"A COVENANT AND A LIGHT"
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
"I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness."
Isaiah 42:6, 7 (ESV)
As we remember today the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River (which marks the initiation of the Lord's public ministry) we are reminded once again who He is. This was not the typical baptismal candidate who came to John. This was the Son of God Himself--the only One, in fact, who needed no Baptism--no repentance--no forgiveness of sins. The miraculous signs that accompanied His Baptism--the opening heavens, the descending of the Spirit in bodily form, and the voice of the Father--all bear witness to the identity and mission of the One being baptized. It is significant that the Father declares His love for His Son and says that He is "well pleased" (Luke 3:22) with Him before the Son completed (or had scarcely even begun) the work for which He came into the world. So confident is God that His Son will carry out His will that He places His stamp of approval on the Savior's work at the very beginning of that work--even as the purpose of that work is being defined.
It's no accident that we should remember our own Baptism on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord. There are some pretty strong parallels between the Baptism of Jesus and our Baptism. In both cases God the Father publicly claims the baptized as His own, declares His unconditional love for the baptized, and gives His blessing and approval on the life and ministry of the baptized. A look at Isaiah's prophecy concerning the life and ministry of the Messiah and the people of God will help us to understand both our Savior and our Baptism, since it tells us who Jesus is and what He came into the world to do. Because the Holy Spirit has united us with Jesus in Baptism, understanding these things about Him will give us a clearer insight into our own identity and purpose.
The Lord speaks through the prophet to say that His people (and specifically His Messiah) will be "a covenant for the people" and "a light for the nations." This says something about the Savior's relationship to His own people and to others as well. As "a Covenant for the people," He is the Fulfillment of everything ever promised to the chosen people of God--the Consummation of everything that God's people had ever hoped for. In Him they find their identity and in Him they experience the redeeming love of God. As "a Light for the nations" the Savior is the One who takes the grace of God beyond the borders of God's chosen nation and brings it to those in darkness so that they also might know and experience the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of everlasting life. The life and ministry of the Christ establishes and proclaims the glorious fact that sinners are reconciled to God not by their own works or by their ethnic heritage but by the grace of God put into action.
Because you and I have been baptized into Christ and are thereby united with Him in His death and resurrection, we also are to be "a covenant for the people " and "a light for the nations." As "a covenant for the people" we are called to encourage one another in faith and in good works--to affirm to one another, in word and deed, that we are one in faith and confession, in doctrine and practice, in worship and life. As "a light for the nations" we are called to be witnesses to those outside the fellowship of the Church. In every way possible we are to clearly bear witness to those who do not believe in Christ, in love pointing out to them the emptiness of their false beliefs and the futility of their well-intended works as well as proclaiming to them the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ, who came into the world to live and die and rise again not just for us but for all sinners in need of forgiveness--for all the spiritually dead in need of New Life.
This calling--Jesus' and ours--is always carried out in active service. The God who in love resolved to redeem His creatures from sin and death didn't just sit in His heaven contemplating it; He did something about it. He took on human flesh and blood and humbly lived our filthy life in our filthy world--not participating in our filth but taking it all upon Himself for our sake. He did all of the things that we do (with the notable exception of sinning). What's more, He did what we could never do: He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled the Law of God and then suffered the wrath of God incurred not by Him but by us. Perhaps even more amazing--even more incomprehensible to the human mind--is the fact that in the cross He used the hatred and violence of sinners to make atonement for those very sinners so that through faith in Him they might be spared from the ultimate consequences of their hatred and violence. He fulfilled perfectly the calling that He Himself described when He said: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
You and I have also been called to service--not to accomplish anyone's salvation, to be sure--but to bring the salvation that Christ has accomplished for all to those for whom He accomplished it. More often than not, this is a difficult, unpleasant, and even dangerous task. The world that we live in militates against the Gospel message. Those who we love and desire to help with this message are often so resistant to the Gospel that they attack us because of it. That should come as no big surprise to us who have been baptized into Him who went to the cross interceding for (and accomplishing) the forgiveness of His murderers. What we are called upon to suffer in order to bring the Gospel to those who are dying in their sins is nothing compared to the sacrifice already made by Him who lived and died the Gospel in the first place. Indeed, it is a great honor--an honor of which we are not worthy--to endure hardship in our service as the Spirit's instruments in bringing the Gospel to others, because in the hardship that we endure we are united with Christ in His sufferings.
In our Baptism God the Holy Spirit has said some pretty impressive things about us. He has said that we are the redeemed of the Lord--the ones who, having been cleansed by the blood of Christ and called through His means of grace, are about the business of living for Him who died for us. He has said that we are people of faith, for whom the Gospel of our Savior is such a high priority that we order our entire lives around it--that we are people of good works, who seek out and make use of every opportunity to glorify God by serving our neighbor--that we are His witnesses who, in everything that we say and do, share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet. That's an awfully big responsibility. Who could possibly live up to it? The Good News is that we can! Though we'll never live up to it perfectly in this life, even our lamest efforts are accepted by our heavenly Father as perfect for the sake the One who was perfect in our place. For this reason we do not cower before the task, but we can say with the confidence of the apostle: "I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
May the God who caused light to shine out of darkness cause you to increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all people, as His love abounds for us; and may the glory of His Son be manifested to you and in you, that you may be witnesses to all nations now and until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Am