January 13, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’”
The Lord’s people Israel heard many statements about who they were and their relationship to Him. These statements revealed their identity, their special status that no other groups of individuals possessed. At the heart of those statements were descriptions about the Lord’s actions that He had done for them. From the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, the Lord had summoned Abram to become a patriarch of a nation. Out of all the nations of the world, the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and made them great. The Lord had prospered Israel, so that it was a prominent kingdom among the Ancient Near Eastern civilizations. And why had this taken place? Because the Lord desired it. It was well-pleasing to Him. His love and favor had been shown.
These descriptions of what the Lord had done for them are what the Israelites were always to keep foremost in their mind. What the Lord said and did was to become the heart of their faith, the bedrock on which they would establish their trust. Without the Lord’s acts, the people would become nothing. They would be left abandoned. They would have no hope. That is why even in the midst of Israel’s apostasy and falling away from faith, the Lord would send prophets to speak again, exhorting them to remember their identity as the nation that the Lord brought into being, the people of promise.
This is the background for Isaiah’s statements that the Israelites heard centuries ago, the same words that you heard this morning. Speaking prophetically about the nation that would be exiled to Babylon and Persia, Isaiah reveals the Lord’s promise to them: “But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.’” The Lord states again that He had called the Israelites to be His. The people are called back to faith in the Lord who had brought them into being. As they would put their trust in Him and His promises, they would even endure centuries of exile away from their land.
In fact, the Lord makes a promise for His people concerning what He will do for them: “I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring My sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made.” The Lord promises that He will ransom and deliver His people. He will put their exile to an end, even giving up other nations for them. That is the extent of the Lord’s love and favor for His people. That is how far the Lord will go for them, even for people who had been disobedient, who had doubted His promises, who had chased after other gods.
What is set forth in these promises to exiled Israel is how the Lord who is gracious and merciful acts. His statement about giving a ransom for people reveals how He operates: “Because you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” That is His character put into action. It leads to the giving of a ransom for all people to deliver them out of their separation and banishment. But the Lord does not stop at giving nations in exchange for Israel. No, that will not do when speaking about redemption for the world. Instead, what is given is even greater, more precious. The ransom is what steps into the Jordan River and picks up the sins of the world to bear on His shoulders.
The Lord looks at the world and sees its problems. He sees it at enmity with Him, separated by the boundary between holiness and imperfection, righteousness and iniquity. He views the world caught up in the slavery and bondage of sin and death. Your own contributions to your plight are noted by Him: each time that you have violated His commands, every instance where you have doubted anything that He had said, all your chasing after other gods or making yourself supreme in your lives.
And yet, the Lord says to you: “Because you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give a Man in return for you, a Person in exchange for your life.” And who is this Man? Who is this Person? It is Jesus who was baptized for you: “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’” That is your ransom.
So what does this beloved and well-pleasing Son do? He does not stay wading in the Jordan River. Instead, He walks out of it to take up a mission of rescue and redemption. It is what you will hear for the next 12 weeks, as the Church Year progresses through Epiphanytide to Lent to Holy Week and Easter. But you need not wait another day to hear it. No, it was heard this morning in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Death and resurrection: that is what the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God does for you. Death and resurrection: those are the acts performed on your behalf because you are precious in the Lord’s eyes, honored and loved.
So the Lord incorporates you into the ransoming act that has been carried out for you. That is what Holy Baptism does. As you step into the baptismal waters, you are brought into union with Christ. You are linked with Him. You enter into a covenant with Him that establishes a new relationship. For now you are no longer independent, allowed to set and determine your own destiny. Neither are you abandoned, left to fend for yourself. No, you have something different, a special status. The Lord says to you: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine.” That is the identity that is bestowed upon you.
The incorporation into the Christ’s death and resurrection performed for you effects a change in you. This is what being baptized brings about: “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” The old life is over; a new life has begun. It is similar to how Abram was summoned to become Abraham, the Great Patriarch. Or how Israel was delivered from slavery by the Exodus through the Red Sea to become a free people. Or how the people were prospered by the Lord’s care. The change is made for you, as the Lord’s voice thunders over the baptismal waters and places His name on you. Now you are His. Now you are His people, those whom He strengthens and blesses with peace and pardon.
That is the new identity that the Lord has bestowed upon you. He has created and formed you. He has redeemed you. He has called you by name. He has made you His. It was good and well-pleasing to the Lord to do this for your benefit. That is what being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection has accomplished for you. Like the beloved and well-pleasing Son, you have died and risen. You are no longer enslaved to sin. No, you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Having the Holy Spirit poured out upon you, your desire is to follow the way of life that the Lord has established for you, to faithfully keep His covenant, to be well-pleasing to Him in what you think, say, and do.
The Lord’s love and favor have been shown to you. He calls you to place your trust in His acts and promises. That is what happens as you put your faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Likewise, you rely on what Christ says to you about how He distributes His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is why you believe that baptism actually accomplishes something for you, as well as the pronouncement of absolution and the eating of the Eucharist.
Your trust in the Lord’s acts and promises is also why you place your hope in the Lord’s statement concerning a final gathering of His people: “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made.” Resurrection awaits you and everyone who has been baptized and trusts the divine promises made in it: “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” This is your destiny, your end that the Lord established for you. It is your special status, an identity that no other group possesses. And it is all because you are precious in the Lord’s eyes, loved and honored by Him, having His beloved and well-pleasing Son given in ransom for you.