Note: I preached this sermon on March 22, 2015 at Messiah Lutheran Church.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s fair to say, and it’s no secret either, that this was not a banner week at the Dueholm parsonage. Elijah had been sick for a while, and on Tuesday and Thursday he had to stay home with me. Or more to the point, I had to stay home with him. And he wasn’t the kind of sick where he sleeps all the time, either. I kept thinking, “Well, I can do some emailing and stuff while I’m home.” Or: “He’ll take a nap eventually and then I can write my sermon.”
It will come as no surprise that every time I tried to turn my attention to the computer and my correspondence, there he was, wanting to get my arm around him. And every time I tried to focus on my sermon, there he would be, wanting to sit and jabber away with me.
And you know, it’s funny how you get in these situations, isn’t it?
“Listen here, little man, Daddy has to preach the word of God and do important pastor stuff and why are you showing me your water bottle and practicing your new words? WHEN am I supposed to write this sermon?” And you think to yourself, oh this is impossible. Anyone ever think that? Sick kid, work to do, home to take care of? Oh, this is impossible.
I’m going to talk a little bit about impossibility in connection with the great act of God that we hear about today. As you will recall, we have been hearing about the great acts of God that are recounted in our baptismal liturgy, mostly in the great prayer over the water that we say when we are about to baptize a new Christian:
We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight.
Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom.
At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.
Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life. To you be given honor and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Today we’re talking about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. This is one of those odd things that doesn’t seem as important as we make it out to be at first. What’s the big deal with Jesus being baptized? I’ve been baptized, you’ve been baptized, what’s the story?
Here’s why it’s important: The story of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River is the story of how baptism got connected to the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist was not the first person to baptize folk. Baptism was a ritual in Judaism and in other religions at the time. In our first reading today we hear about Paul coming upon disciples of John. They had been baptized by John, they say. John preached a baptism of repentance, that is, of changing your mind. It was a way to be forgiven of your sins and to devote yourself to God in a new way.
And that was common in baptism practices, then and now. It was like crossing a river, or being washed of the dirt of your former self, or being drowned and saved. That’s still part of what we say God does with baptism—forgive sins and raise us to eternal life.
So anyway, these followers of John say, “yeah, we’ve been baptized with John’s baptism.”
And Paul says, “Well John just baptized for repentance, but we know the one who was to come after him—Jesus.”
So he baptizes them into Jesus, and as he does the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
Now I don’t want to gloss over that moment with the tongues and the prophesies. I don’t really get what tongues are all about, to be honest. And I’m never quite sure what the word “prophesy” means in the New Testament. But what I love about this is that it’s strange. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s something beyond our normal human experience.
And that is the surest sign of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is all about impossibility. The Holy Spirit is all about giving us gifts we do not even know how to receive. The Holy Spirit shows us things we don’t know how to see. The Holy Spirit works things in us that we don’t know could ever be done. The Holy Spirit speaks in words we didn’t know existed. Sometimes this looks and sounds a little weird to some of us. It does to me. I don’t really get the whole Pentecostal thing with the tongues, but God bless it! Thank God someone is caught in this way, reminding us that God does stuff we can’t expect or understand!
When Martin Luther set out to explain what the Holy Spirit is, he wrote something I think is pretty profound:
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”
And this sounds kind of strange to us today, perhaps. But for Luther, salvation was a human impossibility. Every road we could choose would take us away from God. You can ignore God and go from bad to worse, or you can try to please God and only learn pride, or become more painfully aware of your own failings. And it’s all hopeless, except that God makes the impossible, possible. God gives his Holy Spirit to me so that I may believe things that are beyond my own power to believe. So that I can come to a Jesus I cannot recognize on my own. And every little bit of faith I have is the gift of this Spirit. It’s not something I could have ever gone out and found for myself, however small it feels.
And that’s the pattern of Christian life, over and over again, as far as I can tell. Somehow we manage to accept that bad, vicious people are God’s beloved children, too. Somehow we trust that our own failures and sin and struggles to believe do not separate us from God. Somehow we get the idea that our life really is like that grain that Jesus mentions today, which falls and is buried but which bears astonishing fruit. How could the grain picture the plant with all its fruit? How can any of us imagine what God has in store for us?
The answer, as best as I can say, is that God wishes to show us. And that showing is the footprint of the Holy Spirit. It descended on Jesus at his baptism, when the sky opened, and the voice spoke to him and said—not, “you are new,” or “good repentance there,” but “You are my son, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”