Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Not Water Only

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


What is baptism?
Baptism is not water only
but it is water used with God’s Word
and by God’s command.

So Martin Luther defined Christian baptism in the Small Catechism and Lutheran have memorized that definition for almost five hundred years. Christian baptism uses water as a sign of washing, cleansing, renewal. But it is not water only.

This Sunday, the Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Each of the Gospel writers includes this scene from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and each give a little different sense to the event. In Luke’s Gospel, John is a prophetic figure who calls the people to repentance. All Judea and Samaria come to John the Baptist repenting of their sins. They are washed by the waters of the River Jordan as a symbol of the need to be made clean and whole and new. But John washes with water only. He washes a sign and symbol only. There is really no change in the person who is washed by John’s water; it is the same person after all.

Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. One of the great questions of theology is just why Jesus came to be baptized. Matthew explains it as Jesus’ need to fulfill all righteousness, to so identify with a sinful humanity that Jesus too, makes symbolic confession and is baptized. Luke does not give us a reason in so many words, but explains it as symbolic action not for cleansing, but for ordination and being set apart for his role as Messiah and King.

Most of us are only vaguely aware of coronation ritual. Last year marked the half century point since Queen Elizabeth was crowned. Many of the Scandinavian monarchies have dispensed with the archaic rituals entirely. The monarch is washed and anointed with oil which sets the king of queen apart for their rule. In Queen Elizabeth’s case, old pictures show the Archbishop of Canterbury pouring oil on her forehead and her hands and then placing those signs of rule upon her – crown and scepter and orb and ring. These rituals are very ancient – they go back to King David and even earlier. The prophet Samuel anointed David and before him Saul with blessed oil. It is a sign that the person is set apart for kingship.

In the same way Jesus is recognized as the Messiah at his baptism. John confesses that his baptism is only symbolic – for he is unworthy to untie the sandal from the feet of Jesus who will not baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus has come as the judge who will save the precious grain and discard the worthless chaff. And in his baptism, during prayer, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends and alights bodily upon Jesus as a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit and a voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” It is the voice of God declaring Jesus to be Son of God, Beloved of God. Jesus is ordained as Messiah and Lord. This is his consecration, his ordination, his coronation for his earthly ministry.

Our baptism sets us apart too. Jesus was born Immanuel, Son of God, and Savior, but through the ritual of baptism, Jesus was ordained for his role as Messiah. We are born creatures of a loving God, but also part of a fallen humanity. Baptism is God’s way to restore us to be truly God’s children and heirs to God’s Kingdom. Our baptism is not the same as that experienced by those going to the Jordan River. We are baptized in Jesus’ Name, in the Name of the Triune God. We are baptized not with water only but with God’s Word and by God’s command. We are baptized with water but also the Holy Spirit and fire to give us power and courage and strength to live our life with God and be God’s people. As Martin Luther once said,

“To be baptized in God’s Name
is to be baptized not by people but by God Himself.
Although it is performed by human hands,
baptism is nevertheless, God’s own action.
From this fact everyone can easily conclude
that it is of much greater value
than the work of any human or saint.
For what work can a human being do
that is greater than God’s work.”

John the Baptist’s baptism was a symbolic washing, a sign of human repentance, remorse, but it was only a human work. It was really just a human ritual. Christian baptism is much more, it is God’s action washing away our sins and making us new and different people, children of God, heirs to the promises of God. As Paul tells us,

“When we were baptized in Christ Jesus,
we were baptized into death.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,
so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
we too might live a new life.”

And Jesus himself says in John’s Gospel,

“In truth, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God
without being born of water and the Spirit.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims, “Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved.”

And Paul writing to Titus,

“He saved us… in virtue of his own mercy,
by the washing of regeneration
and renewal in the Holy Spirit
which he poured out upon us richly
through Jesus Christ our Savior
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
This saying is sure.”

It is clear that our baptism is not water only. We are baptized to follow Jesus as our commissioning for the Lord’s service just as Jesus was baptized as part of his own commissioning as Messiah and Lord.

Still the question comes – why be baptized? Well, simply, because God tells us to be baptized and God’s Word is clear. We believe that we are gifted with the Holy Spirit as power for our daily lives to believe in Jesus, power to follow Jesus, power even to suffer with Jesus if need be. It is a ritual, yes, but an important sign which sets us apart. Perhaps the best way to explain baptism is by analogy.
There is a true story which may help us of a man named Yates. During the depression years, Mr. Yates owned a great deal of land in West Texas upon which he raised sheep. He lived in extreme poverty, struggling just to feed and clothe his family. His situation worsened until he was in danger of losing his property altogether because he couldn’t even pay the small amount of taxes owed on his land. As Mr. Yates was facing bankruptcy, an oil company approached him. “We think there may be oil on your land,” they said. “Will you allow us to drill?” Reasoning that he had little to lose, Mr. Yates gave them permission. The oil company began drilling and at a very shallow depth, struck the largest oil deposit at that time to be found in North America – a deposit which produces over 80,000 barrels of oil every day! Mr. Yates had become a billionaire! Or did he? No, if you think about it, Mr. Yates had become a billionaire ever since he first acquired the land. The oil was always there – it was just that Mr. Yates did not know about it.

So, it seems to be with our baptism. Only later did we realize that our baptism was our commissioning for service and that through water and God’s Word, by God’s command, we were made God’s children and heirs.

Ever after we would try to live out that baptism by confessing our sins, receiving the promise of forgiveness and claiming the strength and power that has been given to us by the Holy Spirit. Ever after we have tried to live out our baptism in faith, trying to bear our cross under adversity, in witness to God’s love so freely given us. In the image of that story – ever after our baptism we have been trying to dig for that oil which God has put under the barren hills and arid plains of our hearts so that we might truly be God’s people.

So we remember the baptism in the River Jordan. We remember our own baptism in the Triune Name. Not water only, but water with God’s Word and by God’s command. In his baptism, Jesus was ordained and commissioned Messiah and Lord. In ours, children of God and heirs to an everlasting kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Copyright 2004 James Kegel.  Used by permission.