Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 1/8/2023. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Baptism Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for the Baptism of Our Lord, click here.
In 1783, the life of the Lutheran Church in Europe was not exactly vibrant. Though there were bright lights here and there, a century of pietism had stripped her of her fervor, as desperately vexed Christians were told to keep looking for comfort… Not in the places God had told them to look; namely, in His Word & Sacrament, but somewhere in the hidden chambers of their hearts, as if a great consolation awaited them there.
More than a century of this left them exhausted and in need of relief. Sadly, the response was not a return to orthodoxy, but the new philosophy of rationalism. As pietism had replaced their zeal for the Word of God with zeal for their own holiness, rationalism would gradually erode their confidence in the Word of God, but fail to replace it with anything more than confidence in direct observation. Thus, Christians were worn out, unsure, and under attack.
For that, you might say that things in the Church had become rather cold. But they were not cold everywhere. Iceland was literally on fire.
In June of 1783, a volcanic fissure erupted in the backyard of local farmer, doctor, and pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, who recalls the event in his journal:
The ground swelled up with tremendous howling, then suddenly a cry shattered it into pieces, exposing the earth’s guts, like an animal tearing apart its prey.
By Sunday, July 20th, the lava had made its way to the church. That morning, pastor Steingrimsson preached the now famous Eldmessa, the “Fire Sermon.”
The transcript of it has been lost, but thanks to the historical investigation done by Kantor Wessler, we can guess how it went based on that day’s texts.
From Romans 8, he would’ve recognized that the lava flow came as all natural disasters do: as a general consequence of the fall into sin, certainly, and as the groanings of the creation which awaits the return of her Creator.
From the Gospel, Luke 6, he would have declared that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath; that He is sovereign over time and space, and will do what He knows is best.
Whether or not we understand it, and whether or not we approve.
In that sermon Pastor Steingrimsson certainly entreated God to grant them repentance, and to stop the dreaded lava flow; which God did, at the gates of the church, that very hour.
By God’s grace, and according to His providence, the Word of God, there in the destructive path of the molten river, caused it to cease, along with the wagging mouths of pietists in Berlin, and rationalists at the University of Halle.
This devastating event echoes what is revealed in the Gospel for today.
Similar to a lava flow, rivers also are powerful and destructive, and the Jordan is no exception. Back in Joshua 3, when the people of Israel were told to cross over it into the promised land, God had to make the destructive flow of the river to cease, and stand in a heap, as He had done at the Red Sea.
He could have done this any number of ways, but He didn’t. He had the priests carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan, and by it allowed His people to pass through on dry ground. Simply put: the Word of God stood in the way, halting the deadly, destructive power of the water.
And here He is again. The Jordan is full of violent power. It’s not just that the forceful current could sweep someone away. It’s worse. The people of Israel, called to repentance, have been dropping their sins off in the river. The Jordan is polluted with the sins of Israel. So, that river is not only powerful, but poisonous and deadly…at least, it is for Jesus.
When Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, when He is baptized in the Jordan River, when He allows Himself to become infected with our sin and grief, He is again putting Himself in the way. Jesus, the Word of God, standing in the way, makes that river passable and safe, as you heard in the Flood Prayer at this morning’s Baptism.
This is what Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection are all about. It’s the mission for which the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. Jesus is anointed there in the Jordan to drag our sins to the cross. In the water, He is anointed for death, that we, in that water, would be anointed for life.
John proclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And so, He is. But He does not merely wash the sins away. It doesn’t work like that. Sin has to be atoned for.
Thus, before He’s had a chance to dry off, the Holy Spirit casts Jesus off into the wilderness for 40 days and nights, to do battle, to endure the temptations of Satan, to fight for us; and then when His ministry is concluded, to lug those sins to the cross, where finally they kill Him.
On the third day, when Jesus is raised from the dead, those sins do not rise with Him. They stay in the tomb, where they belong. They have no place in Jesus’ new world.
It’s a beautiful world, this new kingdom, that Christ has opened for us. It is a joy greater than mere happiness. It is a peace greater than mere contentment. It is a life greater than the ones we presently cherish and celebrate.
So, how do we get there?
As Israel crossed over the Jordan River into the promised land, Jesus makes the waters of Baptism the means by which He brings His children home.
The water of Holy Baptism is still destructive, of course. It drowns the old Adam in us. It puts us to death with Jesus. As St. Paul writes to the Romans,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried with Him, therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:3-4
That second part there is just as important as the first. Baptism is not only deadly to the old Adam. It is life-giving.
In Baptism, we are also raised from the dead with Jesus, and called to walk in newness of life, to live as those who have been raised from the dead, who are subject to a different King, as citizens of a greater kingdom.
In this Kingdom of grace, we live by mercy. King Jesus does not break bruised reads, nor does He quench flickering wicks. He does not destroy those who struggle and suffer doubt. He does not pretend that one person’s sins are more abhorrent to Him than another’s. Rather, He gives us His Holy Spirit, that we would be strengthened to live with zeal the life He has given us.
This is something we learn more and more as we live and grow in the Church. When John says to his disciples,
Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
He is also speaking to you. John would have you behold Jesus. As Mary would have you hold Him in your arms as a Child, John would have you behold Him as a Man, crucified and risen:
Here, in the preaching of His Gospel, in the bread and wine of His Supper, and splashing in the waters of His Holy Baptism.
The volcanic eruption of Laki in Iceland had effects that lasted years and spanned continents. It affected the climate of those who lived as far away as the Nile, and seems to have contributed to the famine that triggered the French Revolution.
And yet it is but a faint echo of the greater event we recall this morning: when Jesus stood in the path of water’s destruction, and transformed it into the means of our deliverance, as the way He washes onto us His Name, His righteousness, His death, and His resurrection.
How much more powerfully should this universe-altering event, applied to you in time and space, change your present and your future?
This is the eternal life that Henrik and Viktor have entered into this morning. This life is yours.