Sermon: Mark 1:4-11
Epiphany 1 - January 7, 2018 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
It’s not unusual for Christians from different denominations to debate with one another about baptism - particularly whether infant baptism should be practiced or if a person should wait until the teenage years or later to be baptized. But in some ways the debate about infant baptism is the wrong debate, or perhaps not the really crucial issue. We should focus more of our attention on what baptism is, what it does for us, and how baptism is to affect our lives every day.
In our text on this 1st Sunday of Epiphany John the Baptist is carrying out his ministry in Judea near the Jordan River. Mark tells us that John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Those words themselves tell us exactly what baptism does for us and how it affects our lives every day.
Today remember that
YOUR BAPTISM WAS AND ALWAYS IS A BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
In a day before radio, television, the internet, Facebook, and other instant visual ways of communication and entertainment, any kind of spectacle that was slightly out of the ordinary must have gathered lots of attention from people who were probably looking for something to embellish their difficult and maybe dreary lives. That’s part of the reason we read that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” went out to see John the Baptist preaching and baptizing by the Jordan River. He had to look like a really unusual man. He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and ate locusts - big grasshoppers - and wild honey. The camel’s hair clothes probably did look pretty strange and humble, but the locusts and wild honey, while they may not have been the usual diet of people, were actually pretty healthy - good protein and carbohydrates.
While some of the people may have been intrigued by John’s clothes and diet, it was really his message that most people came to hear. From the other gospels we get the impression that John was a pretty fiery, no-nonsense, kind of preacher. And people listened to his call to repentance, repented of their sins, and were baptized - large numbers of them.
He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Following our sermon today we will confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” It was for the assurance of the forgiveness of sins that so many people came to be baptized by John. There was not always a lot of good news for these people of Judea living under Roman domination. And they lived under the stern, often too stern, application of the Law of Moses from the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jerusalem. The forgiveness of sins, sins washed away in baptism, was good, refreshing, and liberating news.
Would you have walked the fifteen or so miles in the hot Judean sun to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins? Maybe a better question is how much do you cherish and desire the forgiveness of sins? How thrilled are you to come to church and hear the absolution spoken or the forgiveness of sins preached? Obviously we all love God for forgiving our sins, we all know how crucial the forgiveness of sins is for our eternal salvation, but sometimes we probably aren’t as thrilled as we ought to be.
And I suppose that’s partly because we are so abundantly blessed with church services and Bibles and preaching and teaching that we hear the gospel all the time. The message of forgiveness is immediately and easily accessible. We don’t have to walk fifteen miles in the cold of January or in the heat of July to hear the message.
But not always being so thrilled by forgiveness, taking it for granted, is often due to not understanding the seriousness and depth of our sin. In the Christian questions of the Small Catechism, designed to prepare people to receive the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther advises those who aren’t aware of their burden of sin and do not feel hunger and thirst for Holy Communion, [or for God’s forgiveness] to put their hand on their chest to feel if they still have flesh and blood. They are also to look around to see if they are still in the world, and to be aware that the devil is always present. If you and I still have flesh and blood and are still in this world where the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, we are sinful and desperately in need of forgiveness.
I wish that God the Holy Spirit would always give us a serious sense of the burden of our sin like the people of Judea had so that we would be willing, if we had to, to walk fifteen miles in the cold of January or the heat of July to hear the message of God’s forgiveness and to have our sins washed away in baptism.
And don’t ever let anyone tell you your baptism doesn’t forgive your sins. The skeptical mind and human reason like to ask, “How can pouring some water on a person forgive their sins?” If we Christians chose to believe only in things that make sense to human reason and that we can see and understand, we wouldn’t believe in anything. The Bible encourages us to “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” It says that God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” It says, “Baptism . . . now saves you also.” And of course John came “preaching a baptism . . . for the forgiveness of sins.”
That baptism forgives our sin is not really that mysterious. Not one of us would argue with the truth that the word of God forgives our sins. If the Bible says, “Your sins are forgiven,” we’re going to believe they are forgiven. If those same words and promise are connected with the water of baptism, we can also believe that our sins are forgiven. It’s God’s powerful word, not the water, not some magical or holy water, that forgives our sins. Your baptism was and always is a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We receive that blessing of forgiveness by faith, faith in Jesus that he died to atone for our sins and rose again from the dead to prove that our sins are forgiven. Therefore John also preached a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means to change the mind. Repentance means that we change our mind about sin and admit that it offends God. Repentance means that we change our mind about God and believe that through Jesus he has forgiven our sins. And a changed mind about sin and a change mind about God is going to lead to a changed life that hates sin and loves God, a changed life that grows in godliness and sanctification.
When we understand that Christian baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the most important thing is not at what age we were baptized but that we believe our sins were washed away and - and this is what’s really important and we often forget - that baptism means we are to continue to repent of our sins every day of our lives. We Lutherans refer to this as the 4th part of Luther’s explanation to baptism in his Small Catechism. He writes, “Baptism means that the Old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” These words mean that Baptism has an ongoing purpose and effect in our lives. Each day we are to repent and once again drown our sinful nature like it was drowned in the waters of our baptism. Then our new nature in Christ is to rise up and be nourished on the power of God’s word and grow stronger each day.
All of this drowning and rebirth was not Luther’s idea. It’s God’s truth. In his letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul writes, “We were . . . buried with [Christ] 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.” Your baptism was and always is a baptism of repentance.
For someone who remembers their baptism there may be more of a conscious motivation to live a repentant and godly life. But what about those of us who were baptized as infants and don’t remember our baptism. Baptism still did what it does for all people. It washed away our sins, but we perhaps need to make a special effort to remember the ongoing power of baptism that urges us to daily repent and rise up and live a new and godly life. Go find your baptismal certificate and keep it out in a prominent place to remind you that you were baptized as certainly as anyone else. Or better yet, read these words of Paul from the 6th chapter of Romans often to give you the motivation and strength to drown your sinful nature and live a new life.
John did more than just preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He preached that someone much more powerful than he was going to come. He was pointing the people of Judea and us to Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior who would die for our sins. Jesus came to be baptized by John. He didn’t need the forgiveness of sins but told John that he should baptize him to fulfill all righteousness - to do everything right, to do everything that was necessary in his ministry to save sinners from sin. On Christmas Eve we sang a hymn that reminds us what actually happened when Jesus was born: “He whom the sea and wind obey Comes down to serve the sinner in great meekness. Now God’s own Son With us is one and joins us and our children in our weakness.” When Jesus was baptized he joined us mere human beings in our sinful weakness in order to save us.
Jesus’ baptism gives us beautiful evidence of all three Persons of the Trinity who each exist fully as God all the time, at the same time. Jesus, God the Son, was present of course. God the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus with power in the form of a dove. And God the Father’s voice said to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” We’ll once more hear these reassuring words from God the Father on the last Sunday of Epiphany, just before Lent begins, at Jesus’ transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
From this 1st Sunday of Epiphany to the last Sunday of Epiphany, through Lent and Easter, and always be glad that Jesus, the Son whom God the Father loves is your Savior. And be glad that your baptism was and always is and always will be a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Amen.