Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord 01/13/2019

In Bible Study this week we started looking at a study put together either by Bishop Eaton herself or maybe by her minions, I don’t really know, but it focuses on her Four Emphases for the ELCA, her vision you could say, for the church as it continues to evolve and move forward. The four emphases are: We are church. We are Lutheran. We are church together. We are church for the sake of the world. If you want to know more, come to Bible Study, Mondays at 11 over at Teal Lake Assisted Living, Thursdays at 6:30 here at the church. New participants are always welcome; even if you can’t come every week, come when you can; I’m pretty sure you’ll get something out of it. End of commercial.

I mention this because Bishop Eaton grounds her four emphases in baptismal identity and today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, so the theme of baptism is out there. For quite a long time now there has been an effort within the ELCA to recapture the centrality of baptism and baptismal identity but I’m not sure that we’ve done a very good job; I think we’ve done a better job, for example, with making the celebration of Holy Communion more central to who we are.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me it seems like when we think about baptism we mostly tend to think about cute little babies, infants or toddlers, all dressed up for a lovely initiation ceremony; we don’t think too much about the deep theological significance of what is done apart from connecting baptism with forgiveness of sins but then that raises the question of what sins does a little baby need to be forgiven for. Add to that the fact that most of us, when we were baptized, we were cute little babies, infants or toddlers, all dressed up for a lovely initiation ceremony but, because of that, we don’t remember it. Things have been done to encourage remembrance, like putting the font near the entrance of the church, with water in it, as we have done here, to encourage people to dip their fingers in the water as they enter or leave the church as a baptismal reminder. I do see a few people do it here, but not very many and to be honest, I don’t do it very often either.

And yet…baptism is very much at the heart of who we are as Christians. Martin Luther put great emphasis on it saying in the catechism that, “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promises of God declare.” Or, listen to a prayer that is part of Bishop Eaton’s study: “We give you thanks O God, for the gift of our baptism. Through it you have claimed us as your children and transformed our hearts and minds to live in service to you for the sake of the world. Even as you have blessed us, you call upon us to be ripples in the font and to celebrate the gift we have received from you. You call us to live ever reaching out to others in and with your love.”

All of that makes our baptismal identity worth remembering both with the promise of what it does, making us children of God, providing forgiveness and eternal life, and for what it calls us to do, to be ripples in the font living in service to God and to others. Baptism is much more than an initiation rite for cute little babies, infants or toddlers all dressed up for the occasion. It has deep theological meaning and provides us with an identity that we are called to live out for the rest of our life.

The desire to recover a greater sense of baptismal identity then is seen as a positive thing as it’s an identity intended to provide reassurance…reassurance of our relationship with God, reassurance concerning God’s grace and forgiveness, reassurance that helps us to be ripples in the font. Today’s gospel reading however, is not so reassuring. It’s John the Baptist announcing that one more powerful than he is, is coming and of course it’s Jesus that he’s talking about. Rather than reassuring words about Jesus though, John says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So much for cute little babies, infants and toddlers.

My only experience with threshing and winnowing wheat was many years ago when I was student teaching and Mr. Blair, a guy from the local nature center, Nature Boy the kids called him, came and did a demonstration of winnowing; I don’t remember exactly why, but I do remember the demonstration. I think he’d already done the threshing to loosen the grains of wheat from the husks before he arrived, so that was done, but he had a big fan set up and he threw the mixture of grain and husks and straw into the air in front of the fan and sure enough the grains, being heavier, fell straight down into a sheet he’d put on the floor and the husks, the chaff, blew all over the place; the custodian wasn’t happy when he came in later. If he could have, I think he would have thrown Nature Boy into an unquenchable fire.

Separating the wheat from the chaff though, is often thought of as sorting out the good people from the bad. That can leave you with an image of a scary, judgmental Jesus with a pitchfork in hand, using it to toss people in the air and then burning the ones who land in the wrong pile. Some people would like to see separating wheat from chaff that way and of course they’re pretty sure they know who’s going to land in which pile, who’s the wheat and who’s the chaff.

The trouble with all that is that this is John the Baptist, so what he’s talking about is baptism. A more hopeful and a more helpful way to imagine this baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is to think of it more personally as separating the good from the bad within ourselves. That kind of separation is what repentance is and repentance is what John the Baptist talked about more than anything else. The one who John announces, Jesus, will take all the stuff of our lives, the stuff that constitutes who we are, he’ll take it all and toss it in the air allowing the wind of the Spirit to blow away those things that keep us from being who God would have us be.

This kind of winnowing is a good way to think about what baptism represents. It gets at why remembrance of baptism is important because while baptism only happens once and most of us don’t remember the event itself, it is something that we are called to live out for the rest of our life. The order of confession and forgiveness that we use pretty much every week is another baptismal reminder as we call on God to continue this process of winnowing, helping us to grow in God’s image, enabling us to come closer to being who God would have us be.

Today though, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, the Baptism of Jesus who already was who God wanted him to be. For him, no threshing and winnowing was necessary. The question then is, if Jesus didn’t have to be cleansed from sin, if he wasn’t called to repentance, why was he baptized? One answer that is given is that it was part of Jesus’ self-emptying meaning that while he was fully divine, in his earthly existence he emptied himself of that divine nature in order to fully identify with humanity. As part of that self-emptying, he joined the crowds being baptized by John.

Another answer says that in this story we get a revelation of the Trinity with Jesus, the Son, present as he is baptized, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of the Father announcing, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” With that revelation and that announcement, a new period in Jesus’ life begins; his journey to the cross begins.

The best explanation for Jesus’ baptism though is reflected in the hymn that we’ll sing in a couple of minutes: Christ, When For Us You Were Baptized; “for us” is the key. John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers emphasized that Jesus was not in need of baptism but that “baptism needed the power of Christ.” Other church fathers echo what he said so church tradition says that the water of baptism didn’t make Jesus holy, but that he made the water holy, for us.

Martin Luther expresses the same idea in the catechism when he answers the question of how water can bring about forgiveness of sins, redeem from death and the devil and grant eternal salvation. He says, “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water.” For Luther, Christ is present in the word and therefore is present and active in the water, again, for us.

We’re a couple of weeks into a New Year but I don’t think it’s too late to make resolutions. Perhaps together we can resolve to do better at remembering our baptism and what it represents. Touch the water in the font as you enter or leave church and remember the gift of baptism, a gift by which you are forgiven, a gift by which, by God’s grace, you are made holy, a child of God.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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