Taking hold of the promise

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Baptism & The Promise of God

Baptism as spiritual journey

Last Sunday we began our Lenten reflection on Baptism – and we were fortunate enough to be able to begin by celebrating the rite of baptism for Sam and Teddy’s daughter, Madeline. It was wonderful for us to begin our series on Baptism with the images and words of baptism before us.

I started last week with my story about spending what seemed like a whole day wandering through the Smithsonian only to discover I had seen only one small part and noted that baptism was like this. There are riches here that can occupy us for a long time. I’ve divided them into five for this Lenten season: 1) Baptism & the Human Spiritual Journey – which we did last week; 2) Baptism & the Promise of God – that’s our theme for today; 3) Baptism & the Breath of God – about the gift of the Holy Spirit; 4) Baptized into One Body – the fact that baptism makes us part of a community, the body of Christ; and finally 5) Baptized for the Sake of the World – that baptism calls us into the mission of God in the world.

This is where we are going: Baptism as spiritual journey, baptism as promise, the gift of the Spirit, being joined to the body of Christ, and being sent to do grace to the world.

We spoke last week of this fundamental character of baptism as dying and rising with Christ. I told the story of the baptism of an infant where the pastor plunged the child beneath the water. However safe that may have been, it still was startling and scary. We talked about this baptismal imagery of drowning and being brought back to life and the fundamental promise of God to recreate us, to turn us from our self-centered selves and bring us into our true humanity, into the image of Christ.

I get a laugh from new parents every time I say this: An infant knows only it’s own needs; it’s not able to say, “I’m hungry but Mom is tired, I think I’ll wait.” An infant cannot care about the needs of others. There is no shame in this. It is the way we are born. But when your 26 or 42 or 65 and all you think about is yourself then something is deeply wrong. That’s not what we were meant to be. That’s not the fullness of our humanity.

And this is important: the fullness of our humanity is not to be a little less selfish and a little more generous it is to be transformed in the very core of our being. We raise our children and teach them to restrain their more selfish impulses. We teach them not to hit, and to share, and to do their chores. But creating a pure heart in them – that comes from somewhere outside ourselves. That is the work of God. And God’s promise to work that work in us is a life-long promise. It is not just a work in children. It is work that happens all through life. We shouldn’t let ourselves imagine that at a certain age we can stop growing in grace. Every stage of life has new lessons to teach us – or new opportunities for us to learn – what it means to truly love God and love one another.

When we say this baptismal work of God in us is a life-long journey we are also recognizing the truth that we cannot fully escape our brokenness until we are recreated in the resurrection. This takes us into uncharted territory. We can only talk about the age to come with metaphors drawn from our experience now. So we talk about things like the lion lying down with the lamb or a New Jerusalem living in continual light, but they are moving but imperfect metaphors. Still, the promise abides that our physical death will be the final death of all our brokenness and God will raise us into perfect life.

Martin Luther has this delicious expression that the “old Adam” – our sinful self – is drowned in baptism, but the dead body keep floating to the surface. The day will come when our brokenness is forever defeated. This is a lifelong journey, but it is not an endless one. It has its end in God.

Yet we must be careful; the promise that Christ will be made perfect in us in that day to come doesn’t take away our responsibility – or God’s promise – for Christ to be formed in us on this day.

I think the struggle we are having in our country right now is a spiritual one. What is my obligation to my neighbor? What is my responsibility to my community? Are we to be like Cain who rebuffed God’s question saying: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or are we going to take up the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves? Is the Good Samaritan a hero, going above and beyond what’s expected, or is the Good Samaritan a witness to our true humanity? An example of what we all should be?

If money is a measure of value, why does a hedge fund manager make millions and get special tax breaks rather than the firefighter whose own house burned down as he fought the fire that threatened the whole city? I don’t want to argue the economics of this; I just want to ask the question about the spiritual truth it reflects.

The Biblical witness is that our true and lasting and eternal humanity is found in dying and rising with Christ, in being turned outward from our innate self-concern to true compassion and care for others. It is not an easy journey. But it is our essential journey.

The Catechism on Baptism

In the back of your bulletin is the text of Luther’s Small Catechism on Baptism. It’s not long. Luther asks four simple questions: “What is baptism?” “What benefits does God give in Baptism?” “How can water do such great things?” And, “What does Baptism mean for daily life?”

The answers Luther gives are similarly simple – though quite profound:

Baptism is not water only, but it is water used together with God’s Word and by his command.

In baptism God forgives sin, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe what he has promised.

It is not the water that does these things, but God’s Word with the water and our trust in this Word.

And, with respect to what baptism means for daily life:

It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.

The living Word

The part of this brief explanation in the catechism that I want to highlight today is that baptism “is not water only,” but water with the word, and “It is not the water that does these things, but God’s Word with the water and our trust in this Word.”

Baptism is water joined with God’s word. And when we say “God’s word” we don’t mean some specific Bible verse, we mean it is joined with God’s promise, with the breadth and depth and heart of God’s speech to us. We are talking about that living voice of God that says: “You are mine,” “You are loved,” “You are chosen,” You are sent.”

We are talking about the living voice of God that called forth the universe and declared all things good.

We are talking about that living voice of God that spoke through Moses to set a people free from bondage and taught them God’s will that they be a just and faithful community.

We are talking about that living voice of God that spoke through the prophets to call the people to faithfulness and proclaimed God’s faithfulness.

We are talking about that living voice of God that was present to the world in Jesus to heal the sick and welcome the outcast and forgive sinners.

We are talking about that living voice of God that encounters us now through the scriptures and in the font and at the table to heal and forgive, to unite and to send.

It is not some individual Bible passage that is attached to the water, but God’s promise to save.

This living voice, this promise of God, is joined with the water to make it visible and tangible, something we can see and feel. That’s the definition of a sacrament: a sacrament is something with the clear command of Christ and an outward, visible sign. Many things are holy. Many things bear witness to God’s redeeming love. But these two have Gods clear command and promise plus visible elements: water, and bread and wine.

So this is what we mean by baptism: water, used by God’s command, and joined with God’s Word, God’s promise, God’s living voice that wraps us in love and mercy and binds us to Christ in his death and resurrection. Water by itself is just water. Rituals by themselves are just rituals. But joined to God’s promise it becomes truly life giving and life changing. It becomes a holy baptism

A promise to be trusted

A promise spoken, however, must be heard and trusted. I can say to my daughter “I will pick you up after school,” but if she doesn’t trust that promise, she won’t be waiting, and there will be no ride home together. I can say to my wife, “I’ll pick up milk on my way home,” but if she doesn’t trust me to do it, we end up with two gallons of milk in the refrigerator.

Most of our promises are pretty frail and so we learn not to trust them – at least, not to trust them completely. But God’s promise is not frail. It is worthy of our trust.

Trust takes hold of the promise and allows the promise to be effective in our lives. If God here promises to forgive us, but we do not trust that promise, then are hearts are not set free. Then the guilt remains. Or the guilt gets shoved aside and our hearts turn cold and hard. Baptism contains a great and precious promise. But it is our trust in and fidelity to that promise that makes the promise powerful in our lives.

Baptism isn’t magic. It doesn’t work just because we said the magic formula and did the prescribed actions. It is a promise. And this promise stands whether we trust it or not. The promise remains valid even if we don’t turn to it until we’re at our deathbed. But without trust, the promise can bear no fruit in our lives. It cannot create in us God’s peace, hope, joy and love. Unless we trust the promise it cannot free us from fear and shame. Unless we trust the promise, it cannot free us to love God and neighbor.

This is why we keep going back to the font for the confession at the beginning of the worship service. Here we set again before the promise. Here this living voice of God encounters us to say: “You are mine. I have washed you. I have joined you to Christ. I have lifted away the burden of all your sins. I have breathed my Spirit upon you. I have released you to go and live my mercy in the world.”

We can’t will ourselves into trusting God’s promise. Trust isn’t created that way.   But what we can do is keep coming back again and again to hear the promise because, each time we hear it, we dare to trust it a little more.

“You are mine. I have washed you. I have brought you to my table. I have joined you to Christ. I have lifted away the burden of all your sins. I have breathed my Spirit upon you. I have released you to go and live my mercy in the world.”


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