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01.12.14 God’s Word in Water Matthew 3:13-17 Sermon Summary

by on January 13, 2014

There are two major distorted understandings about baptism that have robbed the church of a vital spirituality. The passages from today’s lectionary help to correct this.

Summary Points

  • Two distorted understandings of baptism
  • God’s power in water
  • God’s Spirit in water
  • God’s Word in water
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

The early church had a very robust understanding of the cleansing aspects of baptism. The waters of baptism thoroughly cleansed both “original sin” and any sins committed since birth. So people sometimes delayed baptism until their deathbeds in order to maximize the effect of the waters. (You did have to get the timing right!) It wasn’t until the theology of Augustine (d430) became popular (aided by the rise of Christendom) that infant baptism became routine.

This over emphasis, even exclusive emphasis on baptism as providing the forgiveness of sins is one distorted understanding of baptism. It gave rise to some of the critique of the Protestant Reformers. But some of them created the second major distortion, that baptism is primarily a testimony. In this case, baptism represents repentance following a conversion experience, and the rite testifies both to the church and to the world that salvation has come to an individual. Obviously this understanding precludes infant baptism.

For a fuller understanding and application of baptism, the entire scriptural witness must be considered. Today’s lectionary passages provide a sampling.

The Psalm testifies of the relationship between God and water. Originally a Canaanite religious hymn praising fertility, the ancient Israelites modified the psalm by asserting that the LORD (the Hebrew word for God, which appears in every verse of this Psalm) abides over the water. The original hymn suggests that God is in the waters and the powerful storm that breaks and twists trees, flashes lightning and shakes the earth with thunder. The Psalm recognizes this power and how it testifies to the power of God, but asserts further that the LORD is even more powerful.

This conviction led the great 16c reformer Martin Luther to write his famous “flood prayer” which he added to the baptismal liturgy. It prays for us to have faith in the God who is powerfully at work in and above the waters:

“Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to Your great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. You drowned heart-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, prefiguring this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood, and a lavish washing away of sin. We pray that You would behold [those who are baptized] according to Your boundless mercy and bless [them] with true faith by the Holy Spirit that through this saving flood all sin in [them] which has been inherited from Adam and which [they themselves] have committed since would be drowned and die. Grant that [they] be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, [they] would be declared worthy of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

Isaiah presents another picture of the power of God. In the first of four “Servant Songs,” Isaiah describes what the true servant of God is like. It is right to think of Jesus in these words, but in fact we are all called to be servants of God like this. God’s servant promotes justice through peace-making. Isaiah presents a servant who will not break a bruised reed or extinguish a faltering candle. This is not a servant who brings justice by judgment and force, but who nonetheless “shines” righteousness. All of this occurs, Isaiah tells us, through the Spirit of God who anoints the servant.

When John baptizes Jesus, he sees this Spirit descend upon Christ like a dove. John’s baptism is for repentance, which makes it awkward for Jesus to be baptized. Both John and Jesus recognize this, but Jesus assures John that it must be so “now” and “in this way” to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is showing the way of the servant. Both John and Jesus demonstrate submission. The way of the servant is a way of solidarity with sinners and a way of submission.

This is what “righteousness” truly means—seeking and doing God’s will. And baptism depicts it and invites us into it, because God is powerful, because the Spirit is upon and within us, and because Jesus is our example. Baptism makes us a servant like Jesus.

Peter had to learn this. Being a good Jew, he refused to eat certain “unclean” foods. He knew his Bible and his tradition and what his church taught: Jews were to avoid the “unclean.” So when a non-Jew wanted to learn more about Jesus, Peter questioned. As he summarized the Gospel of Christ, he mentions that after John’s baptism of repentance came Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit which enabled him to do good and provide healing—the Servant Song ministry. Suddenly the Spirit descends upon the “unclean” Cornelius and Peter cannot but conclude that he too should be baptized.

When Luther was describing God’s powerful presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion, he described it as “in, with, and under” the bread. In his baptism, this is exactly what Jesus depicts with the water: he goes “in, with, and under” the water, and because Christ is there, we can be assured of the presence of God’s power, Spirit, and Word in the waters of baptism.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • How has your thinking been distorted by the two over-emphases regarding baptism? What can you do to begin to round out this distortion?
  • In what ways are you living as a servant of God—pursuing justice and righteousness through peace-making? How is God’s Spirit bearing fruit in your life?
  • Where is a “Cornelius” area in your life, a place where you judge something as “unclean” when maybe God has a different perspective?
  • Think about your own baptism, or if you were an infant, the baptism of others in which you participated as a witness. How many other images and meanings of baptism were present in the liturgy? How do these meanings have ongoing application in your life?
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