The Day of Light
Have you noticed how the Baptism of Jesus has become an every year celebration? Ever since the new hymnal was introduced in 1982 the Baptism of Jesus has been celebrated on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Although relatively new to us, it really is a return to an ancient practice. The Eastern, or Greek speaking, Church historically celebrated the birth and Baptism of Jesus on January 6 calling it The Day of Light. The Western, or Latin speaking, Church from which Lutherans descend gave up the Baptism of Jesus in favor of the wise men account. Luther always regretted the loss of the story of Jesus' Baptism from the Church Year; that's why the new hymnal put it back.
So today we celebrate the Day of Light, and what does this Day of Light reveal? First it reveals the darkness of our hearts toward Baptism. Do you think much about your Baptism? How come we all know the date of our birth but not the date of our re-birth? How come we all celebrate being born into a sinful world to die but hardly take notice of the day we were reborn into a holy world to live forever?
Be honest. You don't think much about your Baptism. Be real honest. Do you think about it ever? How can this be? Haven't we Lutherans taught our children as Luther directed in the Catechism to remind themselves of their baptism both morning and night by making the sign of the cross on themselves before they say the morning or evening prayer? Doesn't our hymnal in every order of service indicate the place for crossing ourselves in the Invocation as a reminder of our Baptism where the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost were first put on us accompanied by the sign of the holy cross? The point is NOT that we don't make the sign of the cross, but that we don't even remember our Baptisms on Sunday morning!
Okay, okay some of you most certainly do think about your Baptism; some of you probably even know the date of it. But how many of us use our Baptism? I know I don't. When I'm chased by guilt, I don't seek refuge in my Baptism but in trying to think of reasons I don't have to feel guilty. When I'm cornered by pet sins, rather then seek strength in my Baptism to overcome them I conclude those little pets are really monsters far to powerful for me. When the devil corners me with fear of disease and death, rather than find comfort and victory in my baptism which rescues me from death and the devil, I find comfort in my genetic makeup, my family medical history, or a healthy lifestyle. When I'm plagued by doubt about going to heaven, I turn to what I do: repent, believe, go to church, rather than what God has done for me in Baptism.
Now I ask you is this anyway to treat such a precious gift? Imagine if we treated the gift of a king or a loved one the way we treat the gift of our God and Savior? What if a king gave you half of his kingdom, but you never thought of it? You never remembered his magnificent gift to you, but you remembered much lesser gifts. Would the king be pleased? Would he think that although you never thought about his gift, you nevertheless, rightly appreciated it? I don't think so.
And what about your Christmas gifts from loved ones? For that matter what about your Christmas gifts TO loved ones? If they don't use them, that doesn't bother you, right? Them never putting on your sweater when cold, them not drinking out of your coffee cup when thirsty, them not cashing your check, that wouldn't bother you, would it? Now there's a fitting illustration for you all. You gave me and my family a generous Christmas check. What if I never cashed it? What if I never used it? Wouldn't you be hurt? Wouldn't you wonder at how could I afford just to ignore such a valuable gift? And yet we think God shouldn't be bothered by our never using His precious gift of Baptism!
By now you're wondering: Okay I can see that I don't rightly value or use my Baptism, but how does the Baptism of Jesus, this Day of Light as the Eastern Church called it, show me this? The Baptism of Jesus shows the wonderful gift that Baptism really is.
Look again at what took place in the muddy waters of the Jordan River. What happens to Christ in His Baptism is the opposite of what happened to you in yours. In Jesus' Baptism, the Sinless One takes on sins. You can see He is the Sinless One by the fact the Holy Spirit lands on Him. Remember in Noah's flood what happened when he sent the raven out? It didn't come back. But when he sent the dove out, it did. Why? Because the raven would land on the floating dead animals and feed, a dove doesn't feed on dead animals and won't land on them. When the Holy Spirit fluttered down from heaven as a Dove, all He saw around Him were sinners dead in their sins except for Jesus, the Sinless Son of God. There He landed.
But this Sinless One is standing in the Jordan River doing what? The text says the only ones being baptized by John were those "confessing their sins." So the sinless Jesus stood in the Jordan confessing sins. Whose? Since He had none of His own, He could only be confessing yours, mine and ours. In His Baptism, Jesus takes public responsibility for the sins of the whole world. Jesus says in His Baptism, "I'm guilty of lust, hatred, greed, pride, worry, fear, and not valuing or using Baptism."
Now see the other half of the Bible verse. It's not just that God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin itself as the first half of 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, but He did that so we might become the righteousness of God in Him as the second half of the verse teaches. In Jesus' Baptism, He publicly takes on sins. In our Baptism, we publicly put them off. It's called HOLY Baptism because by it, God's holiness becomes ours. He washes us; He sanctifies us; He sprinkles us clean in Baptism according to Scripture.
Therefore, your Baptism is what Peter says it is: The answer of a good conscience before God. Friend, there never will be a time on this earth when you will have absolutely no sense of sin or guilt. There never will be a time where you can stand before the Holy God and not feel shame creeping up your neck. So, don't look inside of you for a good, pure, peaceful conscience. No, look to your Baptism. Your Baptism says, even in the face of God's holy law, "There's no sin here. All is forgiven. All is gone. All is holy here." Where Jesus' Baptism said all is guilty here; yours says the opposite.
You just can't imagine how washed, how sanctified, how holy you are in your Baptism. All you can feel, all you can know is what Adam and Eve knew in the Garden: You have offended, angered and disobeyed God, and for that you deserve not just eternal punishment but punishment here and now. All you can have is a sense that you need to continually look over your shoulder because you're in doubt about how things really stand between you and God. And during times of sickness, worry, trouble, or death, there is no doubt. You know how things feel between you and God then.
Your Baptism, however preaches something better to you. You can hear it in the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus takes on the sins of the world publicly and what happens? God tears open heaven. You know how it is when your sins are resting heavy on your conscience. Heaven seems blocked, closed, sealed shut to sinners. No prayers can go up and no mercies can come down. That's how it is for sinners outside of Baptism. But in Baptism heaven is wide open to sinners. The Holy Spirit comes down bringing peace, joy, and every other gift of heaven. And the Father is pleased.
That's important. The Father doesn't say as the NIV translates: "You are My Son...WITH You I am well pleased." No, the Father, declares, "You are My Son...IN You I am well pleased." The early church used this verse and a verse from the account of Noah's flood in their Liturgy. One part of the congregation sang, "It repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth." The other part of the congregation responded, "This is My beloved Son IN whom I am well pleased." Yes, as incredible as it sounds, as incredible as it is, in Jesus the Father is well pleased with sinners.
But how does this relate to Baptism? Baptism is what puts you in Jesus. It clothes you with Him says Paul in Galatians 3: "As many of you who have been baptized, you have put on Christ." Standing in your Baptisms, walking in your Baptisms, living in your Baptisms, all the Father can see is the Son. And the Father is very pleased with the Son.
Friends, you simply cannot exalt, praise, or depend on your Baptism too much because Baptism is all God's work and not yours. You were taught in Confirmation that Baptism gives forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe. The problem has been we have put all the emphasis, all the force, and therefore all the comfort on our believing. Since our believing is imperfect, faltering and plagued with doubts, we have attributed the same uncertainty to Baptism.
How sad. Forgiveness, rescue from death and devil and eternal salvation in Baptism are all tied to believing by Luther only to show that you don't have to add anything to your Baptism to make it powerful. Luther didn't say this so you could torture yourself to see whether you really believed in Baptism enough. In fact, friend, you show more than adequate faith in Baptism every time you run to it for the assurance that you've been forgiven, rescued from death and the devil, and given eternal salvation. Every time you take your troubled conscience to Baptism and say, "I can be at peace because I'm baptized." Every time you deal with your fear of death or the devil by pointing to your Baptism as proof that you've been rescued from these, you show the right faith in Baptism. Every time you answer a doubt about going to heaven with, "I've been Baptized," you have used your Baptism with the faith the Lord wants you to.
Think I've exalted your Baptism too much, made it too much to be believed? Hear Luther in the Large Catechism then: "The blessings of Baptism are so great, that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could be all true. Suppose there were a physician with such skill that people would not die, or even though they died would afterward live forever. Just think how the world would snow and rain money upon him! Because of the pressing crowd of rich men no one else could get near him. Now, here in Baptism there is brought to every man's door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men."
If I told you that you had a medicine right now in your cabinets that could swallow up death and make you live forever, you would run home and take it. But the news is even better than that. You've already been given the medicine at your Baptism. It's yours right now. As surely as Jesus being baptized meant He would suffer hell and die for sins, so surely does your being baptized mean you will not suffer hell or even die for your sins. Can you see why the Eastern Church called this the Day of Light? It lights up not just our baptisms but even our deep dark graves! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Baptism of our Lord (1-9-00) Mark 1:4-11