But I think the highlight of my day came this afternoon when a group of us went to a nearby nursing home for a service of holy communion. Most of the residents were very engaged in the singing, prayer and communion. One of them didn't want to let go of my hand when we were singing. What really topped it all off for me though was when I communed another woman. When I said, "The body and blood of Christ given and shed for you" (I intincted the commununion host for the residents), she said "...and you!" We both said "Amen!" It was just an amazing connection that we had.
The homily I shared with them was a shortened version of the sermon I preached at Bethel. The gospel text was Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Here is my sermon:
How many of you ladies enjoy wearing jewelry? Some of us like to wear lots of jewelry-bracelets, rings on many fingers, earrings and all sorts of stuff. Others just wear a watch and a ring on their ring finger and maybe simple earrings. I have to admit that my weakness is earrings, especially when they’re on sale. How many of you like getting jewelry as a present? Jewelry can be one of the most precious gifts we can be given, especially if the jewelry contains precious stones like rubies, emeralds, or diamonds. Have you ever considered baptism as a gift?
Baptism is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us. Baptism strengthens and comforts us. Baptism reminds us who we are and whose we are. Martin Luther wrote concerning baptism:
To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, “But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body...” No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than Baptism, for through it we obtain perfect holiness and salvation, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire. 1
We find our identity as God’s children in baptism.
Today, we are celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized? After all, he was sinless. Jesus' baptism was not about repentance. It was about his identity being publically, ritually, connected to God. It was also an opportunity for Jesus to identify with sinners. In Jesus’ baptism, we have a revelatory three-part drama. The heavens are opened, the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus and there is a voice from heaven.
In Luke’s gospel, an interesting phrase precedes the opening of the heavens. Luke says that Jesus “was praying.” It is after Jesus was baptized and while he was praying that the Holy Spirit descended. This present tense praying means that Jesus was still praying when the Spirit descended. Throughout his gospel, Luke emphasizes Jesus praying. Prayer surrounds major events in Jesus’ life such as his baptism, before selecting the twelve, before the transfiguration and before his arrest and death. Jesus’ praying motivated the disciples to ask him how to pray. Jesus’ response was the Lord’s Prayer.
As Jesus was in prayer, the Holy Spirit came down and anointed Him for service. The church in the book of Acts was praying and waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church too should be constant in prayer and also waiting for the Holy Spirit. What would happen if we prayed as Jesus and the early church did? What blessing is God waiting to pour down upon us? What might the power of the Holy Spirit look like if unleashed in today’s world?
Another important factor in today’s gospel is the voice of God the Father talking to Jesus, his Son. After the descent of the Holy Spirit, God’s voice was heard from heaven. Here, God the Father affirmed the identity of Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This was a pivotal experience for Jesus. It set in motion the series of events that were to follow. Jesus must live out his identity as God’s Son and meet the Father’s expectations.
This account about Jesus’ baptism is much less about the actual baptism than it is about who Jesus really is. Not only does this passage introduce and begin to answer the question of Jesus’ identity and mission, but also it highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in anointing people for ministry. Luke is sometimes referred to as the “up and out” gospel because it emphasizes the role and power of the Holy Spirit more than the other gospels. People are filled up with the Holy Spirit and then sent out into mission in the world. This applies not just to people in the first century… but also to us in the 21st century.
Baptism teaches us who we are—God’s beloved children—and confers upon us God’s unconditional love. As David Lose points out:
In an era when so many of the traditional elements of identity [have vanished]… we change jobs and careers with frequency, most of us have multiple residences rather [than] grow[ing] up and liv[ing] in a single community, fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are. In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.
Because baptism is completely God’s work, we can be confident that no matter how much we mess up, nothing we do or fail to do can change our identity as God’s beloved children.
Baptism is our initiation into God’s family, the church. It is the starting point for new life and new identity. Fire is the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God preserves what is valuable and destroys what is worthless. Through our baptism, events are also set in motion for our identity as children of God. Just as Jesus needed to live out his identity as God’s Son and meet the Father’s expectations, so must we. God’s expectation for us is to work together with Him to reconcile the world to himself. How do we do this? We must first develop our relationship with God through prayer, reading scripture and receiving Holy Communion. We then have to develop our relationship with each other through worship and fellowship, and as this church knows, eating together! Finally, as a church we develop our relationship in the community through various outreach opportunities such as the food pantry, Genesis House, visiting the elderly and shut ins, visiting people in the hospital and doing volunteer work with many of the different organizations in our area. May 2013 be a year where we here at Bethel are guided by the Spirit to venture out into the community. Amen.
Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959), 442.