“Above All Else : Holy Baptism” – Galatians 3:26-27
1. Baptism and the Bible readings
As we continue with a series of sermons on the essential elements of our Christian faith, we will move to a couple of sermons on the two Sacraments that we recognize in the Lutheran Church. First, let me explain that for us a Sacrament is a sacred action that meets three criteria – it was instituted by God, it joins God’s Word and promises to a visible earthly element, and it offers and gives God’s grace… the forgiveness earned by Jesus on the cross. Since we had a Baptism today, that’s where we’ll start, with Baptism and the earthly element of water. With next Sunday’s Communion service we’ll end with a consideration of that Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood being joined to the earthly elements of bread and wine.
When Kyrin and his parents came to see me at the end of May about today’s Baptism, I had determined that he was old enough to understand Baptism and to know what he was doing and what God was doing. So, I had some “show and tell” objects in my office to explain the various aspects of Holy Baptism that I wanted him to know about. I have those same things here today, too, so I will do a bit of a reprise of our conversation… with you. But before that, I want to make some comments and connections between Baptism and the Bible readings appointed for this Third Sunday after Pentecost.
In connection with the Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 19, we want to see that Baptism is not some spectacular demonstration of God’s power – it is not the wind, the earthquake or the fire that Elijah experienced when he was feeling discouraged, when he was a run-away prophet from the evil Queen Jezebel, when he felt like he was the only one in all of Israel that had remained faithful to God. Baptism isn’t a big or flashy sign. It is more like the still, small voice of God speaking His love and grace and forgiveness over an infant, a child or an adult. It is God saying, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.” Also, like Elijah threw his cloak around his successor Elisha, God throws His cloak of holiness and righteousness around us in Baptism – that’s the white garment imagery – and God calls us to follow Jesus and to live like He did.
The connection to our Epistle reading actually stretches back to what we heard in Galatians 3 last Sunday. That’s on our theme slide: “You are all sons [and daughters] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Galatians 5 continues by saying that by virtue of our Baptisms we live in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, we walk with the Spirit day by day, step by step, we live out the fruit of the Spirit – there it is on the banners! A person born of water and the Spirit will quite naturally bear the fruit associated with the Spirit of God.
Luke 9 has a natural connection to the Old Testament reading. In 1 Kings, Elisha wants to say good-bye to his parents before learning the “prophet business” from Elijah. As Jesus encounters would-be disciples, one man also wanted to say good-bye to his family. But Jesus made it clear that the cost of following Him is a deep commitment. You can’t look back. Discipleship is not a callous, frivolous, or spontaneous “Ok, I’ll come, I’ll follow” without considering all the implications. Getting baptized, wanting to follow Jesus is a life-long commitment. It’s not a sprint that you’re done in one minute or one month. It’s a marathon… be ready for the long haul! That’s why in the services of youth Confirmation and even the receiving of adult disciples, we ask the candidates to indicate their intention to continue steadfast in their confession of faith and to remain true to God all the way to death. There may be challenges along the way, there WILL be challenges along the way, but God gives us the gift of His Spirit to sustain and strengthen us.
2. Baptism “show and tell”
Now, to my Baptism “show and tell.”
The first item I want to tell you about is soap. Soap is an item that we all use every day. We might use it to wash dishes, to wash clothes, or to wash a car. But let’s focus on using soap to wash… US! On a warm summer day, a little boy might be out playing in the dirt, and when he comes in for dinner, his hands are disgustingly dirty. Mom or dad says, “Go, wash your hands before dinner, and make sure you use soap!!” We adults, after a day of physical work or an afternoon of exercise might be hot and sweaty, and it feels good to jump into the shower. We also use soap and water to cleanse our bodies.
In a similar way, Baptism is a cleansing action. However, whereas water is used with soap to clean us on the outside – the dirt and grime from our hands or feet or knees – Baptism is a water that is used to clean us on the inside. What dirties us on the inside is the dirt and grime of sin, our everyday living that is messed up with lies and greed and pride and jealousy and hatred and disobedience and selfishness. Soap and water are just not going to clean that part of our being. But the water of Baptism does. Just like water needs soap to get dirty hands truly clean, the water of Baptism needs an effective cleansing agent to do the job on our souls.
That is a nice segue to the next object – a Bible! Just as water by itself doesn’t adequately clean the hands of that little guy who has been playing in the dirt, so water by itself doesn’t accomplish the cleansing of our souls. It needs a cleansing agent or power, and that is God’s promises right here in the Bible. Listen to what God’s Word declares and promises about Baptism:
It is a washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
It is a means of being born again.
It is a gift that offers and gives the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In Baptism our sinful self dies as we are connected to Jesus’ crucifixion but a new man, a new woman arises to live a new life, just as Jesus rose from the dead.
The water of Baptism does absolutely nothing on its own. The Bible and God’s promises give the water its power to cleanse and forgive and make whole our souls.
Perhaps another helpful visual here is this lamp. There is an unlimited supply of energy and electricity right down here in the stage, specifically in this outlet. I don’t completely understand all the intricacies of how it gets there, but I know it’s there… just waiting… If you picture yourself as the light bulb of this lamp, and the electricity as God’s promises and power, nothing happens in your life, you don’t light up unless, until, you are connected to God’s power. Baptism is like this cord. Once I plug the cord into the source of power, the lamp lights up. When we, by Baptism, are plugged into God’s power, our lives light up and we shine for Jesus.
c. Adoption papers
The next item to consider is adoption papers. Sometimes, through no fault of her own, a little baby girl is left without parents. Maybe it’s a single mom who realizes she can’t give that little girl what she needs to make it in life, and the dad isn’t around at all. So, mom gives up the baby. Maybe the baby’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Whatever the cause, the baby is left alone. Enter a couple who, through no fault of their own, has not been able to conceive and bear a child. But they are full of love, they want a child, and they have the means to support one. They go through the proper channels and the adoption process begins. After a too-long period of time in the mind of the parents, they sign the adoption papers and are able to take that little girl home to raise her as their very own. Although it’s not a perfect analogy, that’s essentially what God has done. In Baptism, God signs adoption papers to declare that He is our Father and that we are His sons and daughters – that’s what Galatians 3:26-27 says. Although Isaiah 43 is not about Baptism, it speaks a Baptismal truth when God says, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.” God calls us by His own name, by the name of Jesus Christ… we are Christ-ians! God makes us part of His family, and like a human adoption, it originates not with the child, but with the deep and genuine love of the parents, the deep and genuine love of God.
d. Family photo
That takes us to this object… a family photo. That’s the last photo that I have of my whole family, taken two years ago, before Kara and family returned to Africa. When a child is born, or adopted, he or she immediately becomes part of a family like that – with mom and dad, perhaps a sibling or two, grandparents, maybe great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. They are all there, with love, waiting to welcome that child to all the events and activities of family life. When a person – infant, youth or adult – is baptized, that person becomes part of God’s whole family of believers, and more specifically part of a local church family that rejoices, and welcomes that person into the events and activities and ministries of what it means to be a family of faith in Jesus
e. My Teddy Bear
We just had the Memorial Service for the oldest member of our congregation yesterday. Gertrude was 101½. My great-grandmother didn’t live quite that long – she was only 98¾. I was 27 years old when she died. I had gotten to know her quite well because during my years in junior high, high school and university she lived only 4 blocks away from our family home. She would come for meals occasionally, and sometimes I would go and visit her and she would tell me stories about the war… World War I. Sometime after she died, I received this teddy bear. My mother had several of these teddy bears made for family members. Teddy used to be my great-grandmother’s seal-skin fur coat. I received it really as an heirloom, an inheritance – not because I lived the closest, not because I visited her the most, not because I was her favourite great-grandchild… but simply because I am a member of the family.
Just like that, God has an inheritance that He wants to give to each person who becomes a member of His family in the waters of Holy Baptism. Paul writes to Titus of the washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit leading to people becoming heirs having the hope of eternal life. Luther says that the blessings of Baptism are forgiveness of sins, a rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation to all who believe. So, Teddy reminds us of all the good gifts that God wants to give us – both now and eternally – simply because we are members of His family through Baptism and through a living faith in Jesus.
I have already made reference to a lamp that plugs into God’s amazing power, but I want to use a different kind of lamp to make a different point. In the Baptism service, I gave Kyrin a candle to show that he has received Jesus Christ who proclaimed that He is the Light of the World. In this lamp, in a person born again in Baptism, Jesus the Light of the World lives and lights up that person’s spirit. This lamp, with its clear glass sides, helps us to understand what Jesus meant when He told His disciples, “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.” When the light of Jesus inside of us shines through us and out of us, people see Jesus, people come to faith in Jesus, and people give the honour and glory to God for His grace, mercy and forgiveness in their lives.
There is one more item that I showed to Kyrin last month, and gave to him… a tassel like this. You might think it’s rather odd and curious and meaningless. We have to go back into the Old Testament to discover the depth of its meaning. As God was leading the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, He reminded them of what He had done, carrying them on eagles’ wings, and He called them to “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The white cords on the tassel represented their holiness – not by virtue of their obedience, but by virtue of God’s forgiveness. Most of the Old Testament references to the tassel connect it with the priesthood, and the temple and the garments worn by the priests. So the blue cord on the tassel came to symbolize to them that, as a nation, the Israelites were to be priests to the whole world. They were to represent the face and the presence of God to the world. As Baptized children of God, we, too, are called to represent God to our world in our words and our deeds. The white cord on the tassel can remind us – like the white garment of Baptism – that Jesus has made us clean and white, holy and righteous by His precious blood shed on the cross. The blue cord indicates that, still today, we are God’s priests to the world – showing His very face and presence in what we say and do. I have some tassels to hand out today. Put them on an article of clothing, maybe on a zipper pull, and wear it with pride, and explain it with boldness when someone asks you.
Have you noticed how everything has gone up in price recently? Gas, groceries, insurance… but not salvation! It’s still a free gift from God to YOU, and to all those who put their trust in Jesus! Not Baptism! It’s still a free gift from God washing a person from sin thanks to the powerful promises of God, calling a person to faith and to a family of faith, and giving each of us the blessed inheritance of heaven. Rejoice in the blessings of your Baptism! Amen.