So I see you all survived the winter weather on Tuesday. It was really cold, wasn’t it! Lots of wind – cold temps – lots of snow. Amazing, the power of snow, isn’t it? One snow flake by itself is one thing – but when you get a whole mess of snowflakes together at one time in one place – well – as we well know – snow has the power to stop traffic.
Snow of course is a form of water –which is something that we all need in order to survive. Water is life-giving. Not enough water and life dies. Too much water – whether in the form of snow and ice like we saw this past week – or the liquid kind that when there is too much it can cause floods – and water can be destructive. But this is church, and I’m not here today to give you a weather report.
However – since this happens to be church – and since today happens to be the Baptism of our Lord Sunday throughout the church – I want to talk to you today about water – and more specifically – I want to talk to you about baptism. A brief lesson on baptism – and the life-giving gift of baptism – which of course – involves water.
I have often wondered how it is that water – from the pouring that we do in our Lutheran tradition – or the volume of water needed for full immersion – how is it that that water makes a difference? For Martin Luther – it is not the water. Well – it is not the water alone that does such wonderful things – but the water and the Word. And that word is the words used with the water – as the water is poured or just before a person is fully immersed in water – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The water and the word.
And the Word of God tells us in Romans chapter 6 what happens in baptism. Listen to what Paul writes: (Romans 6:3-5)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Have you ever wondered how it is that that historic event of nearly 2000 years ago – namely – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – have you ever wondered – as I have – how that historic event can be effective for me today? Baptism. Baptism. We were buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
It’s something of a mystery – BUT we are somehow – someway – connected to the death and resurrection of Christ – through baptism. That’s what God tells us. God has told us that that’s the way it is. And that’s why we baptize. That’s why we can talk about the waters of baptism as life-giving water. And this new life is given to us as a gift.
Last week we talked about our new identity in Christ. That we are adopted daughters and sons of God, do you remember that? Today I can tell you that it is in the waters of baptism that you are named – you are claimed – you are adopted into God’s family. God’s kingdom. It is THE place where we begin our new life in Christ.
Let me share with you a story. It’s a story about Queen Victoria of Great Britain. On one occasion she went to visit a paper factory. The owner was pleased to show her through his workplace. He explained all of the features and diverse procedures of paper production. He took her into one large room packed with rags. Many of these rags had been carried in by beggars and were filthy. The rags were being organized by the workmen.
“Are you using these dirty rags to make paper?” the Queen asked.
“Yes my Queen,” the owner answered. “Our finest paper is made out of rags.”
The Queen appeared to be in profound thought, but a while later she explained what was going through her mind. “How could these filthy rags ever be transformed into spotless snowy paper?” she asked.
The owner explained, “We have launderers who eliminate all the mud and dirt. We also have chemical procedures, my Queen, with which all of the tint is removed from even the colored rags.”
After a couple of days, the Queen found a mysterious package on her counter. She was astonished to discover inside some of the most stunning, snowy white paper she had ever seen. On each and every piece of paper she found her name and a watermark of her resemblance. She also found a note from the owner of the paper mill.
“Your Majesty, I hope you will accept a sample of my paper, with a declaration that each and every sheet was factory-made out of the rags which Your Majesty saw in the storeroom on her latest visit to my factory. I believe that the outcome is such as even the Queen may appreciate. Your Majesty, let me also say that I have had many upright sermons expounded to me in my factory. I have come to comprehend how the Lord Jesus can take an unfortunate outlaw, and the most dreadful of the dreadful and make them spotless. It doesn’t matter how dark their sins are, he can make them white as snow. I can also see how he can put his name upon them, and just as these rags, transformed, may go into a royal palace and be admired, so poor sinners can be received into the palace of the Great King Jesus.”
In the waters of baptism our old filthy rags are made new. White as snow. Our sin is exchanged for the righteousness that belongs to Christ. This is sometimes called “The Great Exchange,” or “The Happy Exchange.” In the waters of baptism, Christ takes our sins – these old filthy rags – takes them right away – and exchanges them for his goodness – his righteousness. We are in effect clothed in Christ. So since we are connected to Christ this way in baptism – do you see how it is that in baptism we have the forgiveness of sins – the washing away of sins if you will – and he in turn puts his name – his seal – on our foreheads.
And may I suggest that when you forget that – when the dark side of life tends to overwhelm – and it can and it does – may I suggest that in your heart and in your mind – you return to your baptism. Just like Martin Luther would say when he was overwhelmed with the dark side of life “I have been baptized!”
In the hymn Luther wrote, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” one of the verses ends with these words, “One little word shall fell him,” – the him referred to here is the devil. Do you know what that one little word is? Anybody? Baptism. It’s baptism. I am – or I have been – baptized.
Just like those dirty rags that filled that paper factory, your sins – my sins – though they are many, they have been removed, and we are made as white as snow.
Okay. SO now you have a grasp – I hope – of what baptism means, and why we baptize even tiny infants. Here’s the challenge for us. What I find is that most of us – hmmm probably all of us – spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what this all means.
Baptism is just a beginning. IF we were old enough when we were baptized we made certain promises to live among God’s faithful people, and to live godly lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. As infants, parents and sponsors make those promises for us – and if we stick around long enough – we’ll be asked to affirm those promises when we’re old enough to do it for ourselves. We call that the rite of Confirmation.
SO IF baptism is just the beginning point – AND if Jesus' baptism serves as a model for our baptism – and remember that Jesus began his ministry immediately following his own baptism – then our baptism is the beginning of our ministry. As we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what all this means – let me state that your baptism is your call to serving and ministering – somehow, some way – to others. So on the one hand – in baptism we are welcomed into the body of Christ. But it is at the same time a promise that we will live with and work alongside the rest of Christ’s disciples in his body, the church.
Some of you are familiar with Garrison Keillor. You can catch his radio program on WNED after the 5:00 Saturday service, or after the 10:45 service on Sunday on WBUF. Keillor is a humorist who likes to poke fun at Lutherans. He himself is a Lutheran and likes to tell tales of the good Lutheran folk in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. He’s not “rolling on the floor” kind of funny – but a humor that can make you smile. Listen as I tell you Keillor’s story of Larry the Sad Boy – in my best Garrison Keillor imitation. Okay, well maybe I’ll skip the imitation.
“Larry the Sad Boy was saved twelve times, which is an all-time record in the Lutheran Church. In the Lutheran Church there is no altar call, no organist playing ‘Just As I Am,’ and no minister with shiny hair manipulating the congregation. These are Lutherans, and they repent the same way that they sin –discreetly and tastefully. Keillor writes, ‘Granted, we're born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. God didn't mean for us to feel guilty all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use.”
In these past few minutes I hope you have a better understanding of what your baptism means for you. In baptism you were named – you were claimed – you were made a son – you were made a daughter of God. That is your identity. Then for the rest of our lives we live trying to make sense of what that means as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Keillor puts it – it’s our job somehow someway “to be of use.”
Just remember, one snow flake by itself is not much – but when you get enough snowflakes together in one spot – when those snowflakes work together – they can stop traffic. Do you understand what I am saying?
Well – let me conclude with these words from William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. They tell the story of a pastor's words to a baby shortly after he had baptized her. No doubt, the minister was speaking as much to the congregation as to the infant.
“Little sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This isn't the end. It's the beginning of God's experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say God is with you.”