Crossing the river of death to life
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." … 21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
On the one side of the Jordan River was the desert, the wilderness. On the other side, was the Promised Land. On the one side, death. On the other side, life. The Jordan River was literally the line in the sand.
When God’s people first approached the river, it was after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years of traveling in circles, with no place to call home. Then, with a whole generation of corpses buried behind them in the desert sand, they stood face-to-face with the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land of Canaan.
The Jordan River contained the waters of a new exodus, better than the one their fathers had experienced four decades earlier at the Red Sea. At that time, the Egyptian army was snapping at their heels like a pack of wild dogs. But God parted the waters so they stacked up on either side of the Red Sea. The Israelites were baptized in the waters that day as God brought them to safety on dry land. But those same waters engulfed stubborn Pharaoh and his army.
This time, the enemies of the Israelites cowered in fear behind Jericho’s high walls. Then, they entered the lifeless desert. Now, they stepped into God’s holy land.
The Ark of the Covenant, where the Word became present and dwelt among the people – that Old Testament Ark would open the door that led from the old to the new, from death to life, from the desert to the Promised Land. Carried upon the shoulders of the priests, it was carried to the southern shore of the Jordan River. When the feet of the Ark-bearing priests touched the water, the river was torn in two, like the curtain in the Holy of Holies, opening the way to the Promised Land and beyond. The Jordan River, which was at flood stage at that time of the harvest, stopped flowing, and the waters stood up in a heap, miles to the north. The people passed through on dry ground. They left the desert littered with corpses and entered the land flowing with milk and honey.
Fourteen hundred years later, God’s New Testament Ark steps into those same waters of the Jordan River. Jesus Christ, the Word which became flesh and dwelt among His people steps into the Jordan. When Jesus is ready to be baptized, He epiphanies Himself at no other river than the Jordan. How could it be otherwise?
This time there aren’t wings of cherubim on the Ark. Rather it is the wings of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove landing on the new Ark. This time, it is not the waters that are split open and torn in two. Rather, it is heaven itself! The clouds and skies pile against each other. God the Father’s voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Because of who Jesus is, what He was doing in the Jordan River, and what He would accomplish in His life, death, and resurrection, heaven was opened. The gates to paradise were thrown wide. God’s people could leave the desert of this world behind and enter the true Promised Land of heaven. They could pass from death to life. Their wandering was over. They could go home.
What happened in the waters of the Jordan River is what happens every time in the waters of our baptismal font. What Jesus accomplished in His Baptism is transferred to the newly baptized. The New Man with no sin stepped into the waters of death to give us life with our new man. Crossing through the waters from death to life isn’t something that just happened at the time of Joshua and John – it happens again and again. Right here. For us.
When Scarlette Mackey was baptized by her father in the hospital, she was brought from death to life in those baptismal waters. With the affirmation of her baptism last Sunday in church, she was announced to you as a washed and redeemed child of God.
With Maggie’s baptism today, she is brought from the unbelief that plagues her nation to the saving faith taught in her church and school. She has been rescued from darkness and demons and been brought into the light of the kingdom of Christ. When Maggie told me that she desired to be baptized, I told her I would learn to baptize her in Chinese. I’m sorry, I tried. Chinese is a very difficult language. But it doesn’t matter what language was used. What was important is that today, January 10, 2016, marks the day that Maggie was given a new name. Not her Chinese name of “Yiffan.” Not her English name of “Maggie.” But she was given the name of “Christian.”
In the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus who had no sin became sin for us. He took our sin and gave us His perfection. He took our death and gave us life. He entered the desert so we could enter the Promised Land. He took our slavery and gave us His Sonship. “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). When Luca Sieker is baptized later this month, I will make the sign of the cross over his head and heart, pour water over his head and baptize him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At that moment, heaven will be opened to him. The Holy Spirit will descend upon him. And Christ’s Father becomes Luca’s Father. The heavens will be opened to him as the Father says, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.”
These are all the blessings that God poured out on each of us in our baptisms. And yet, we don’t treasure our baptisms like we should. We remember our birth dates, but most of us don’t remember the dates of our new birth in baptism. We don’t proudly display our baptismal certificate for all to see.
God has prepared these waters for us. But we dismiss our baptism as a one-time event. We brush off confession. We neglect the need for repentance and forgiveness. We think we are free. We feel like we are in control. But we are still slaves to our sin. Satan is a tyrannical Pharaoh who keeps chasing us down. Death continues to want to claim us and bury us.
You and I hate the desert. We know where we were before our baptism. We despise what we used to be. Yet we keep going back to the same desert. The same wandering. The same old sins.
Baptism has made us different. St. Paul told the Corinthians that they were done with the same old tired sins of stealing, greed, drunkenness, and slander. His words apply to us. Baptism has changed us. The desert, wandering, and same old sins are in our past. He writes: “And that is what some of you were (past tense). But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the by Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Baptism drowns our enemies. It makes our enemies cower in fear. Baptism grants us a new life. A new life where the Holy Spirit is our new master. Jesus Christ has dethroned Satan and drowned him in the baptismal sea. God the Father has called down from heaven and claimed us as His own and sent death away disheartened.
The churning waters has drowned our Old Adam in the baptismal font. The only problem, is that our Old Adam is a very good swimmer. He keeps coming back to haunt us. That’s why we keep returning to the font on a daily and weekly basis to confront and confess our sins. Then we are washed once again with the flowing waters of the font. We are made clean once again. Our sins are washed away. We have once again drowned our Old Adam and are given the life of the New Man.
The baptismal font contains churning waters of death. It contains the flowing waters of life.
The font is a place of life and death. Of departure and arrival. Its waters are a grave that buries the old. Its waters are a womb that gives birth to the new.
Baptism brings us into a new home. We are brought from death to life. The skeletons of our old way of life are buried back in the desert. We are living in the new land of Christ and His people. We are awaiting the final and perfect Promised Land of heaven.
What separates this baptismal water poured over your head from the shower waters you take every morning is the Name that is placed on you in your baptism. It is the Name that is above every other name. That Name sets you apart as God’s own child. In this baptismal water, the cross that Christ died upon is branded upon your head and heart. You are now marked as one who died to sin and lives for Christ. Though invisible to the naked eye, God can see these marks of faith that hold you fast to the baptismal promises made to you so long ago.
Just like Israel of old, you cross into Canaan. In Jesus, you walk into the Holy Land. You have crossed from death to life; from the desert to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Your enemies are scared. You are a confident child of God.
It takes only a few minutes for baptismal water to evaporate from the skin of the baptized, but the gift that it leaves behind is eternal. Upon your forehead and upon your heart, written in spiritual ink, is God’s own handwriting. He marks you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. Christ’s baptismal benefits have been stamped on you with eternal love.
And now you live. You live with the Life that is not your own and will never be taken from you. An ongoing reality and relationship with your heavenly Father. For God keeps His promises. Amen.