Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
In today’s Gospel text, Luke describes a community filled with expectation about the coming of the Messiah, and questioning if John the Baptist might be this One for whom they wait. John responds to their expectation with an explanation and a promise about baptism. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
In preparing for today’s sermon, I spent some time reading through a commentary written by Philadelphia Seminary President, David Lose. Throughout his commentary, Lose discusses his own struggles in preparing a sermon on our reading from Luke on the day we celebrate today in the Church as The Baptism of our Lord, in world where most people, including many in the pews, don’t fully understand what baptism is in the first place.
He discusses how, in our not too distant past, when the United States was a predominantly Christian culture and church attendance was highly valued throughout society, and when and people came to church regardless of if it was particularly meaningful or not, that it was easy to see how faith applied to everyday life. But Lose points out, this reality, while not too far gone, is simply just that, a thing of the past.
Supporting this new reality, in recent years, the Lutheran Magazine has reported that nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches hold an average weekly worship attendance of fewer than 50 people, and that since 2003, average worship attendance has dropped 26 percent, with reasons including Churchwide decisions, cultural changes, and family demographics. With all of this, Lose makes the claim that in some way, shape, or form, most people leave the church because they simply see little connection between the hour they spend in the pews on a Sunday morning and the remaining 167 hours of their week.
So, Lose’s struggle becomes many pastors struggle, mine included. As we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, should the pastor’s sermon focus on the specifics of the written text? Or, should the sermon be context driven, focusing in on the questions we have in regards to faith and baptism, with the hope of bridging the gap between our life in here, and our life out there?
In the Nicene Creed, we confess that we believe in one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. In our official ELCA statement of faith on the practice of Word and Sacrament, titled, “The Use of the Means of Grace”, it states that “in Holy Baptism the Triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the Church.” And in the pages that follow, we find section headings such as Jesus Christ has Given Holy Baptism, Baptism is Once For All, Baptism Involves Daily Dying and Rising, is For All Ages, Includes Catechesis, is a Public Sign, Incorporates Into the Church, and is Repeatedly Affirmed. Did you get all those? So again… what is Baptism?
While in Seminary, as you could guess, you talk about Baptism a lot. Conversations attempt to make sense of questions like: “Is Baptism A way to salvation?” “Is Baptism THE way to salvation?” “And if so, what about those who die before they can be baptized, like young children, and stillborn babies?” “As a pastor, do you baptize the child of people who never attend church and likely won’t start to following their child’s Baptism?” “Do you have to be baptized in order to receive communion, and if so, why?” Not easy questions, and while we might think so at times, getting wrapped up in our own opinions and emotions, not easy answers.
For Luke, in our Gospel reading for today, Baptism has two key elements. The first is that, Baptism is about identity. The voice that came from heaven and addresses Jesus, does so in the first person. “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Here, Luke proclaims that Baptism teaches us who we are… God’s beloved children.
And the second key element, is that Baptism, like everything else, is God’s work, not ours. Luke notes in verses 19 and 20 that John the Baptist is imprisoned during Jesus’ baptism, leaving no one other than the Holy Spirit itself to be the one to baptize Christ, as it is with our baptisms as well.
This past year we have baptized a total of 19 people from the font at the back of our worship space. Pretty cool. Through each of these baptisms we are reminded of our own and connected to each other, to all of those who have been baptized in the fonts of the past, and to the baptized around the world. As I move to the font for the naming of the baptized from this past year, I invite you to stand and turn as you are able.
(Naming of the baptized)
With all of these names, I ask the question again. What is Baptism? And maybe just as important of a question, what does it mean for each of us as we live out our daily lives outside of this place?
As Lutheran’s, we make the claim that there is only one holy vocation… the vocation of the baptized. Whether you are a waitress, a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a pastor, or the Pope, we would say, God has called you at your baptism, and at your baptism, God has said, “You are my child, I delight in you.” God says this fully knowing we won’t always be delightful, if you know what I mean. But then, Baptism isn’t about you or me… exactly the point of John the Baptist in today’s text when he says “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” It’s about God’s promise. With this we are assured, that when times are hard, when God seems so far away, maybe even absent, that Christ is with us.
And while some of the facts and numbers portray a decline in church attendance and the church across the country may in fact be shrinking, it is most certainly not dying and God is active in the world… Through our baptisms, just as with Christ’s own, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to carry on. Strength to get us through difficult moments and times of uncertainty, that guides us to live a life of service, and leads us to think and live differently than a world that teaches us to think first about ourselves, and only after, about our neighbor…
The strength that moves us to see God’s presence all around us. Presence motivated by a love so strong, that God would send God’s only Son to die so that we may rise to eternal life. For as the hymn goes, remember and rejoice, renewed by floods of grace we bear the sign of Jesus Christ, that time cannot erase. Thanks be to God! Amen.