The Gifts of the Season
No doubt about it; it's the giving season. Wrapped packages, gifts, presents are everywhere. You see them scattered around Christmas trees in stores. Wrapped packages are painted on windows. Boxes with bows are seen in many TV ads. You have to admit there is a certain allurement to a wrapped box. What might be in there? In our house we wrap all our presents to one another in newspaper. I have to admit they look rather plain and ordinary compared to the brightly wrapped gifts of others. But it would be a mistake to judge a gift by its wrapping as any of the kids could tell you. That package wrapped in such fine paper might just be socks from grandma while that one wrapped in newspaper might be that CD they wanted.
Also we don't want to mistake whom is the Giver and whom is the recipient. I know churches mean well when they have birthday parties for Jesus and they get the kids to bring presents which they in turn give to disadvantage kids, but there are two errors here. First Christmas isn't Jesus' birthday as if that is the day He first came into the world like our birthday's are to us. No, Christmas is the day we celebrate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, taking on flesh and blood through the womb of the Virgin Mary. God the Son has existed from all eternity. He has been here since before the creation of the world. Second, Christmas is not about us giving gifts to each other or even to disadvantaged children. Christmas is about God giving gifts to us.
And what does God give to us? God gives us His own Son, and like all Christmas presents He comes to us wrapped up. He is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, like we confess in the Nicene Creed, and therefore He could blind us with His glory and burn us with His holiness, but He comes wrapped in flesh and blood just like ours. If we had been at the manger, we could have, with the shepherds, safely held and touched God the Son. We could have marveled over his little fingers like we do all other babies. Although I am one who likes nativity scenes which have a light bulb in the manger so that it gives off a heavenly glow, we must remember that Jesus didn't do that. Although He was God in flesh and blood, He didn't glow with the glory of God. He looked like any other baby.
Actually He looked less than any other baby. Ordinary babies did not have feeding troughs, that's what a manger is, for their cribs. Mothers in first century Bethlehem didn't normally give birth in barns among animals. You might say God the Son came into this world wrapped in newspaper, and therefore, many people rejected the Gift of God. Don't you remember how people said, "Isn't this that Son of Joseph? Isn't He Mary's Boy? Don't we know His brothers and sisters? What's so special about this Jesus?"
Not only were people put off by the wrapping. They were put off by what the Gift did. Haven't you ever made the mistake of giving a child a gift that was really something when you were a kid but is not much in today's high tech world? Or haven't you ever seen a child open a gift that was for the age below them? This is what happened with Jesus. St. John tells us that Jesus "came unto His own and His own received Him not." John the Baptist pointed out Jesus and said, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world," and most of the world yawned. Only Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel went after Him. Why? Because forgiveness of sins wasn't a big deal to them. Now if John had said, "Behold the Lamb of God that makes it so you don't ever die, never get a disease, and gives you the riches of the world," the world would have beat a path to His door.
The one time Jesus is lauded as the King He really is was when He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; they thought He was coming to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. But when it became apparent that He was helpless in the hands of His enemies that not only wasn't He going to defeat the Romans but the Romans could mistreat Him anyway they pleased, then they cried "Crucify, crucify Him." It wasn't much of a gift to them that He was going to the cross bearing their sins. It wasn't much of a gift to them that every whip lash that tore His flesh forgave their sins. It wasn't much of a gift to them that He was tasting death for every man that He might defeat him who has the power of death, that is the devil. Is it much of a gift to you?
Don't answer that. Let's go a little further first. In this season of giving, the gift we are specifically talking about is Baptism. As Lutherans we confess that "Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God's command and combined with God's Word." We boldly say, "Baptism is NOT just plain water." We say more in the Large Catechism. "It is nothing else than divine water, not that water itself is nobler than other water, but that God's Word and Commandment are added to it...It's not MERE water." Again, "It is pure wickedness and blaspheme of the devil...to look upon it no other way than as water which is taken from the well." "Therefore, it is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water." "No one can sufficiently extol it, for it has and is able to do all that God is and can do."
As you know, we Lutherans don't believe Baptism is holy water in itself like the Roman Catholics, but can you see we Lutherans don't regard it as plain water as the Protestants do either? You see if it is just plain water then why shouldn't we be like the Baptist and wait till our kids get older to baptize them? If it is just plain water, then you really would be making a mistake to put your trust in it. If it is just plain water, then the Reformed are right not to point their people to their Baptism to find comfort and consolation.
But Baptism is not JUST plain water we say, but it is the water included in God's command and combined with God's Word. And therefore we say in the Large Catechism, "it has and is able to do, all that God is and can do." God is life; God is peace; God is joy; God is holiness; God is love. Baptism is life, peace, joy, holiness and love. Not only is Baptism all that God is it's all that God can do. Let me ask you, What can't God do?
Ah I can see, you haven't heard that quote from our Large Catechism where we confess that Baptism is all that God is and all that God can do. No matter. You have heard Galatians 3:27 where St. Paul says, "As many of you who have been Baptized, you have put on Christ." The Words instituting Baptism pretty much say the same them. Jesus commands that disciples are to be made by Baptizing the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The "in" can be translated "into." There is movement here. Baptism brings a person into the Triune God.
Okay, lets back up a bit. The Gift at Christmas is God's own Son wrapped in the newspaper of human flesh and blood. Neither you nor I were there at the first Christmas. The first Christmas happened over 2,000 years ago. None of us were there to welcome Him. None of us have ever seen Jesus. But Baptism brings us all of Jesus. Baptism is not just PLAIN water but it is the Water included in God's command and connected with God's Word. Well, what is Jesus? He is the Word made flesh. He is the Word incarnate. Baptism connects us to this Word; this Word of God who is always, "Yes" to fallen sinners. That's what Paul says in Corinthians, "Christ is God's "yes" and "amen." In your Baptism, God's Word to you is always, "Yes, I'm on you're side. Yes, I'm here for you."
Ever read any of the accounts of prisoners of war in Vietnam? They were kept in solitary cells. They learned how to communicate by tapping on the walls. This connection was their lifeline to others. O how they treasured that connection. It was their one joy, their one hope, in an otherwise horrible world. Baptism is our connection to the Word of God, the Son of God, and all that God is and can do. Shouldn't we be treasuring it much more than we do? Shouldn't we revel in it? Shouldn't we roll around in those waters in our minds thinking of all that they bring and promise?
You know what stops us? Their outward ordinariness, their plainness, their apparent weakness. Don't you see that as God wrapped His own dear Son in the newspaper of flesh and blood and as He further wrapped Him in the plain brown wrapper of sin, suffering and death, so God has wrapped our connection to this Son in something the world easily steps over?
In the Large Catechism, Luther says that in appearance Baptism is of less value than straw. This is why it is so hard for us to rely on, to treasure, to trust in our Baptism, but can't you see dear friends, that this is the same stumbling block that confronted those who were there when God first gave His Son? All Mary, all Joseph, all the shepherds had was the Word of God that the Child in the manger was God in flesh and blood. All you and I have is God's Word that our Baptism is a water of life that brings us into the Triune God and clothes us with Christ Himself.
What puts us off is the plain newspaper wrapping of Baptism. We cling instead to brightly wrapped religious feelings that we have from time to time. We grab hold of the shining works we do rather than holding on to what God has done in our Baptism; we hold on to what we do, think, or feel rather than what God says He does in Baptism. But friends, while our works, our thoughts, or feeling do look like nicely wrapped packages complete with bows, inside they are no better than ourselves: they are riddled with sin, death, and weakness. While Baptism, on the contrary, although it comes to us in the newspaper wrapping of plain looking water is filled with all the holiness, all the forgiveness, all the joys of the Triune God.
Friend, if you take a trip to the Ft. Wayne seminary you will find at the entrance to the chapel a baptismal font. As they enter many of the seminary students will dip their fingers into the water and make the sign of the cross on their heads as a reminder that they've been baptized. They aren't made to do this. They aren't told they had better do it. And contrary to the Catholic custom, they aren't told that this water is holy. What they are told is there Baptism is a precious, holy, gift from God, and so is worthy of special remembering.
It is worth remembering not just on the way into chapel but every day. This is why Luther in the Small Catechism says that both in morning and evening we should "make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." All that Jesus did and won for you on the cross comes to you in your Baptism. All the forgiveness, all the grace, all the joy in the Triune God comes to you wrapped in the newspaper of your Baptism. Don't set this package aside because of it's ordinary looking wrapping. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Advent 1 (12-4-02), Baptism I