Rev. Matthew Zickler’s Sermon for January 8, 2017

January 8, 2017
Matthew 3:13-17

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This morning we meditate on Baptism and the Baptism of our Lord in the Gospel Lesson just read.

Baptism means death.  That being said, when we consider death, we should do so appropriately.  In our time, this often isn’t the case.  By that I mean we often consider death just a part of this life, a part of the “Circle of Life,” so to speak.  Because of that we have many who are pushing for things like physician-assisted suicide, or the legalization of Euthanasia.  Why wouldn’t we?  For most of us, the assumption is that the suffering in this life is merely a mild inconvenience until we might be freed from it, and taken to a better place.  In fact, in light of this, euthanasia was legalized in the state or Washington while Jessica and I were in Seattle during my vicarage year.  Death was seen as something that should be handled with dignity; or rather someone shouldn’t have to endure the lack of dignity that death inherently brings, speed bump in life that it is.

Just this week, I read an article about a man in San Francisco who started facility called Zen Hospice which is a home you could say specifically for hospice care.  Now to be fair, I did start reading the article because I thought that this man would be commended in it for advocating euthanasia, something he fortunately didn’t make mention of.  And I was in fact pleased at a number of things that the home does.  They do a lot of things that take away the sterile, clinical aspects of hospice care, and replaces them with things that are more personal– for example they let the person come and go as they please, as long as someone is with them.  They let family and friends in at any time.  They let the person make the room they occupy their own, and numerous other things.  Additionally, the caring that this man and the facility exhibit in that process should be commended.  However, as I read the article, there were a couple of things that struck me.

In fact, two things struck me in particular.  The first was at the heart of the article.  As you can imagine, the large majority of the residents of this home for hospice care are older.  They tend to be people who have lived a relatively long life, and who have at an older age contracted a condition which will be ultimately be terminal.  However, there was one resident who came at the young age of 27.  This was striking.  It was striking because the reaction to this is that it shouldn’t happen.  This young man should have many vibrant years ahead of him.  So, when he died, it created a ripple within the community at Zen.  It was something that was hard to stomach, as it likely would be for many of us.

The other thing that struck me was that as this young man was preparing for his death, the one thing mentioned that the people at the Zen house wanted to ensure was that in his last days, this man (along with all of their residents) was able to maintain that which he saw as the essence of himself.

Now you might ask why I found these two things so striking.  And from a human perspective these seem very normal things: of course, the death of a 27 year old is shocking; of course someone will appreciate being able to maintain the essence of who they have found themselves to be in the midst of death.  But we have to think of things from a theological perspective.

So, what is that?  First of all, the death of a 27 year shouldn’t be shocking.  Thankfully, by the grace of God it’s relatively abnormal, but it shouldn’t be shocking.  In fact, as brutal as it is to stand over the grave of a stillborn child, something I’ve done more than once, even that shouldn’t be shocking.  This is death.  This is what sin brings.  This is the wages of sin!

Secondly, why is the desire to maintain one’s essence striking?  Well, you see this is what we want as sinners.  We want to maintain our identity as individuals.  Now I will try to be very clear here.  God has truly made each of us individual.  He has blessed each of us with certain gifts, and under the curse of the fall we each have weaknesses that are unique.  But what is our identity to be?

Well, as we ask these questions, we can then connect this to baptism.  Baptism means death.  It means death for Jesus.  Look at what Jesus says as He comes to John the Baptist.  He comes from Galilee to the River Jordan.  He walks up to John as asks to be baptized.  Of course, John balks at this.  And you can understand why, can’t you?  You can see why Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”  But how does Jesus respond?  But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’”  He says, “It’s OK, John, we have to do this.”  He’s saying, “It’s OK, John, we have to do this for everything to be right.”  Now, I wrestled with that for years.  What does it mean to “fulfill all righteousness?”  Does this mean that Jesus has to do this to be perfectly obedient to God?  Well sure, there’s that aspect to it.  Jesus has to do everything in His life according to that perfect obedience to God.  And is that obedience to give us the example that we too need baptism?  Well, I suppose we could say that’s part of it, because Jesus is always the perfect example.  But there’s any even greater part of this.  And that part is twofold.

First of all, when we see that this baptism is about repentance, about confessing one’s sins, what is Jesus implicitly saying by being baptized?  He’s saying that He stands with sinners, isn’t He?  If He is standing under that baptism of repentance, He is standing with all of those sinners who also stand under that baptism.  That’s first, He’s standing with sinners.  He’s numbered with sinners like we just sang in the hymn.  Second, and in conjunction with standing with sinners, this baptism fulfills all righteousness because for Jesus baptism means death.  Jesus asks the disciples in Mark, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And He says this knowing that this baptism is His death, as He says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Baptism means death for Jesus, because He knows that it means that as He is numbered with sinners in that baptism, then He will have to bear the curse of that sin, that wage of that sin.  As Jesus is numbered with sinners in baptism, it means that He will have to carry that sin in His body to the cross, and there He will have to suffer for it, bleeding and dying as that sin requires.  In that death Jesus will fulfill all righteousness.

Yes, as we look at the world and see death as something that happens at a certain age, as we see it as something which is a natural part of life to be approached with dignity and welcomed, as we are shocked at the death of a 27-year-old, or a stillborn baby, Jesus didn’t see this as shocking at all.  He saw it for exactly what it was: the heart-breaking curse of our sin.  And as He was buried in those waters of the Jordan, He took that sin and made it His own.  He took every one of your sins washed from you in baptism and placed them on Himself in those waters to carry them for you.  To bear the death that they deserved for you.  Yes, for Jesus baptism means death.

Of course, something else extraordinary happened in that baptism.  As Jesus came out of those waters, “behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Just as baptism meant death for Jesus, it also showed forth life.

Just as Jesus rose out of those waters, so also, He rose from the grave, and He showed that sin was forgiven.  All the more, as He rose out of those waters, He saw the Spirit given to Him.  The same Spirit that He would give to His Church after His resurrection.  That same Spirit that is given to His people in Baptism.  After Jesus was raised, Peter preached on Pentecost and told the people to be baptized and in that baptism to receive the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus received that Spirit in His baptism, so He gave Him to you in yours.  You see, for Jesus baptism means death, but for you Baptism means life.

Luther said it this way, “To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save. No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to ‘be saved.’  To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.”  For Jesus baptism meant death, but for you by His resurrection, Baptism means salvation.  It means that you are taken from the realm of sin, out of the reign of death, out of the dominion of the devil, and you are made the Lord’s.

To tie this to the story of the Zen Hospice, it means that as you face death you don’t have an identity that you have to discover in yourself to find your essence.  No, it means that you have an identity: you are the Lord’s.  The Lord’s Spirit has been given to you.  Now you don’t revel in death, you don’t revel in sin, in drunkenness, or lust, or greed or debauchery.  You don’t revel in power or glory in hate.  No, your identity is as a Christian.  This isn’t always easy, in fact it never is: that sinful nature is a strong swimmer – but this baptism signifies that Christ has won the victory for you.  As Luther says, it signifies, “that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

This is your identity.  In fact, to close I’d like to illustrate that identity with an analogy from the Toy Story movies.  Now we have a number of people here who likely know that movie well.  It’s about toys who belong to a boy named Andy, and who come to life when no one is around.  In fact, these toys are loyal to Andy, Andy after all has put his name on them, under their foot.  In Toy Story 2, though, one of the toys Woody, is taken from Andy to be sold to a museum at great value.  At a point, Woody even comes to like the idea after he is painted over to look nice, even having Andy’s name covered.  Well, the other toys come to rescue Woody, reminding him that he doesn’t belong in a museum, as happy as that might make him.  No Woody belongs to Andy, and is there to be Andy’s.  At first Woody refuses to go back, but then he looks under his foot, scrapes the paint off, and realizes that is His identity.  He belongs to Andy.  Christians this is you, you belong to God by virtue of your baptism.  For you baptism means life.

For Jesus baptism meant death, but for you it means life.  It means life in the midst of this world of death.  It means identity freed from sin in this world of sin.  It means death to your sinful nature and life to your new Adam in Christ.  And as we see this world which doesn’t know how to handle death, that is exactly what we all need.  Amen.

Rev. Matthew Zickler