When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-17
If there is one thing we can all probably agree on, it is that life can sometimes be stressful. Stress, as we all know, is not good for us. So there are a lot of suggestions online for what to do when we are stressed. There are lots of practical things that we can do to create comfort in our life. But it’s a little different for us all. For you, it might mean going for a walk, or listening to music, or reading a book, or working on a puzzle. It might mean spending time in prayer or meditation. It might mean being here right now, being reminded of God’s love and care for you, and returning that love through worship.
But what brings us comfort can be different at different times in life. And the one that is at the top of our list might even change over time as well. When we are sad or stressed, when things are not going well in our life, what is our greatest source of comfort? What is at the top of the list?
For Martin Luther, this was actually an easy question to answer. He had one source of comfort above them all. It wasn’t prayer, as important as that was to him. It wasn’t his family, or evenings with his friends, as important as all of that was. It wasn’t even his faith. For Luther, there was one thing that he could always count on, and that was his baptism.
Martin Luther famously said that “there is no greater comfort on earth than baptism.” Not faith, or family, or church. Not the Bible. Not prayer. Baptism. And we who call ourselves Lutherans continue to claim baptism as our greatest comfort on earth. Remembering our baptism is something that can always bring us great comfort. And it is something that we do today, on the day that we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord.
Luther described baptism as the greatest jewel that adorns our body and our soul. He said that: “In baptism, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life.” And Luther said that there is no better place to turn when we need comfort than to our baptisms. So, today, I thought I would reflect with you on why baptism is so important to us, and why it is our greatest comfort as Christians. And I will do this by looking at the baptism of our Lord.
The Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)
Today is a festival in the church, the day we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. And it is an important festival. It comes right after the Christmas season, and it begins what is known as Jesus’ “public ministry.” Before Jesus began to preach and teach, he first was baptized.
But we might wonder why – why was Jesus baptized? In fact, we should wonder about that. Why did God’s only son, who was without sin, even need to be baptized? John the Baptist certainly wondered that. He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”
So, even before we think about what Jesus’ baptism means, we must ask why he was baptized at all. And the first answer is that Jesus was baptized for us. Just as Jesus was born for us, and was crucified and died for us, he also chose to be baptized for us. In our baptism, we are cleansed of our sin and made one with Christ. When Jesus was baptized, he took on our sin and became one with us. He was baptized for us.
But Jesus was also baptized to teach us something about our baptism. His baptism teaches us about our baptisms. There were three significant things that happened when Jesus was baptized. And each of these things teach us something important about our own baptisms. And together, they offer us one way of answering our question: why is there no greater comfort on earth than baptism?
The Heavens Were Opened
The first thing we learn is that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened to him. Now, it’s true that the heavens were already opened for Jesus. He came from heaven, after all. But this event teaches us that in our baptisms into Jesus, heaven is also opened to us. The gates of heaven were opened to Jesus in his baptism. And he opens those same gates of heaven to us in our baptisms.
We live in a world that is terrified of death, that will do almost anything to delay death for even just a little while. This fear of death can even take the joy out of life. We might have every other comfort that this world has to offer, but death still looms at the end. And this is the first reason why baptism is of such great comfort to us. It opens heaven to us. It kills death, the last great enemy. It reminds us that we are now united to Christ, and nothing in all creation can separate us from Jesus or his love.
Baptism doesn’t take away the fear of death completely, perhaps. But that fear no longer consumes us. When we are afraid, we need only remember our baptism into Christ, and remember that, in baptism, the gates of heaven have been thrown open to us. Can there be a greater comfort than that?
The Spirit of God Descended Upon Him
When the heavens were opened to Jesus, something else happened: He saw the Spirit of God descending upon him. And that, again, teaches us something important about our baptism. When we are baptized we, too, are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who unites the Father and the Son, also unites all us with the Father and the Son. We are no longer alone, ever. God is with us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised us that he would give us the Holy Spirit, and in our baptisms, he fulfills that promise. The Holy Spirit is the way that Jesus fulfills his promise to be with us always.
We live in a world that is consumed not just with fear of death, but also with the fear of being alone. When we are afraid of being alone, we need only remember our baptisms; remember that when we were baptized, we were united with Jesus, and given the Holy Spirit. We will never be alone again. Can there be a greater comfort than that?
This Is My Son, the Beloved …
But a third thing happens when Jesus is baptized. The heavens are opened to him, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And, yes, because of our baptisms into Christ, God now looks at each of us and says, “This is my daughter, this is my son, a baptized child of mine; this is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And isn’t that an amazing thought? When God looks at us he sees an image of his beloved son. He is well pleased with us, not because of anything we have done, mind you, but because of what Christ has done for us. And that is good news. Because it means that there is nothing we can do to take that away, either.
We as Christians are sometimes afraid that we have disappointed God. Concerned, perhaps, that we have done something that God cannot forgive. When we feel that way, we need only remember our baptisms. Because in our baptisms we have been united with Jesus, and made beloved children of God. And now, when God looks at us, He sees nothing but a child of his, whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased. Can there be a greater comfort than that?
Receiving the Gift of Baptism
There is no greater comfort on earth than baptism. Why? Because all that happened when Jesus was baptized also happens when we are baptized into Jesus. In our baptism: The gates of Heaven are opened to us. The Holy Spirit is given to us. And we are told that we are now God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.
But to be of comfort, the gift of baptism must be received. And it is received through faith. Without faith, Luther once said, baptism is of no use. Faith is how we receive the wonderful gift of baptism. And faith is how we are brought into the relationship that baptism describes. Think of the first followers of Jesus. Jesus called them, but the call is pointless if they do not respond, if they don’t answer the call. In baptism, we are called by Jesus. But that call is also pointless if we do not respond. That’s why, when we baptize a baby, the promises that the parents make are so important: So the child comes to believe. And that’s why confirmation is so important, because that is when that child affirms their baptism. Baptism is God’s greatest gift to us, and our greatest comfort. But it is a gift that is received through faith.
One way to remember our baptism, and affirm its gift to us, is by affirming our baptisms. When we do that, we profess our faith and agree to continue in the covenant God made with us in baptism. So, after the hymn that we are about to sing, and in place of the Creed today, I am going to invite all of us to do that, to affirm our baptisms (ELW page 235). This is one way for us to respond in faith to the gift of baptism.
As Lutherans we do not re-baptize. We believe that re-baptizing would lead us to question whether we are really baptized or not. And this would take away the great comfort that baptism gives us. Instead, we affirm our baptisms. And that’s what we are getting ready to do. An analogy to this is the covenant of marriage. We don’t remarry someone we are already married to; but we might affirm our marriage vows, particularly on significant occasions. We can do that with our baptisms. And today is a perfect day to do that, when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord.
Today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we remember that through our baptisms, we, too: have become beloved children of God; have had the gates of heaven thrown wide open to us; and have had the Holy Spirit given to us. And, when you think about it that way, Martin Luther was right: there truly is no greater comfort on earth than the gift of our baptism into Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.