Living to Die

 Inspired by Romans 6:1-11

 1st of a two-part sermon on Baptism

Alright, so we wrapped up our series on the Apostles’ Creed last week. I had a lot of fun with that! I think because these series we’re doing this Fall are more topical, rather than being solely focused on one book of the Bible. They allow for a bit more creative freedom. I can see why some churches and their pastors do this all the time. I can hear my seminary professors now, “Scripture must remain central, not a topic!” Yeah, Yeah, I know. Anyway, I hope you are getting something out of these Fall series too. Today we begin a four-week series on the Sacraments. Next will be a three-week series on Stewardship, everyone’s favorite topic! And that brings us to the last day of the church year, and bam, it’ll be Advent! Where has the year gone! It’s October already! Can you believe that? But back to sacraments. 

We Lutherans have two, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. We’re gonna spend two Sundays on each. And each of those two Sundays is gonna be like a two-part sermon. The first part of each will be focused on what that sacrament means for us. Meaning, what does it do for us. And the second part of each will be focused on what that sacrament means for the world. Meaning, after that sacrament has done its work on us, then what? Is that where the work of the sacraments end, with us? The obvious answer is, no, and that’s what we’ll explore in the second part of each of these two-part sermons. Today, the question before us is, “What does Baptism do for us?” Or, maybe a more accurate way to ask that is, “What does Baptism do to us?” 

Because, first off, as we’ll see next week, ultimately baptism isn’t for us at all but for the rest of the world, and second, to put it plainly, God already loves us from the day we are born! There is nothing on God’s green earth that could make God love us any more than God already did at our first breath. Baptism doesn’t change God’s love for us. Then what does it do? A whole lot, let me tell ya! And it ain’t for the faint of heart I can guarantee you that! Because what Paul, John the Baptist, many authors in the Hebrew scriptures, as well as Jesus himself have taught, is that baptism can change you, to your very core. And we don’t need Jesus to tell us how tough change can be!

But before we go any further, I have to be clear with how I use the word baptism. When I, and I hope all pastors, of the Lutheran kind at least, use the word baptism, I’m not referring to an event that occurred on the date that appears on your baptismal certificate or in some church record book somewhere. When I use the word baptism it is in reference to everything that has occurred from that date to this very moment. Because baptism isn’t a once and done event. Your baptism is an ongoing, daily process, daily working, daily practice, daily discipline, that just began on that date, but isn’t completed until, as Luther put it, until the day we die! I have a feeling most parents don’t realize that’s what they’re signing up their baby for when they get them baptized! But it is! 

So, when I use the word baptism, please keep in mind that I’m referring to your whole life from baptism to death, not just that one event. But back to our original question, what does it do to us? Well, there’s a long biblical pattern of God intervening on our behalf using the element of water. This pattern starts all the way back in the first story of creation, when God separated the water from the land for inhabitation. God rescues Noah and his family from the waters of a flood. God rescued the Israelites from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea, and after wandering through the wilderness for forty years, they pass through the waters of the Jordan River to the Promised Land. These are just a few examples of God intervening on our behalf to create opportunities for life, to create hope when there was little to none. 

What I would like to point out here before we turn to our Christian scriptures is that in each of those instances, something or someone had to die or cease to exist, in order for that life and hope to come to fruition. In the Noah story, the rest of the world had to die. In the Exodus story, the Egyptians had to die. Even in the creation story, the world as it was had to cease to exist in order for life to have a place on it. Then, a character from the wilderness appears on the scene, John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, whose mission it was to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. And this is where the pattern of God intervening through water takes an interesting twist. John the Baptist prepares people by telling them to “Repent and be baptized.” 

Now, repent is a very churchy word that we don’t really use anywhere else, and therefore, has lost a lot of its meaning, and power, its sting if you will. The Common English Bible translation, one of my favorites, doesn’t use the word repent at all. Instead, it uses the phrase, “Change your hearts and lives.” It’s a bit wordier than “repent”, but it gets at the heart of what is really being said, and gives back some of its power too. Because, what John the Baptist and many other biblical authors have highlighted is the total change that baptism can bring about, in your hearts and lives, inside and out, complete transformation. Then, Paul takes this even further, I mean, he pushes this to the limit. Paul compares the process to death, and not just any death, but Jesus’ death! 

Paul said, “All who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into Christ’s death. Therefore, we were buried with Jesus through baptism, and joined with Jesus in death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too can walk in newness of life…For this is what we know, the person that we used to be was crucified with Christ in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin.” This is the twist I was talking about earlier. Now, what has to die? Us! Not creation, not the rest of the world drowning all around us, not our enemies who treated us badly, us! In order for new life to spring forth, it has to start with us, and it has to start with death! Total and complete death of who we were, so that who God is calling us to be, can sprout!

The church has used many analogies to explain this process. Our opening hymn for today used the image of smelting in what I think is one of the greatest verses ever written. This is the third verse: "When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply. The flames shall not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine." Dross is what accumulates at the top of molten metal, the impurities. This is how many interpret the so-called fires of Hell to be, more like a refining fire, taking out our impurities, rather than a place of eternal torment. If we are to be made into something new, then something has to die in us, something has to cease to exist. Paul calls it sin, which could be ego, anger, selfishness, greed, or any number of things. Only you can answer that for yourself. No human knows you better than you. 

Other analogies often used for this process can be found in our next hymn, whose first verse reads, “Seed that in earth is dying grows into ears of grain. Grapes that are crushed in the vessel turn into golden wine. God, through this mystery grant us faith in our deepest darkness, life in our night and death.” Unlike our opening hymn, this one is a good ol’ fashioned Lenten hymn! You can tell by how serious it is. Which makes sense because it is in Lent when we acknowledge how serious this baptismal life really is. A seed has to die, has to cease being a seed in order for new life to sprout. A grape has to die, has to cease being a grape, in order for something new to come, wine. This is serious work, this is life or death. Even our last hymn calls on God to grant us wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour, for the living of these days. 

Why is this baptism business so serious? Well, we’ll get into that next Sunday. But for now, let me leave you with this, so that I can put a star on my “I was a good Lutheran today” chart. This transforming work that I speak of, this baptismal life that calls us to die and rise into something new, in the here and now, is not a work that we do of our own accord. This is beyond our pay grade. This is a work that God does to us, within us, for us, around us. We have the option to either cooperate or resist, but ultimately, only God can create such change! 

Only God can create such transformation!

Only God can create such new life!

Only God can create gold from our dross!

Only God can create sweet wine from our sour grapes!

Only God can create life from our death!

Only God can create healing from our pain!

Only God can create abundance from our scraps!

Only God can create hope from our fear!

Only God can create a sprout from a dying seed!

Thanks be to God! Amen? Amen.

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