your appreciation of your own baptismal identity?
  • How does thinking about Jesus’ death, not as a payment to someone or for sin, but as a demonstration of God’s love, change the way you think about God, Christ, and yourself?
  • Which of the three shifts in perspective—from fear to faith, from moment to lifetime, from private to political—is hardest for you? Why is that? What can you do about it?
  • Have you ever thought of yourself as an agent of God’s deliverance? If God desires to transform you, why couldn’t God desire to transform the world through you? What is God calling you to do to participate in the deliverance of the world?
  • How will your experience of the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper change, realizing that God is pleased to use created elements such as these in the deliverance he desires for you and the world?

The book of Isaiah is a composite work, beginning with its namesake in the 8th century before Christ. Then, the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel known as “Israel” was defeated by the nation of Assyria in 722. In 587, when Babylon had defeated the southern kingdom of  Judah, another prophet with the same spirit began writing what we have in the book of Isaiah chapter 40.

In 536, Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and decreed that the deported Israelites could return to Jerusalem. “Second Isaiah” writes on the eve of their return. It is among the most hopeful, visionary, and beautiful poetry found in the Bible—indeed in all of ancient literature.

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