How Can Water Do Such Great Things?
Did you see the half page ad in the paper for Acton's MBA program? It said, "Get a Great Start to A Great Obituary." Finally, truth in advertising. Yes, all this preparation, aggravation, trepidation, and education are leading to an obituary. Death is the great thing looming in front of us all.
You probably don't really believe that. If you're young, you have many more things on your mind than death. If you're really young, death isn't even a reality. If you're middle age, you have bigger things than death confronting you. Even if you're old, real old, or sick, real sick, still death isn't right here, right now.
In our reading Jesus sees death right in front of him. He's been looking at it for years, not in the fleeting glimpses we take every now and then. Jesus has been looking at death the way we do when we are or our loved one is in hospice, on life support, or with the death rattle. We get a glimpse of how huge, how heavy death looms before Jesus by the fact that it is 2 days away from the big Passover party, and Jesus is thinking of His death, "The Passover is 2 days away and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."
As Jesus goes so goes His disciples. He tells them, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later." Ashes to ashes, dust to dust applies to all those made from dust. Whether in the Church or out of the Church we're all going to die. Some will go softly, gently into that good night. Others will go violently, terribly, frighteningly, but all will go.
You know we live in an age where people not only say truth can't be known, but even more despairingly, truth even if can be known doesn't matter. Well, death is that truth no one can deny, and everyone knows matters. I'm not talking about death in the abstract. I'm not talking about death on TV or in the newspaper. I'm talking death up close and personal. People can choose not to believe something is true only until it's starring them in the face.
You see the great thing called death. That's why you came here tonight to have me put ashes on you're forehead. You wanted to be reminded that "Dust you are to dust you shall return." At the same time you're here because you want to return from dust; you want to overcome death. Well it takes a greater thing to deliver from great death, and that thing is water. Not just water but the Word of God in and with the water delivers from death. If Baptism is simple water only, it could do no more than wash the ashes from our foreheads. But get this, because Baptism is not just water, it does rescue from death as surely and as easily as water washes away ashes.
Baptism is not just plain water, so repent of regarding it that way. You must confess this is what you do. If Baptism was much more than water, if it was what rescued you from not just death but sin and the devil too, then I'd think you'd remember what day you were baptized on. I think you'd make a point of telling your kids on what day they were baptized. We put on our walls the day our spouse was given to us, the day our degree was given to us, or the day an award was given us. But the day we were given forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal life is stuffed in some drawer somewhere.
Baptism is worth remembering because it is more than water; it is the "word of God in and with the water." The power of Baptism is the Word not the water. The Word brings to the water forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil and eternal salvation. Without these we not only die but die eternally. The Word attaches the promise of these to baptismal water. Just as in our reading, Jesus promised that a man caring water (an unusual thing since women normally did this) would lead them to place where they could celebrate the Passover, so Jesus promises your baptismal water leads to forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil and eternal salvation.
How can Jesus attach such grand promises to Baptism? Because they are His, and His alone, to make. The events unfolding in our reading tonight are the beginning of Jesus' passionate suffering and death for sinners. Jesus, perfect God in flesh and blood, did not have to die, but Hebrews says, "He tasted death for all people to deliver us from it." Jesus, perfect God in flesh and blood, never did sin, but Paul says, "God made Him who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf that we might have His righteousness." Scripture says the devil entered into Judas, sifted Peter, and deceives us. He did none of these things to Jesus, yet Jesus was delivered over to him for our sakes. Jesus never did anything to be forsaken by God, yet God forsook Him in hell to claim us for heaven.
Jesus who needed no forgiveness, no rescue from death or the devil, no eternal salvation as God or Man, won these for all men. How did Jesus choose to distribute them? In Word and Sacraments. Jesus saves us from sin, from death, from the power of the devil and for eternal salvation through "the washing of rebirth." His Word makes Baptism "a life-giving water," "rich in grace" and "a washing of the new birth." Just as God's Word made Jordan River water able to wash off Naaman's leprosy, a bronze serpent life giving, and mud sight giving, so God's Word of promise makes water able to wash away sins, drown death, and give everlasting life.
Jesus by an innocent life and a guilty death defeated your sin, death and the devil winning life for you regardless of health or age. His Word of promise puts what He did in the water, but don't think the water is nothing. Jesus makes the contact point of His Word of promise, grace, power, and life water. It's like many of the medicines we take. They contain all sorts of inert ingredients. Some of them have as much as 99.4% inert ingredients, but the only way you get the medicine your body needs is by taking the pill with all that other stuff. Water in an inert substance but it is essential because to it God has joined His Word of promise.
In our explanation to the Power of Baptism, we are admonished to trust "this word of God in the water." You are not admonished to trust this word of God in your feelings or thoughts. You know why? Because commingled, mixed up, and often confused with God's word in your heart and head are your words, your interpretation, your opinions. In Baptism, only God's Word of promise is attached to that water. As sure as those waters have touched your skin, so sure do you have God's word of promise.
But what about the part of the quote I left out? It doesn't just say, we are to "trust this word of God in the water." It says, "Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water." Right here is where Lutherans shipwreck on the waters of Baptism. As if God has said, faith is all; the waters of baptism nothing. Faith is all; God's word of promise is nothing. Faith is all; Jesus having kept the law and paid for our breaking it is nothing.
Well, if faith is all, then there was no need for Jesus to do anything. If faith is all, then there is no need to be baptized. If faith is all, then your salvation, your overcoming death is only as sure, as strong, as your believing is. And just how strong and sure is that? I'll tell you where this is going. Straight to the purgatory of thinking that Baptism is only as strong as your faith is. Then you're like that little engine that could. As long as you, think it's strong,' think it's strong' then your Baptism is strong to save you from the death looming in front of you. It works out for the little engine because he revs right up past believing to knowing he can. He revs right up to believing in self. You don't want to go there.
About 16 hours from our reading, Jesus will be stone cold dead on the cross, beaten, bloody, tortured. No one believed He took the sins of the world away; no one believed He would rise again. Did their unbelief make it true? Of course not. Neither does your lack of faith, your small faith, your ignoring of your Baptism mean Baptism has no power, no forgiveness, no rescue from death or the devil, or no eternal salvation.
Faith transmits the power of Baptism. Baptism is a power because Jesus has attached His forgiveness, His defeat of death and the devil, His everlasting life to those waters. When you trust in your Baptism, rely on your Baptism, go to your Baptism when you feel guilty for sins, afraid of death or the devil, or are worried about going to heaven, you don't create forgiveness, bring about your rescue, or open heaven's doors. You receive them because God in Christ has first put them in the water for you by His Word of promise.
If you try to put your faith up against your sins, death or the devil, they will laugh at you. Although faith is worked by God, it is worked in you. You not the Holy Spirit is the one who believes. Therefore, the faith going on in you can always be questioned, ridiculed, and shown to be imperfect. So you say, "I have forgiveness because I believe," and your sins say, "Do you really believe God can forgive that?" You say, "I'm not afraid of death or the devil because I believe," and death and the devil ask, "So how come you're shaking?" But what can sin, devil, or death say when you're treading water in your Baptism? What fiery darts aren't put out by God's Water? What error, what fault, what weakness can they find in something God works? None.
Ordinary water doesn't wash or refresh you because you believe it does. No, water all on its own is cleansing and thirst quenching. You wash with water and drink it because it does these things. If you don't use it, then you remain dirty and thirsty. It's the same with Baptism. You're not forgiven of sins and rescued from the devil and death by baptism because you believe it does these things. No, you use Baptism, take shelter in Baptism, rely on Baptism because God promises it does these things.
In your Baptism, you not only have a great start to your obituary, but an even better ending because in Baptism obituaries don't end in death but life. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20070221) Baptism III Passion Reading 1