Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Date: Epiphany I + Baptism of Our Lord + 1/9/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Last Sunday, with St. Luke’s account of the twelve-year-old Jesus being (1) lost and found (2) at Passover (3) in the Jerusalem Temple, we spoke, among other things, of God’s Word. We spoke of His prophetic Word in the Old Testament and especially of those prophecies that pointed to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In fact we made the observation, saying, that the only way we can really know that this Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, Christ and Savior is not because your parents told you (as they should), or because “the Church” throughout all the ages and the world told you so (as she should), but only and solely because faith sees that everything written about Him in the Old Testament has been perfectly and completely fulfilled in Him and only in Him, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the virgin Mary, the descendant of Abraham and David. This was the source and authority that directed the wise men when they asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The chief priests and the scribes got out their Bibles and read Micah 5:2 as the prophecy that says the Savior will be born in Bethlehem. They seemed quite sure. Because the prophet said it, they believed it, and it was so. And the wise men went and discovered their goal.
Today we add another sign. For John the Baptist was given a sign. St. John the Apostle and Evangelist records in his Gospel the Baptist’s witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34). It was, first of all, as a sign for John that the Spirit descended and remained on Jesus and the Voice spoke from heaven at His baptism. But this sign has also been recorded for us by St. Matthew (3:16-17), St. Mark (1:10-11), and St. Luke (3:21-22) so that our faith also may be the more firm and certain.
Now, there is very much here for our faith to grasp and to believe. But I would like to talk further about the certainty of faith; how we can be sure of God’s Word. In the service folder I quoted Martin Luther who wrote of Jesus’ baptism, “Christ begins here to be the Christ. When He is inaugurated He assumes His office. By this the Father wants to make known to the world that they should have no doubt at all about Christ because He Himself has placed Christ into His office” (Baseley, The Church Postils, p. 216). This is the very thing that attracted me to the Lutheran Church and specifically to the Missouri Synod in the first place when I was a teenager: the demand and desire to know for certain that what was being said and preached was absolutely, demonstrably true.
We can know that this Jesus is the promised Savior of the world because everything written about Him over some thousand years or more in the Old Testament is perfectly fulfilled in Him down to the finest details: to name only a few, His lineage of the House of David, the virgin conception and birth, and above all His innocent suffering and murder during the Passover being crucified between two thieves, His burial in a borrowed tomb, His resurrection from the dead and ascension—all foretold according to the Scriptures. Now we see a sign for John’s certainty that this Jesus is indeed the promised Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John will have some difficulty later because he was also inspired to predict the power and fire of the Lord’s coming in judgment which he wasn’t seeing at first, and didn’t realize at the time was something reserved for the Last Day.
We are talking about the certainty of faith. This is one reason the Church has the liturgy, that we may be certain that we are truly receiving what God has promised. I mean that for all the various other things in our worship, what is essential, say, for the Lord’s Supper? For us to be certain that we are, as Jesus commanded, doing “this,” that is, what He did and instituted on that night in which he was betrayed, what must we have and do? The Church has always been very careful to say and do what Jesus said and did so that we might have certainty that we are receiving what He there promised to give.
Therefore in the liturgy of the Sacrament we must have:
- Christians gathered for this purpose; so you don’t do this privately;
- Bread and wine set apart for this use;
- We repeat His words of institution;
- We pray a prayer of thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer;
- We eat and drink the consecrated elements.
To substitute some other elements, for instance, than true bread or wine introduces doubt. So also if we do not repeat the words of institution, pray or eat and drink. Some of the other details are less important—when or whether the sign of the cross is made over the elements, exactly what kind of wine is used, or even whether the sacrament is offered in a church or in a high school music room or at a sick bed. But there are a few things which are always the same, in imitation of the words and actions of Jesus, under the promise of His command, for our certainty.
Now when Luther speaks of our Lord’s baptism as the Father’s placing of His beloved Son into His office as Christ, we can ask also about the ministry, how God through the years places certain of Jesus’ disciples into the office of pastor. Again the question is how we can be certain that a man is truly called, certified and rightly ordained to proclaim God’s Word and administer His Sacraments.
It certainly begins with a man’s initial desire to become a pastor. But he is not a pastor just because he desires or decides to be one. John the Baptist, as an Old Testament prophet, had a direct revelation from God as to his call and what he was to preach. But the scriptures do not promise or even suggest that God calls anyone directly today as He did the prophets and apostles. God calls indirectly or “mediately” through the Church. Therefore a man enrolls in the seminary or follows some other course established by the Church. When he has completed that time of discernment, formation and training, the Church then makes a determination and certifies whether or not he is qualified and ready for the ministry. Having been certified, he is then placed before the Church as available to receive a divine call which comes from God through the Church. When he has been so certified, called, accepted the call, ordained and installed in the Church’s regular order, THEN and only then can he be certain and can the Church be certain that, yes, the man has been called by God and sent by God to be a preacher and pastor in Christ’s Church. I might add that the Church has the authority to determine how extensive that formation and training of a candidate should be, which is to say, that it is the certifying and calling by the Church, not any one particular course of training that makes a pastor.
The certainty of faith is also the issue of the old evangelism question, “Do you know for certain that if you were to die tonight you would go to heaven, that you would be with Christ?” It’s amazing, but not surprising, that most people do not know and therefore do not believe that anyone can be “certain” of salvation. But, of course, you can, and you must.
One of the most important facts for the certainty of faith is the fact of your Holy Baptism. Oh, it’s not as if baptism were some magic charm. It is a guarantee, but one that can be broken by falling away from faith. But we should also quickly say that, though broken, faith can return to it and reclaim it.
Your Holy Baptism is a comfort and security for faith, first of all, because Jesus commanded it. “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word,” Matthew 28:19. But secondly it is a comfort and security because it is what connects us directly to the forgiveness of sins and the new life procured for us by Jesus’ innocent, bloody, sacrificial, atoning death on the cross of Calvary. For that is what our Lord’s Baptism determined for Him, that this, the beloved Son of the Father, here begins to step in and to take our place and to take the place of every sinner reaching back to Adam and Eve and forward to the very last sinner; to take our place under the divine and holy and perfect Law of God, to fulfill that Law perfectly for us, and yet to take our sin upon Himself, out of His great love for us and His obedience to the Father, to pay the price of nothing less than death—the ungodly separation of body from soul, as the scripture says, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20) and, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). He endured the curse of God for us as the scripture says, “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Dt. 21:23).
Having died on account of our sins, God’s wrath against sin was spent, or, in Jesus’ own dying words, “It is finished.” There is no more payment, no more price. It has all been settled by the death of Christ. Then it was because He was still the beloved Son of the Father, though He really died, death could not hold Him, and he rose again, body and soul, in eternal triumph and says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16).
Jesus was baptized to take His place, shoulder to shoulder beside us. Having taken our sin and separation into Himself, died for it, removed it, forgiven it, in our Baptism He gives us everything that He is: holiness, pureness, adoption into the family of God’s redeemed sons and daughters, everything new, life eternal, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In Holy Baptism, by faith, God’s beloved Son has become our beloved Lord.