Baptism of Our Lord (LCMS Readings)
Saturday, January 8, and Sunday, January 9, 2006
Today is the First Sunday after Epiphany, but how did we already get to the First Sunday after Epiphany if last weekend wasn’t Epiphany? Well, Epiphany is one of those church festivals that often lands in the middle of the week. Epiphany is the day the Church remembers the Wise Men, the Magi coming to Bethlehem to see Jesus, the King of the Jews. Epiphany has traditionally been celebrated in the Church 12 days after Christmas on January 6, which was Friday. Since we don’t normally have a special service on Epiphany, we often get to the First Sunday after Epiphany without having talked about Epiphany.
As you’ve noticed, the First Sunday after Epiphany is about the Baptism of Our Lord, the Baptism of Jesus, which doesn’t leave us much time to talk about the Wise Men. Or does it? Perhaps there’s a connection so that today on the First Sunday after Epiphany, we could talk about the Baptism of Our Lord and Epiphany.
First, then, the story of Epiphany. The Wise Men were Gentiles, meaning they weren’t Jews. They came from the East—probably from Persia, which is modern day Iran. The Wise Men were astrologers who studied the stars, trying to understand the future. This was their religious belief, their way of life. It was what we’d call their pagan belief, because they didn’t believe in the true God.
Yet, because God was sending His Son, Jesus, to be Savior of the whole world, God sent a sign to these Wise Men so that they too would know that the true King of the Jews had been born, the Savior of the world. How did God send the Wise Men a sign? He worked in their way of thinking. He knew those Wise Men were watching the stars, so God made a star show up that was so incredible, so different, that those Wise Men just had to find out the meaning of this star. They followed the star all the way to Judea, the land of the Jews, and they started asking, “Where is the king who has been born?”
God’s Wise Men, the priests and teachers of the law, pull out the Scriptures which are God’s wisdom. From the prophets, they figure out that the Promised One, the Messiah, the King of the Jews that God had often told the people would come to rescue them, was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. The Magi are told this, and they go and find Jesus. They didn’t just say hello. They worshipped Him. They gave Him incredibly expensive gifts. These Gentile astrologers from a land far away came following a star but when they got to the place where the child was, they realized that this wasn’t just another star sign. This child was truly the child of God.
Epiphany, then, is celebrating that the Wise Men saw the Lord Jesus revealed. Epiphany is celebrating that God revealed the Savior of the world to the whole world. Epiphany means to reveal, to uncover, to show, to understand, to receive knowledge. We often talk about Epiphany as being God’s light shining into the darkness, we just sang “Pour Your Wondrous Light on Me,” the Light of His Word shining into the darkness of our world.
And that’s the connection to the Baptism of Our Lord. Today on the First Sunday after Epiphany when we’re talking about Baptism, when we had a baptism of a child in our service, today we’re turning on the baptism light. (have usher turn on light) Just as Epiphany is about God’s light shining into the darkness, so, too, we turn on the light for a baptism. There’s the connection—it’s about the baptism light.
I know, that’s kind of flimsy. The Wise Men follow a star that leads them to Bethlehem to find Jesus, the Savior of the world, and the best connection I can come up with is that we turn on an incandescent light bulb when we have a baptism? That’s not enough.
But what if turning on the baptism light was symbolic of what happened at the Baptism of Our Lord? What if turning on the baptism light was symbolic of what happens in our baptisms? Could it be that there was an epiphany when Jesus was baptized?
“At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are My Son, Whom I love; with You I am well pleased.’”
There’s no literal light or star at the baptism of Jesus, but there’s certainly an epiphany, the wisdom of God revealed. John the Baptist and His followers that were there that day saw and heard that Jesus is the Son of God. At Epiphany, the Wise Men saw the Lord Jesus revealed, and that’s also what happened at the Baptism of Our Lord. The people at the Jordan River that day saw the Lord Jesus revealed. They saw and heard the truth about who Jesus is—the Son of God, the Messiah, the Promised Savior. There’s no literal light, but when we talk about light and darkness at Epiphany, it’s more than just talking about the star of Bethlehem. The light is God’s Word of truth shining into the darkness of our world. At the Baptism of Our Lord, God’s Word of truth was certainly a light shining and revealing the Savior who was walking in the darkness of the sinful world.
So now perhaps you’re willing to see that the baptism light is a symbol for the connection between Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord. When we turn on that baptism light, it can be a reminder that God’s light has come into the world, that God revealed the truth about Jesus.
That baptism light can be a small reminder of how the light of God cuts into our dark world. Jesus came with truth and righteousness, shining with divine holiness, and that proved just how dark, sinful, and corrupt the world is. When we see the light of Jesus, His holiness, it reveals just how sinful we are, how dark our souls are without God. That’s the Law.
But that’s only half of the message of the light. That’s only part of the symbolism of turning on the baptism light. The Wise Men didn’t find a baby who would just judge the world and condemn us for our sinfulness. The people at the Jordan didn’t see a man who would just reject them for their sins. The baptism light symbolizes the whole light of God’s Word—both the Law that shows our sin and also the Gospel which shows our Savior.
The Wise Men came and found a child who was bringing hope and salvation into the world. Surely they were told what the angels had said to the shepherds—a Savior is born to you. The people at the Jordan didn’t just find another religious leader who would tell them that they were sinful. Yes, Jesus preached like John, calling people to repent, turn away from their sins, and that’s Law, but Jesus also told the people to believe the Good News. The word “gospel” means “good news.” The Good News is that while we are sinful, that God will forgive us and save us. The Good News is that even though we don’t deserve to be saved from eternal death, God will have mercy on us and give us life after death forever.
The light of God’s Word is both Law and Gospel, both His judgment on sin and His message of forgiveness and salvation. The baptism light can be reminder of the connection between Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord, and that baptism light symbolizes the whole light of God’s Word, both Law and Gospel. God has revealed His message of salvation to all people, telling us how He will save us from our sins.
Yet, that baptism light doesn’t just symbolize the Baptism of Jesus; that baptism light can be a reminder of what happened at your own baptism, what happened at Taylor’s baptism today. At Epiphany, the Wise Men saw the Lord Jesus revealed. At the Baptism of our Lord, the people at the Jordan River saw the Lord Jesus revealed. At our baptisms, we saw the Lord Jesus revealed.
Take a look in your bulletins on page 5, just below the sermon, you’ve got a quote there from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. It is Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, and one of the clearest explanations of how faith works—and they sound like epiphany words to me. Will you read it with me?
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
Your faith in Jesus isn’t something you figured out on your own. Your faith in Jesus is a gift of God, something that He has put in your heart, something that God revealed to you as an epiphany. And that’s exactly what happened at your baptism. Through God’s Word, through God’s Holy Spirit, at your baptism, you were given faith in Jesus. If you were baptized as an infant, you know that faith in Jesus would have to come from God and not from something you did. You couldn’t get yourself to the church to be baptized, and you certainly couldn’t think and make yourself believe. God did the work at your baptism of creating faith. God did the epiphany at your baptism, turning on the light of His truth in your heart.
If you were baptized as an older child or as an adult, perhaps it seems like you figured out faith on your own first. Yet, even then, it is God’s work. Maybe you believed in Jesus before you were baptized, but your faith came through the work of God, through the power of God’s Word. Baptism still gave you the gift of sealing you with the Holy Spirit. Baptism still worked faith in your heart. God did the epiphany in your life, both when you heard His Word and when you were baptized, turning on the light of His truth in your heart.
Look at again at Luther’s words. “The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The Holy Spirit called the Wise Men using a star. The Holy Spirit called the people at the Jordan through water and a dove. The Holy Spirit called us by the water. Yet, no matter what objects the Holy Spirit used to speak the message, the message is the Gospel. The message is the Good News. So it wasn’t about the star; it was about Jesus. It wasn’t about the river or the dove; it was about seeing Jesus as the Son of God. It wasn’t about the baptismal font or the baptism light or the baptism candle; it was about God’s Word applied to you, creating faith.
Luther says, “Enlightened me with His gifts.” “Enlightened” is an epiphany word, to make lighted. God turned on the light of His Word in your life. So now when you see that baptism light come on for a baptism, I want you to remember that it symbolizes how God turned on the light for you, how God created faith in your heart, how God revealed Himself to you. Your baptism is your epiphany, the time when you saw the Lord Jesus revealed. His light doesn’t shine on you just to judge your dark and sinful soul; His light shines on you to show you His plan of salvation.
Having talked so much about turning on the baptism light, I’m going to ask the ushers to leave that light on for the rest of the service. It’s kind of like those Motel 6 commercials where they say, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Today, we’ll leave the light on for you. Sometime before you leave today, look at the baptism light and remember that God has revealed Himself to you in your baptism. The light has shined into your life. We might turn off that incandescent light bulb after the service is over, but God’s light will never be turned off. His light has come to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation. He’ll leave the light on for you.