Second Sunday In Advent December 9, 2023
“A Greater Baptism” Matthew 3:1-12
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Do you ever think back on things that you have done and you come to the conclusion that maybe you didn’t do it right? A money decision. A matter with one of the folks in your family or at work. And after thinking about it you think you could have done it better. Yeah? Me too.
The one that came to my mind recently happened about 25 years ago. I was teaching an adult confirmation class at my previous church and one of the guys in the class said that he wanted to be baptized. Great. So we started to talk about it. He told me that he had been baptized as an infant, and he had the certificate that confirms that fact, but he didn’t remember it and so he wanted to be baptized again so he could remember that important event.
I told him no. Though he didn’t remember it, he still was baptized, God did a great thing in calling him His child those many years ago, and I said he didn’t need to be baptized again.
I made a mistake that day. Not in saying that he didn’t need to be baptized again – I believe that God did His miracle even though when he was a child he wasn’t old enough to comprehend God’s great work. I believe that those words, “Fear not, I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1) are true in God’s gift of Baptism – no matter how old you are, no matter if you remember the event or not. But my mistake was not taking the time needed to listen to why he wanted to be baptized. Something must have been going on in his life for him to make that request. Maybe he grew up in the church, went to Sunday School and worship, maybe even got confirmed but then that all ended. Maybe an active faith was not part of his life. Maybe he had made some poor decisions, maybe he walked away from God, maybe his story and the story of the Prodigal Son were similar. But I never listened to find out what was happening in his life.
This is what I think, I think he wanted his Baptism to mean something. I bet you do too. I do. Baptism is a noun. Person, place or thing, right? But being baptized is a verb. It means something. It does something. In our reading from Matthew 3 we have a at least two different groups of people considering Baptism. John the Baptizer was baptizing tons of people. This is what he is telling them, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2) It tells of the response of these people, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Matthew 3:5-6) There was another group that was watching all of this, and I wonder if they too were going to go into that water. That group was the dastardly Pharisees and Sadducees. John told the conditions of getting into the water, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:7b-8)
Baptism has to mean something. Baptism is more than jumping into a river or a lake and having water cover you. Baptism is more than sprinkling water three times on the forehead of some unsuspecting baby. I think that guy asking to be rebaptized was asking for his baptism to mean something to him.
Baptism means repentance. You know what repentance is, right? It is a turning. It is a change. It means you are going one direction and you reverse your path and go the other way. You are heading toward darkness and you turn and head toward light. Listen to how some others have described it – Malcolm Muggeridge said that what he regretted the most in his life was not living out all of the opportunities that God had set before him during the times in his life. He wrote, “Let me tell you the worst thing that haunts me, it is that when I could have had the first rate, the very best, when that’s the thing that God wanted to give me, I took tenth rate.” (Confessions of a 20th Century Pilgrim) Repentance means that we have become discontent or dissatisfied with what we have become or what we have settled for. Dr. Norman Nagel speaks of repentance like this, “Repentance is the stripping away of everything that closes Jesus in, of everything that is unwilling to risk His being more for you.” Repentance means you want more in life. You don’t want to settle for 10th rate. You don’t want to limit what God wants to bring you. You want the fullness of God in your life. You want more of Him. Baptism is being immersed in Christ and all He wants to do in you and for you. Baptism brings you God’s salvation and then it strengthens the faith He began.
John was baptizing Jewish people – which I think was quite odd. Circumcision was their sacrament, it was the sign that they were the children of God, children of Abraham. After calling them to a true repentance John spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9) John insisted that there was a new start for all people – repentance and a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This new life didn’t come by genetics but by divine rescue.
But there was a greater Baptism and John knew it. He said of this, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11) Receiving God’s Holy Spirit in Baptism means that we are receiving God’s power. When Adam was created from the dust of the ground he had no life in him until God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) It wasn’t till God’s Spirit came that there was life. So it is for us in God’s greater Baptism. In Ezekiel 37 you have a similar picture from Genesis 2. In that book Ezekiel sees a valley filled with bones, dead dry bones. But then something from a horror movie begins to happen, bones start to attach to bones and the tendons connect them all together and flesh covers the insides but there is still no life. But God solves it. “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breath into those slain, that they may live.” “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet – a vast army.” (Ezekiel 37:9-10) Later, Ezekiel tells us what this breath was, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.” (Ezekiel 37:14a) God’s Spirit – God’s breath came and made them alive. John’s Baptism was good, Jesus’ was better. Like John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
All who are baptized are given God’s Holy Spirit. That is God’s power in our life. We want to know that our baptism means something. And it does!! Paul writes, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
Baptism is new life and it is new living. John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire. Purification. Cleansing. Baptism is not such a calm and mild action. Jesus is not such a calm and mild Lord. A philosopher named Diogenes said, “He who never offended anyone never did anyone any good.” The fire means a new way to live, a better way. Jesus directs us in such a way.
That conversation that I never had with that man 25 years ago is one that I regret not having. I could have learned about why he wanted to be baptized again. I could have learned what he wanted in Baptism.
And I could have sung the praises of Him – our Lord Jesus – who allows us to seek Him with true repentance and then He fills us with the Holy Spirit and the power of His word and directs us in the joy of being God’s baptized child.
I hope that you are thrilled that you have had God’s greater Baptism in your life. Amen!!
(This sermon was originally preached at Ascension on December 3-4, 2022.)