1 Epiphany proper B1 (Baptism of our Lord)                    
Rev. Dr. D.K. Schroeder
Mark 1:1-11 Sermon                                                   
January 8, 2012

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
128 "Brightest And Best Of The Sons Of The Morning"
---- "To Jordan's River Came Our Lord"
298 "Baptized Into Thy Name Most Holy"
127 "As With Gladness Men Of Old"


TEXT (vs. 9-11):  “9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'”   

            Back in 1989 I made probably one of the bigger mistakes in my life.  I had just begun my ministry in Australia.  One of the more crucial things I was lacking was a vehicle.  That was something I had to buy; and because all of the vehicles in Australia are right-hand drive, I couldn't have brought one with me.

            So, using borrowed cars, I went vehicle shopping.  Eventually I wound up at Deception Bay motors.  And it was there that I spotted this lovely looking Nissan van.  It was in absolutely immaculate shape.  It was bright blue with a white top.  The interior upholstery was in perfect shape.  The thing I liked about it was that I could take 8 passengers with me.  And I could collapse the two back seats and it made into a full size bed, which would be perfect for overnight camping.

            I had several other people take a look at it as well, and they thought it was a good deal.  It was within my budget, so that's what I bought.  I wound up driving it the entire 5 1/2 years that I was there.

            Not too long after I bought it, I began to discover that it wasn't what I thought it was.  Of course this was well after the 30-day "lemon law" had expired.  I began to notice that the paint was bubbling up around the top.  And then the rust began to come through.  As the rust holes became bigger and bigger, I found out that the space underneath the rust, the area between the roof and the headliner, was packed full of mud.  And then there were engine problems, resulting in one replacement engine and one overhaul.

            I discovered that the vehicle had been through a flood.  You could see the markings inside the engine where the water had been.  Now I don't know how long it took someone to conceal all of this damage, but it sure didn't last very long.  The name of the car dealer, Deception Bay Motors was indeed appropriate.  I was completely deceived.  And I learned a very valuable lesson in purchasing a vehicle.  There were certain things I needed to look for before buying a car to determine if it was good or not.

            Every once in awhile, somebody will tell me that they've been "church shopping."  And after digging a bit deeper, I have found out that they do their "church shopping" in much the same way many people shop for a car.  They look for the bright and shiny paint job.  They look for all the whistles and bells.  They look for something that they will find appealing.  Unfortunately they don't look beyond that.  Frequently what is under the surface is about as sound as what I found under the surface of my van.  All the whistles and bells are there, but the theology is horribly lacking.

            In the Lutheran Church, we often make reference to the "Pure Marks of the Church."  The question this answers is, "how can I find Christ's visible Church on earth?"

            We have no way to look at a person's heart to see whether they're a true Christian or a hypocrite.  That's the invisible Church, the one known only to God.  Only God knows the answer to that one.  We cannot make a determination based upon something that is impossible for us to know.

            What we have to do, is base our decision upon what we can see.  That's where we look to what we know as the "Pure Marks of the Church," and there are two of them.  First and foremost, the inspired and inerrant Word of God, which is the Bible, has to be proclaimed and practiced in its truth and purity.  John chapter 8, verses 31-32 says, "If you continue in my Word, then you are my disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."  Christ's true disciples will always be gathered around and firmly established in the Scriptures.  

            And second, the Sacraments (namely Baptism and Holy Communion) are faithfully administered according to what the Bible says.  The closing words of Matthew's Gospel in chapter 28 verses 19-20 are what we know as "The Great Commission."  Jesus says: "19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”   There's no mistaking Jesus' command to baptize and teach.

            And when it comes to Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist, or the Sacrament of the Altar (they're all different names for the same thing), we have similar words of instruction.  The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10, verses 16-17: "16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."  And he continues in chapter 11, verse 26: "26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."  And when we couple all this with the warnings Paul gives us about eating and drinking in an unworthy manner, we know that God is serious about this too.

            So the pure marks are Word and Sacrament.  Where we find these marks is where we will find God's people gathered around them.  That's what people need to be seeking.  To go "church shopping" in the right way is to go looking for where the Word of God is preached in its truth and purity, and the sacraments are administered properly according to it.

             I can't tell you how many times I've heard people tell me about a non-denominational preacher someplace.  They'll say, "Oh Pastor!  You should hear so-and-so preach.  He gives it straight out of the Bible!"  My question to them in return is, "And what does this preacher say about baptism and the Lord's Supper?"  And a whole variety of answers can follow that one.  Usually that particular preacher falls flat on their face when it comes to what they believe and teach about the sacraments.

            I thought it was appropriate today to talk about the marks of the church as we look at the baptism of Jesus.  There's a lot going on here!  We already determined that Jesus has commanded us to baptize.  So as we look at our Gospel lesson for today, we can get a glimpse of what's all behind baptism. 

            Here you have a meeting of the entire Godhead converging all at once.  Jesus goes to John to be baptized, and John obliges him.  Then the heavens are torn open and God the Father voices his approval.  "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!"  I can't even begin to imagine how awesome that was.  And then the Holy Spirit gets in on this too.  He descends upon Jesus.  This is a celebration to end all celebrations!  Jesus is baptized!  You can see just how seriously God himself regards baptism!  That's how serious we need to be about it too!  This is about the most dramatic demonstration of the entire Godhead in all of Scripture!

            I've heard many people contend that there are two baptisms--a water baptism, and a Spirit baptism.  But here at Jesus' baptism, we see that the water baptism and the Spirit baptism are one in the same thing!  The Apostle Paul confirms this in Ephesians chapter 4, verses 4-6:  "4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."  That's clear Scripture!  How can a person argue with that?

            But people do.  Satan tries to get us to inject human logic into the formula; and when we do that, then we wind up with a big mess.  People will come up with some notions of their own, and then try to bend the Bible to fit.  When that happens, things are added and other things are ignored.  Let's look at a few of these things:

            Some people will look at Jesus' baptism, and completely ignore what was happening.  Instead, they'll take the phrase that Jesus "came up out of the water," and insist that someone has to be completely immersed in order to be properly baptized.  The method becomes the important thing, and baptism is stripped of its meaning.  The only thing it means to them is that it is an outward sign of obedience.  Strangely enough, this teaching never even came into being until the Anabaptists contended for it in the 17th century.

            Another one is the "age of accountability" argument.  Some say that people shouldn't be baptized until they reach this age and can make a decision for themselves.  It's strange that the Bible never even alludes to this!  That one had to be dreamed up from scratch.

            Then people say that babies are in some sort of "suspended salvation" until they reach this age of accountability.  Again, that's something foreign to the Bible.

            There's more, but you get the idea.  The thing we know from the Bible, is that the Holy Spirit works through baptism, as it is seen in our Gospel lesson for today.  Even in the heart of a tiny baby, the Holy Spirit works faith.  You can think of it as God reaching down from heaven and placing his divine fingerprint on a new soul.  This isn't just some sort of generic faith, but it is a faith that accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.  That is a saving faith.

            So why are the pure marks of the Church so important?  We need to remember both who we are and where we are.  We are sinful people living in a sinful world.  Apart from Jesus, we are nothing.  We need to have a saving faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour.  And in order for that to happen, we have to be serious about the Bible and what it teaches.  We can't stress one thing and leave the others hanging.  Word and Sacrament are inseparable.

            Sin seems to make us know-it-alls.  What God asks us to accept through faith, we reject through human logic.  What God tells us is true, we call into question and even call it myth or folklore.  When the Bible tells us that the only way to heaven is through faith alone in Jesus Christ, we come up with the idea that there are many roads to the same god.  When the Bible tells us that we receive our Lord's true Body and Blood in the Lord's Supper for the forgiveness of sins, we change it into a type of memorial feast.  When the Bible tells us about the necessity of Baptism, we relegate it to a mere sign of obedience.  That's what happens when the pure marks of the Church are compromised.

            What we need to keep in focus, is the object of the baptism in our Gospel lesson for today, which is Jesus Christ.  Jesus asks us to believe that God's Word in the Bible is true.  Jesus tells us to baptize, to teach, and to partake in the Lord's Supper often.  He tells us what it all means.

            When we focus on Jesus, then we see our Saviour.  We see the one who came to this earth to pay the price for our sins.  It's through faith alone in him that we are saved.  That's the only way to heaven.  That's what those pure marks of the Church are here to proclaim and protect.  When a person starts chiseling away at Word and Sacrament, then the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is compromised.  People don't know what's true or not, and there will be doubt.

            So you can see why we always point to the pure marks of the Church, and not to the external or peripheral things.  As long as the marks of the Church are intact, customs and traditions and other things take second place.  God and his truth are always number one.

            I don't know if you've ever gone "church shopping."  But if you have, then you know that there are a lot of different styles and traditions.  Some people will make choices based upon some pretty flimsy things, like buying a mechanically inferior vehicle simply because it has a pretty paint job.

            You can have one of the most beautiful choirs in the world, accompanied by the finest pipe organ. But what do you have if the pure marks of the church are completely absent in the denomination they represent?  It would be ludicrous for us to ignore the marks of the Church and join them simply because of a good organ and choir.

            So if you go "church shopping," there should be only two things on your shopping list:  Word and Sacrament.  This is where our Saviour points us because he loves us.  And we know for a fact that he wants us to put our faith completely in him, so we can live with him in heaven forever.