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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord - 1/7/07

Jesus’ baptism was different, unlike my baptism or yours or anyone’s.  When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan there was already a Jewish version of baptism but it was connected to the ritual system, a cleansing from bodily impurities which made one ritually unclean.  That’s not what was going on with Jesus.  There was the baptism that John the Baptist himself proclaimed which was for repentance and forgiveness of sins, which Jesus didn’t need.  There is baptism as we understand it now which is for the forgiveness of sins and also the time when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus also didn’t need with our Trinitarian understanding of him being one with the Holy Spirit.

Based on all that you would have to say that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized and I think that’s true.  That is, he didn’t need to be baptized for him, at least not in any of the usual ways that we think about it…but he did have to be baptized for us because his baptism is an epiphany!   It is different!  It’s a manifestation of who Jesus is and what he has come to do and we want to know that, we need to know that.  Most significantly, what his baptism makes known is that he walks into the waters with us and for us.  So it’s not for him; it’s for us.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you,” as today’s Isaiah text says.    

From the earliest years of Christianity, the baptism of Jesus has been the central event of the Epiphany season, in some respects given more significance than the celebration of the birth of Jesus or the coming of the wise men which we tend to think of as the central events of Christmas and Epiphany. But it was in Jesus’ baptism that his identity started to be made known to all people, not just a few shepherds or a few foreign dignitaries.  That, plus the Trinitarian nature of the event with the voice of the Father, the presence of the Son, Jesus and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove have made this an event that is marked in every church year.

For us though, apart from the theological and doctrinal significance of Jesus’ baptism, what is most important about this epiphany event is what is made known about Jesus as he relates to us and us to him, what it says about relationship.  Jesus didn’t come into the world to be holier than thou, aloof, separating himself from the sinful reality of humanity.  He came to be in relationship with the humanity he had assumed.  His life and his ministry reveal a gracious God who walks with sinners, into the water or wherever else we go, inviting outcasts and outsiders into the reality of his kingdom.  Jesus’ baptism is an epiphany, revealing a God who identifies with people who are sinful, broken, struggling to find their way, struggling with who they are.

When Jesus was baptized there was the voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  When each of us was baptized, I don’t think there was a voice from heaven, but there was a voice spoken over us declaring us children of God.  Do you ever think about that?  We probably don’t think about it as often as we should or we just pass it off as a religious nicety that doesn’t really mean anything.    Being a child of God is much more than a religious nicety.  It is our primary identity, one which has precedence over all of our other identities, real or imagined.

I was in seventh or eighth grade and my church had a retreat for teenagers.  This wasn’t just a couple of days of eating and playing games and watching movies, although as I recall, we did some of that;  but it was supposed to be some kind of formative, faith experience and maybe it was; I still remember parts of it anyway.  One of the leaders was Dr. Dick Brown, a member of the church, an obstetrician by profession, a feisty, stocky little guy, the kind that had to move around if he talked.  He began the first session of this retreat by asking, “Who are you?”  There was probably thirty or forty of us kids there and he started calling on people.  The first one answered by giving his name; “No, that’s not right,” Dr. Brown said, pacing up and down, hands shoved into his pockets.  He called on someone else and someone else and I don’t remember all the answers they gave, just that they were wrong so I was cowering in the back hoping he wouldn’t call on me because I had nothing. 

Finally he stopped and glared at us and said, “You are children of God!  You are children of God, and don’t ever forget it, and I guess I didn’t.  In baptism we become children of God.  I sometimes say that Christianity is a religion of being before it is a religion of doing.  You have to understand who you are, what your primary identity is before you can begin to sort out how to do it, how to live out that identity. 

Walter Brueggemann, who I talk about quite a lot because I think he has some insightful and prophetic ways of thinking about things, he says that baptism is our entry point into the counterscript, the alternative script of the Bible.  When we are baptized and made children of God it changes who we are and calls us to live according to the reality of the Bible, not the reality that dominates our world, what Brueggemann calls the dominant script where money and consumerism and military strength and technology and an eye for an eye are what rule, where the goal of those in power is to stay in power by convincing you that this is the way it has to be, that there is no other way.  Brueggemann acknowledges that we all buy into this dominant system because in many ways it serves us well and those of us who call ourselves Christians, children of God, convince ourselves that our ways are in line with the script of the Bible or we compartmentalize our faith as a Sunday morning thing that really doesn’t have much to do with the rest of life. 

I thought about all this when right at the end of December two formerly prominent world leaders died in rather different ways.  Saddam Hussein was executed, hung for crimes against his own people, a bad man, a tyrant who will not be missed.  Many would say that justice was done, that he got what he deserved.  In a lot of ways I agree with that; I certainly don’t mourn his loss.  His execution can be justified, but it is a dominant script solution.  It is not in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and try as we might and many do, we can’t make it fit, sorry.  It’s answering violence with more violence, death with more death and we say that’s the way it has to be, there is no other way. 

A couple of days before that, President Gerald Ford died.  I don’t think a cause of death was given but at 93 years old I think you could say, old age, natural causes, however you want to put it, quite different from an execution anyway.  In the past week or so he has been widely praised for his honesty and decency, the kind of person who is missed.

But what has also been said is that the defining moment of his presidency was his pardon of Richard Nixon.  80% of the people disapproved of the pardon and what many of the commentators have said is that the pardon is probably what caused Ford to lose the election in 1976.  What he was doing though, was acting according to the alternative script of the Bible which apparently was a part of who he was. 

Justice would have been to let the legal system work, put Nixon on trial, let him get what he deserves.  But President Ford said no.  What would it accomplish except to further humiliate an already broken man and drag the country through a long, divisive, unpleasant spectacle?  There was another way and that was the way Gerald Ford chose even though he had to know it would hurt him politically.  Grace is what we call it; it is in accordance with the teachings of Jesus which tell us that, thank God, we don’t get what we deserve.

There is another way and Jesus came to show it to us by living it.  In his baptism he also lets us know that he doesn’t just show us another way, he walks with us.  In our baptism we join him in this other way, walking together as children of God, beloved children of God.  


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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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”


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