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Why baptism matters | Matthew 3:13-17

In the movie, Sandlot, an eleven year old boy, Scott Smalls, finds himself as the new kid in town. Over the summer he makes friends with the neighborhood kids playing pick-up games of baseball in a vacant lot. The plot reaches its climax when the group loses their only baseball and Smalls offers to get the one that his step-dad has on display in the house. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the pickle that Scott finds himself next. He steps up to bat and manages to hit his first home run. He watches in horror as his step-dad’s ball sails into the backyard of the neighbor where a terrifying dog, named “The Beast” patrols. Smalls tells his friends that he needs to get that ball because it his step dad’s. Someone named Babe Ruth had signed it. His friends stare in disbelief. Smalls had just lost a priceless treasure because he didn’t know what it was.

I look out at all of you today and I see people who are in possession of a priceless treasure of God’s gift of baptism. I wonder if the same plot isn’t played out in our lives when it comes to a treasure that God has given us in our baptism. Does it sit on the shelf of our mind unnoticed and unappreciated? Now, we can’t lose our baptism the way Smalls lost his dad’s baseball, but we can lose out on the comfort God intends us to have in baptism. So today, let’s take our baptism off the shelf, dust it off with God’s word, and treasure it once more.

First though, we need to make a distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river (that we heard about in our gospel) and our own baptism. You may know that the word “baptize” simply means to wash with water. The Jewish people performed baptisms, ceremonial washings, long before John the Baptist arrived on the scene. When God sent John to prepare the way for Jesus he also assigned special meaning to the baptism that John would perform when the crowds came out to him at the Jordan river. John’s baptism is called a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is why John was confused when Jesus came to him to be baptized. John baptized sinners. Jesus was no sinner! But did you notice why Jesus’ insisted that he too wade in the water where sinners stood? “To fulfill all righteousness.”

At Christmas we say that Jesus came as Immanuel, “God with us.” At his baptism we see what God came to earth to do: to be our substitute. Jesus came to stand in our place. God is righteous. That means he is perfect and holy. He requires us to be righteous in order to be with him, but because of sin we aren’t. Jesus came to stand in our place, to take God’s test, pass it with an A+ and put your name on it. His baptism marked the beginning of that path that ended at the cross when God’s righteous Son was punished in our place. If you say, “that’s not fair.” You’re right. But it is love.

The bottom line is that when Jesus was baptized he was not giving us a tutorial; showing us how to be baptized. He was standing in the place of sinners so that he could be our substitute.

So what is God doing then at our baptism? Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river is recorded in Matthew chapter 3. You have to go all the way to the end of Matthew, to chapter 28, to find Jesus’ command for us to be baptized. Here are those instructions: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Here, Jesus institutes a new form of baptism, with a new purpose and a new meaning, for his church. In fact, it would be one of the ways that his disciples would make more disciples of Jesus from all nations; which means, of course, that God is doing something when a person is baptized.

Let’s be honest, baptism doesn’t look all that powerful or important. If an infant is being baptized, the baby can’t even walk up himself but needs to be carried by mom or dad. Then the water is poured over his head and the words are spoken, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There’s no voice from heaven; there’s no dove descending from the sky. There’s not much to see. This is why many people think baptism is just a symbol. They would say that God doesn’t do anything at a person’s baptism; rather, baptisms is a signal to the world, “I am a Christian,” much like a diploma doesn’t do anything when you graduate, it shows that you did something. This is also why many churches will not baptize babies. They would say, “A baby can’t choose to follow Jesus.” But that’s precisely the point, God is the one doing something in baptism. God is putting his name on you!

We can’t see this with the eyes on the front of faces; but we do see it with eyes of faith. We see it because God has told us in his Word that he is at work in baptism. Your baptism is not your Christian diploma that says, “Look what I’ve done for you, Jesus.” Your baptism is more like your adoption papers. God says, “Look, what I’ve done for you. You are mine!”

This is what it means that we are baptized “in the name” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God puts his name on you at your baptism. When a little baby girl is adopted into a family, it doesn’t matter if she remembers it. What matters is that the judge finalized the adoption in court. Of course, her parents will tell her the story of her adoption just like Christian parents ought to teach their children what it means that they are adopted.

The Bible actually goes even further than just saying that you adopted into the family of God. It says that we are baptized into Christ. Picture Jesus. In baptism, you are connected to Jesus. This means that what God says about Jesus, he says about you. This is my son…this is my daughter…whom I love…in him, in her I am well-pleased.

If this is true, then you see that nothing in this world is more precious than what God did for you at your baptism. If this is true, then it is a tragedy if we allow the comfort God gives us in baptism to just sit on the shelf, unnoticed.

What is lost when forget about our baptism? What is lost is our identity. You probably realize that one of life’s biggest questions is this: who am I? What is it that makes me, me? We all want to be loved. We all want to matter. We all want an answer to that question: what is my identity?

As Christians, we have the answer. It was given to us at our baptism. I am a child of God. I am baptized into Christ!

But how many people don’t live life searching for the answer to the question, “Who am I? Why do I matter?” Doesn’t this explain the recent push to turn gender or a person’s sexuality into their primary identity? Isn’t this why, in the middle of life, we imagine we can forge an identity in our achievements or in the approval of people around us? How many people feel lost because they’re not sure who they are or where they fit it? This shouldn’t surprise us in a world that is drifting further and further from Christ. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In baptism, God claimed you as his own. His word, not your sin, is what defines you. This is why anyone who says, “I’m baptized, so it doesn’t matter how much I sin,” is living a lie. At your baptism, you died to sin because you were crucified with Jesus. You were raised with him, not to go back to the sins that used to define you, but to live for him.

If this is true, then your baptism will flavor your entire life. I think of it like a snow cone. Your baptism is the flavoring that is poured on top and seeps its way to flavor the entire thing. There is no corner of your life that is untouched by Jesus. This does not take away from your identities that you get through your family or work or accomplishments. It makes them much richer.

I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that Lutheran pastors have when they are visiting the sick and especially those who are close to death. Pastors like to talk about baptism. You won’t ever hear my say to you, “Joe, you were such a good Christian.” Joe knows the truth that while he was in church every Sunday, his mind was often elsewhere…and he didn’t treat his wife with patience…and he hid his faith when he was around his work friends. He’s ashamed of these things especially as he draws closer to meeting the one who knows all of his secrets. What will I say to Joe? You are baptized. God has washed away your sins. You belong to him!

Scott Small’s didn’t know what his step-dad’s baseball was worth and so The Beast ate it. Don’t forget what your baptism means for you. Take it off your shelf. Dust it off. Live out the realities of your baptism daily as you die to sin and rise to live a new life in Jesus. Amen.

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