A Simple Gift
6th Sunday After Trinity
July 27th/28th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Water is one of those things in our lives that we often take for granted because it’s around us all the time, and yet according to the scientists, water is actually a pretty amazing substance. Take, for example, the three different states that water can be in. We remember from grade school science that water can be liquid, which we see all around us, especially in the Great Lakes State; water can be a gas, which we see every time we take a hot shower on a cold morning and the bathroom fills up with steam; or water can be a solid, which, again, is a common sight in Michigan where people sometimes spend the colder months ice fishing out on one of our beautiful lakes.
But did you know that something amazing happens when water turns to ice? Almost every other liquid known to man will sink if transformed into its solid state. But not water. Water acts the opposite. When water is turned into its solid state of ice, it actually becomes less dense, causing the ice to float upon the water rather than sink to the bottom. I’m sure all the fish and plants that live in these beautiful lakes are happy that the ice doesn’t sink. If it did, they would all be crushed. When winter rolled around, all the ice would begin sinking to the bottom of the lake, trapping all the plants that grow there, eliminating the source of food for some fish, and the source of protection for others. Yes, the fact that ice floats on top of water is, apparently necessary for marine life to exist.
But from what I can tell, that might actually be the single most defining characteristic about water. It seems like at every turn, water is sustaining life. It is one of the only substances on earth that is denser in its liquid form than in its solid or gas form, not only causing the ice to float, but also causing the rain to fall when the water vapor condenses in the clouds. In its liquid form, it is one of the most solvent substances on the planet, which means water can dissolve just about anything. Not only can water dissolve powder and sugar to make hot chocolate or kool-aid, it also dissolves gasses and minerals that support life. It then transports those minerals and gasses to the various trees and plants that need them. Quite literally, life would not be possible without water.
And yet we see it all around us. We float on it in our boats or rafts. Maybe we tear through it in our jet skis. We let our kids splash in the pool. We take an extra few minutes in the shower. We wash our dishes and mop the floor with it. We drink it to stay hydrated. Life would not be possible without water, and yet when we look at it, it is a rather unimpressive substance. When we spill it we say, “It’s only water.” It’s modest looking, while remaining one of the fundamental elements of existence. But our assessment of the appearance of this marvelous creation does not ultimately change what it does. Whether or not we gasp in awe each time we turn on the drinking fountain, water will continue to sustain our life on this planet for as long as we are here.
And so it is fitting that water be the substance that our Lord instituted for use in his blessed gift of baptism. Just as life on this planet would not be possible without water, so also our spiritual life in the Lord is given and sustained by the water of baptism. There are countless connections to be made regarding the use of water in baptism. The use of water in baptism is a reminder of the reality that in baptism all of our sin is washed clean, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians, writing that the church has been “cleansed by the washing of water and the word,” an allusion to baptism. The use of water in baptism is a reminder that in baptism our sinful flesh is drowned in water as was Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The use of water in baptism reminds us that it is through water that we enter our promised land just as the children of Israel entered the promised land by crossing the water of the Jordan River.
But it is the simplicity of water that I find most striking, the fact that we take water for granted that. It is the fact that we use water every day, rely on it for our very existence, and yet almost never give it any thought unless we have to clean up a spill or our hot water heater breaks. I fear that the same can be said of our baptism. I fear that we too often fall into the temptation to minimize the importance of that water, and to attempt to rely on something else for comfort and peace in times of trouble.
Perhaps the temptation is to think the water too simple and instead rely on somehow measuring the holiness of our life. We attempt to measure how much better we are today than we were a few years ago. We attempt to measure how much better we are today than we were before we became serious about our faith. But if we are looking for comfort in measuring our own progress in living the Christian life, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. One of two things will happen. One, we might convince ourselves that we are making good progress in living as we ought, and in so doing convince ourselves that we don’t need forgiveness as much as we thought. We measure ourselves to people around us, not by evaluating ourselves according to our Lord’s holy Law. But if that’s how we’re measuring ourselves, if that’s where we’re looking for our confidence, then we are only fooling ourselves. As Paul makes clear in Romans, there is no one who is righteous, none does good, not even one. If we look for spiritual confidence by measuring the so called progress of our sinful life, we are blinding ourselves to reality and turning ourselves.
But there is a second possible result that might come from measuring the holiness of our own lives. Perhaps our estimation of our own abilities isn’t so high as to convince ourselves that we have made any meaningful progress. Perhaps we look at our actions and feel the sinful pride connected to them. Perhaps we know the secret lust, the secret greed, the hatred or contempt that festers in our own heart but doesn’t make its way into action. When this happens, we can be tempted to despair, to feel like our sin is too great for forgiveness, leading us into a greater tailspin, spiraling farther and farther downward away from our salvation. No, attempting to measure the holiness of our lives to find spiritual comfort and confidence is a recipe for disaster.
So maybe because we are unimpressed with a splash of water on a baby’s forehead we instead try to measure the strength of our faith here and now. Maybe we look for spiritual comfort and confidence there. But that is a path whose footing is just as uncertain. Confidence in faith is unsteady because faith itself is only as strong at the thing it believes in. I know I’ve used this analogy before, but I find it so helpful that I can’t help but use it again. Faith is like a hand that reaches out and takes hold of something. This past week my family and I spent time at a ski resort in Pennsylvania. My family as a whole is not particularly fond of heights, so there were a lot of white knuckles gripping the safety bar as we rode the chair lift to the top of the mountain. But our grip on the safety bar would be useless if the wire holding the chair failed. If the wire snapped, the bar that we were holding would crash down while we were still clinging to it. What mattered was not the strength of our grip, what mattered was the strength of the chair lift.
That is how true faith works. Faith is like a hand that reaches out to take hold of something, but our faith is only as strong as that thing to which it is clinging. As we have already seen, faith in our own progress is ultimately uncertain. So is faith in faith itself. Confidence in my ability to believe or in the strength of my belief is not the same thing as faith in Christ and his gift of forgiveness. And yet, perhaps because faith is something that we can’t see or touch or taste or hear or smell, the temptation is to place a higher value on faith than on its object. Maybe it’s because we think that faith must be of more spiritual value because it seems more spiritual by nature, as opposed to something like baptism, which is physical in nature, connected to a physical earthly element, and one as common as water at that.
But just as our being unimpressed with water doesn’t stop it from being water, being unimpressed by our baptism doesn’t stop it from being the life giving waters of salvation. It is, often times, misunderstandings such as these that lead people away from infant baptism. They believe that water is too common a thing to do such great things. Instead of finding confidence and comfort in the gift of baptism, they will look to the progress they are making or to the strength of their faith. They tell us that babies cannot believe, that babies cannot make a decision for Jesus, and therefore should not be baptized.
But remember the time when people were bringing their children to Jesus so that they might be blessed by him. The disciples stopped the parents from bringing the children to Jesus, and as Mark tells us, when Jesus saw it he was indignant, upset at their actions. “Let the children come to me” he said, “do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In Luke’s parallel account, he emphasizes that people were bringing babies to Jesus, and Jesus said that for anyone to receive the kingdom of God, they must receive it as a baby.
As a father of 3, I can assure you that babies don’t do much for themselves. Babies rely on their parents for everything – food, clothing, warmth, clean diapers. This is how we receive the gift of salvation. It sounds too easy. It sounds unimpressive. But our undervaluing it doesn’t change what it really is. The nature of baptism emphasizes the reality that salvation is a gift of grace, a gift that, while it may seem unimpressive, in fact stays with us for our entire life. As adults, we do not say “I was baptized” any more than a married person says “I was married.” Just as what happens at a wedding ceremony stays with a person so that they say, “I am married,” our baptism stays with us so that we say, “I am baptized.” And the reality given by God’s Word through this seemingly simple water stays with us and brings us safely to our home in paradise.
And so we find great confidence in Paul’s words about baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Death to sin. New life in Christ right now. Resurrection into paradise on the last day. Yours through the water of baptism. It sounds so simple – because it is. It is a free gift of God accomplished through the work of Jesus. While it may not have been simple for him, it is simple for us. And so it’s given to us in the simple gift of water, water that truly does sustain life at every turn, even our life in Christ.
 Ephesians 5:26
 Exodus 14
 Joshua 3
 Romans 3:10
 Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17
 Romans 6:1-5