“Baptized!” – John 3:1-6
Pentecost 18 – October 8, 2017
- A miracle for Naaman
Naaman, the Syrian commander, was a highly respected military leader and had the respect of his king. But he had something else too—the dreaded and incurable skin disease of leprosy. To protect others from the highly contagious disease, Naaman would be shut away from his family and friends, away from his military service and from society. He would be an outcast, or rather he would have been an outcast, except for the advice of a captive Israelite slave girl. She knew there was a prophet of God in her homeland, in Samaria, who could cure the commander of his disease. Naaman probably felt he was humbling himself quite a bit to ask a favor from a foreign prophet, an enemy of Syria, especially the despised and lowly Israelites. But the situation only went downhill from there. When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door, the prophet refused even to meet the Syrian commander face to face. He merely sent a message by way of a servant: Wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was not impressed. He had expected some flash and dazzle, some arm-waving and calling on the name of Israel’s God. Instead he was told to wash seven times—not in some clean, crystal fountain flowing through in a temple or even in the rivers of his own land—but in some filthy river in the land of his enemies! It was too much. It was an outrage. Still, the commander’s faithful servants managed to convince their master to at least give it a try, and so he did. Naaman washed himself seven times in the Jordan River and at the seventh dip in the water, he rose up cleansed and healed, his skin like that of a little child.
- Flashy miracles…
Most of us would like to see a few miracles of the kind that Naaman hoped to see—flashy, spectacular, obvious miracles that would provide us with healing from illness, rescue from financial problems and solutions for employment issues and family troubles. It is true that God can work that way, and sometimes he does provide those kinds of miracles, but not always. Maybe some of you can recount a miracle or two from your lifetime or from the life of someone you know. But again, not so many of those miracles are splashy.
This past week as I was teaching the Grade 10 Christian Studies class at the high school, we studied the story in the book of Joshua of the sun standing still. It’s a pretty short and obscure story in Joshua 10. The people of Israel had crossed the Jordan River – oh, that was a miracle, too, for the Jordan River stopped flowing (in flood season) long enough for them to cross over toward Jericho on dry ground. Yes, they crossed the Jordan to take over the Promised Land from all the peoples living there. One group of people – the Gibeonites – deceived the Israelites into making a treaty with them to protect them instead of defeating and destroying them. But soon five city kingdoms set out to make war with Gibeon. The Gibeonites called on their allies, the Israelites, to come and defend them. God killed a large number of warriors from the opposing armies with large hailstones from heaven – another miracle. But the real miracle happened when Joshua wanted to complete the defeat of those five city kingdoms. The sun was going down, and Joshua prayed to God – “Sun, stand still at Gibeon.” While the sun stood still, the Israelites continued attacking the enemy until all five kings fled. That was the day the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. That’s a miracle – never happened before, never happened again.
So, I asked the Grade 10 students how they would define a miracle, and we concluded that it was something that apparently and temporarily defied the laws of nature or of physics, that seemed impossible, and that generally happened only the one time.
- Flashy miracles… not so often!
Some miracles in the Bible are like that – splashy, defying the laws of nature and with a WOW factor that is off the charts. Often God’s miracles are more like the one that happened for Naaman – quiet, ordinary and not so obviously spectacular, but still very much a miracle. In his book, The Theology of Martin Luther, Paul Althaus writes, “God’s miracles are done everywhere in the ordinary course of nature rather than only in extraordinary events.” What Althaus and what Luther had in mind are ordinary events like the germination of a seed encouraged by the warm spring sun or the birth of a baby – both miraculous in their own ways, but oh so ordinary and commonplace at the same time.
- A miracle birth (and MORE!!)
In a miracle that we will celebrate in just over two months, God himself took on human flesh in the womb of a virgin. It’s impossible for a woman to bear a child without sexual relations, but this one time it happened! It was a quiet miracle, unnoticed by many people, although certainly noticed by those most closely involved! When you remember that Mary disappeared for a few months to spend time with Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, it’s not surprising that this pregnancy went unnoticed. And if people did notice it, then they suspected that there was a little hanky-panky that went on between Joseph and Mary even though they both denied it. On Christmas Eve, we will sing about the quiet miracle in the “Little Town of Bethlehem,” the miracle that came to pass on that “Silent Night.” It was quiet, a birth probably unnoticed even in Bethlehem itself, at least unnoticed until it was announced and celebrated by countless angels and the news of it was shared by astonished shepherds. The Child of Bethlehem, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, would grow up to carry out quiet and gentle miracles of healing and feeding the hungry, restoring sight and strength and casting out demons. Sometimes the miracles had a WOW factor, but often they were quiet… and astonishing… always astonishing, and they drew crowds.
Finally, the greatest miracle of all would take place at a cross outside of Jerusalem and at an empty tomb not far away. Jesus carried the leprosy of our sins in his own body to the cross. He suffered the penalty of death that we have earned for ourselves by our sins. His body was taken down from the cross and sealed in a guarded tomb. His followers by that point had pretty much given up on any idea of a miracle. The miracle-working Lord they loved was dead and they expected nothing more. But on the third day after his death, an astonishing, unheard-of miracle took place. An angel rolled away the stone to reveal an empty tomb. Jesus had risen from the dead! He was alive, in the flesh, and he appeared to many eyewitnesses. It was the most astonishing miracle of all, and it is a miracle that is ours to share – life after death!
- A miracle birth… for us – Baptism!
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus spoke to a man named Nicodemus about a miracle that the well-educated Pharisee found impossible to understand. Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again. What did that mean? Could an adult enter his mother’s womb again and be born a second time? That’s impossible! But that is exactly the kind of miracle at which God excels. He does the impossible—in this case, a rebirth of water and the Spirit. It is a miracle that has happened here, in this church, at that baptismal font, many times. There is no crystal fountain, no mighty river, no special water shipped in from the holy land, just ordinary water joined to the extraordinary Word of our Lord Jesus: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In that quiet, nearly unnoticed miracle, the Holy Spirit is at work as the child or adult is joined to Christ Jesus, participates in his death and burial, is raised to new life, and stands to inherit every good gift that God the Father wants to give His new and precious child. Just as Naaman the Syrian was washed clean in the Jordan River, each newly baptized son or daughter of God is washed clean, not of leprosy, but of the stain of sin. Holy Scripture says of our Baptism: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). In the quiet miracle of Baptism, you are born again into a right relationship with God, born again as an heir of salvation. You were born again to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to walk in love and service to others as he walked, to walk in sure and certain steps through a new life that extends into eternity, to walk in the forgiveness that is yours through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- Luther – relying on / writing about Baptism
More than 500 years ago, a baby boy, the son of Hans and Margaret Luther, was made a child of God and an heir of salvation. He was baptized on November 11 in 1483, the day after his birth. It was the church festival day to celebrate the life of St. Martin, so the baby was named Martin – Martin Luther. As little Martin grew up in his Christian home, he learned about the God and Saviour who already knew the work this newborn son of the kingdom would one day do in service of the Gospel. After many years and much study of Holy Scripture, Martin would come to know and treasure the salvation that became his on the day of his baptism. He was often plagued by sin. But whenever sin and Satan tempted him, or when Satan tried to frighten him into thinking his sins could not be forgiven, Martin would say, “I am baptized!” It was not a long and profound academic discourse, but just a few words, the simple, confident statement of a miraculous truth: “I am baptized!” Martin was joined to Christ, his sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb of God. He belonged to Jesus, and Jesus would not let go of him. That gave him confidence and courage in the face of those temptations and fears.
Martin Luther would later go on to write about Baptism in his small Catechism. Let’s read that together to be reminded of the precious truths we have in this quiet little miracle.
What is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.
Which is that word of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)
What benefits does Baptism give?
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are these words and promises of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5–8)
What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)
- Baptized… with thanks!
Luther rejoiced in and stood firm in the fact that he was baptized. It is a statement of confident hope that you can use too. When you are tempted, when Satan the accuser tries to make you think that your sins are too great to be forgiven, when the fears and trials of life make you wonder if God really does love you, you can say, “I am baptized!” You have been joined to Christ. You were crucified with him and buried with him. When he rose from the dead, he pulled you up from death right along with him to walk in the new resurrection life that is yours by faith in his name. You can say, “I am baptized! God sent his Son to die on the cross for me. My sins are forgiven, washed away in the blood of Jesus. I am adopted into God’s household as his precious child. I have already died with Christ and I have been raised to live forever with him. I am baptized!”
And on this Thanksgiving Sunday, we give thanks for that holy standing that we have before God. Amen.