What's with all the Christmas decorations, huh? I wanted them up this late to emphasize there is still one more gift to unwrap. Not Baby Jesus, not the Magi, not the Flight to Egypt. Today we unwrap the gift of certainty.
How do you know that when you die you'll go to heaven? How do you know, your sins are forgiven? How do you know that everything will work out? What makes you certain? Where does your certainty lie? For many certainty is in them. They've done their best. They've taken care of all the details. They're sure of their salvation, sure that things will work out because they've done everything they can possibly think of. They go to bed certain that heaven is theirs and all the bumps in life will smooth out because they have done their best. This better not be us. If certainty rests on what you do that's just another way of saying salvation by works. If you can only close your eyes at night in peace when you have done all you can or the best you can, then when can you ever close your eyes? You can always do more. You can always do better.
Certainty for Confessional Lutherans can't be found in what we do. What about in what we feel? I hear folks saying, "I just know." Or, "I feel good about this. Things are going to work out. I'm sure of it." When pressed they'll say, "I just have a feeling. I can't explain it." But this is just another way of saying that certainty is in you. It's not in what you do; it's in what you feel. The rich man felt good about feasting everyday; he didn't feel he was heading for hell, but he was. The man who had so much grain he had nowhere to store it felt everything would work out because he built bigger barns; he was a fool who died that very night. All our sure feelings, all our "just knowing" doesn't amount to anything, and may be misleading us as it did these two men.
Don't think I don't know you Lutherans are running to "faith." That's the Lutheran answer, right? Unwrap faith; find certainty. I believe I'm going to heaven makes me certain. I believe everything will work out that makes me certain. If I confirmed you, you know I'm gagging right now. I gag when confirmation students answer the catechism question, "Why can and should I be sure of the forgiveness of my sins?" by saying, "Because I believe." If your certainty is your faith then again your certainty is in you just like it is if your certainty is in your works or feelings. And if your certainty is in any way in you, then it's unsure. As is the case with feelings, just because you believe something to be true doesn't mean it is. The world's Christmas says it is. Moreover, it teaches that intensity and sincerity in believing make what you believe more true. But certainty isn't found in people, not in their works, not in their feelings, not even in their faith. Then how can you be certain of your salvation? Unwrap it on this day that in the Early Church was bigger than Christmas.
What do you see in the text when Jesus is baptized? The first thing is heaven opening. At creation heaven was open. The Lord walked with man in Eden. Then man rebelled against God and His gifts, so God pulled up the ladder and slammed heaven shut. God stayed behind locked doors, leaden clouds, full of thunder and lightening. At Jesus' Baptism, God rips open heaven (that's how Mark puts it) for the Man standing in the Jordan. Where Jesus is there are no more leaden clouds full of thunder and lightening. God's door is wide open where Jesus is: open to prayers, open for gift giving, forgiving, miracles, and every other good thing.
However, an open heaven isn't the only thing to unwrap today. The Holy Spirit of power and grace descends and remains on Jesus. He comes in the bodily form of a dove. Doves won't land on dead things. That is shown in the Flood. Noah sent out a raven from the Ark. It never came back. Then Noah sent a dove. The Bible says it came back because it could find no place to land. The Raven, which eats dead animals, didn't have that problem. It gladly landed on dead, floating animals. A dove won't. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flutters down from heaven, and where can He land? On earth there 's nothing but people dead in their sins. The only place for the Dove to land is on Jesus the holy One. Where Jesus is there you certainly find the Holy Spirit. Where Jesus is there the Spirit is to save the unsavable, to redeem the irredeemable, to make certain the uncertain.
Unwrap today and find in Jesus: heaven is open, the Spirit remains, and God is well-pleased. In the beginning, God looked at all He had created and was well-pleased. But then man fell and earth stank to high heaven; God tried to clean it with the Flood, but even that didn't get rid of the smell. But at the Jordan today God declares once again He is well-pleased but not as the insert translates "with" Jesus but "in" Jesus. God is not pleased in me. What I do is never good enough. What I feel is never loving enough. What I believe is never certain enough. But God is pleased in this Man. He's happy, satisfied, tickled pink in Jesus. Nothing is ever wrong, bad, disappointing or disgusting in Jesus. In Jesus everything always works out rightly, happily, to God's pleasure.
If where Jesus is, heaven is open, the Spirit remains, and God is well pleased, then unwrap Jesus and unwrap certainty of salvation, of everything working out, of a smiling God. I've just said what any Pentecostal, Protestant, or Non-denom could say. The crucial point is where can you unwrap Jesus today. You all know Jesus is the answer, but you're fuzzy about how you get Jesus. You end up where Christians generally do: back at yourself. You get Jesus by something you do. You go to church, read your Bible, pray. Do you see the problem? You will when you answer the question how can you be certain? You'll say, "Because I go to church, because I read My Bible, because I pray." Once more you're back to what you've done or do, and all it takes to shake your certainty is the little question: "Are you doing these enough?" And the answer will always be, "no." It's the same with feelings or faith. If you get to Jesus by feelings or faith, you'll be thrown back on yourself. You will be obsessed with being happy in Jesus or believing enough in Him.
If we're going to unwrap certainty today, we can't be involved at all. If our salvation, things working out, or getting to Jesus rests with us, then doubts must come. That's why Jesus is given to sinners. They don't go and get Him. They don't ask Him into their heart. They don't even rightly apply Him to their life. Jesus is all gift or He is not ours at all. Okay so my certainty is Jesus, and He must be given to me. I can't work Him, feel Him, or believe Him into my life. But where is Jesus given? To Mary in the incarnation, to the world at His Baptism. From then on the Man who, opens heaven, has the Spirit, and in whom God is well pleased is given to all. This changed the lives of many sinners. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and others were never the same after Jesus' Baptism. Now for them heaven was opened, the Spirit of power and grace was with them, and their conscience was at peace because God declared Himself well pleased. O that we were there, but we're not. So the question is where is Jesus unwrapped today? In the Jordan River in His Baptism He was there for 1st century sinners. He is in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for 21st century ones.
Want certainty of salvation? Want to know that everything will work out? These are only found in the Man who opens heaven, has the Spirit without measure, and in whom God is pleased, and this Man, Jesus, has been given to you in Baptism. Gal. 3:27 plainly says, "As many of you who have been baptized, you have put on Christ." So what does God see when He looks down from heaven at you? Your sins? Your lack of faith? Your unchristian feelings? No, He sees Jesus. And wherever God sees Jesus He rips heaven open, sends His Spirit, and is pleased as punch at what He sees! In your Baptism, God sees you doing everything that Jesus did. According to Rom. 6, He sees you being crucified and buried with Christ. He sees your sinful flesh put to death and sealed in a tomb. Then He sees you coming out resurrected, glorified, saved. I don't think you get what this means. I think you hear Rom. 6:4 as law. "Therefore we were buried together with Jesus through Baptism so that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, so we also in a new life might walk." I think you hear God as saying, "Now that you've been baptized get out there and be sure to live a new life!"
Who would want to make the sign of the cross as reminder of that? Why would we comfort each other saying, as Luther often did, "Don't you know you've been baptized?" Why would we gladly sing, "I am baptized into Christ" if it's law to us? But Paul is telling us Good News. He says we were buried with Jesus so that we may walk about in a completely new life. Since your Baptism, God looks from an open heaven overjoyed with everything you do, giving His Spirit of power and grace everywhere you go. Since your Baptism, no more is heaven closed to you; no more does the Holy Spirit refuse to land on you; no more is God displeased with you. In Baptism, you've been given a new life which always pleases God. God can no more shut heaven on you, take His Spirit from you, or be unhappy with you than He could be with Jesus.
Finish, no continue your celebration of Christmas today. Unwrap certainty today. Jesus is no less yours tangibly, really, personally in Baptism than He is in Communion. In your Baptism you are guaranteed to have Jesus. It is not something that happened to you long ago. It is not something that you did to show God you believe. It is not something that ran off your head leaving nothing behind. Peter says the same thing when he says, "Baptism now save us" (1 Peter 3:21). Wow what a Christmas present! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Baptism of our Lord (20220109); Luke 3:21-22