Baptisms are a very special time for a family and for a church – and for us as pastors, too – but you have to remember a couple of basic things in order to have a baptism. God keeps it very simple, but at times it’s still possible for us frail human beings to make things interesting and even somewhat nerve-wracking. The first baptism that I was officially involved with made it interesting and nerve-wracking, at least for me. I was a first year seminary student, presiding at a service with the liturgy in a northern Wisconsin town and giving assistance to as second year seminary student who was serving as the guest preacher. Right before church one of the elders introduced us to a young husband and wife who were going to have their child baptized after church, something that was an honor for us to be a part of and something that my friend was going to officiate at. We got some information from the family and then after the worship service we gathered them together for the baptismal rite. About half way through the little baptismal service, I started to get a very uneasy feeling in my stomach, because I realized that in our nervousness we had never asked the child’s name. My friend was going to perform his first baptism in the name of the Triune God without knowing the name of the baby who by that act was going to become part of God’s family, something that God would certainly be able to figure out, but something that the family might have a little trouble understanding how such a thing could possibly happen.
Thankfully that same fact dawned on my friend, and, as he told me later, his mind was racing pretty fast to figure out how he could get the name of the boy without making it too obvious that he didn’t have a clue what it was, with the result that right before the pouring on of water and the speaking of the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the second year seminary student, seeming to read from the book in front of him, simply said in a formal voice, “And by what name shall this child be baptized,” after which without missing a beat the parents proudly answered as if thinking that was the question every pastor asked at that particular moment, “Joshua Joseph Jones” – or whatever the name was, because I honestly can’t remember it, first name or middle. I was just thankful that it all worked out in the end.
From previous baptisms that you have seen you know that you have to know the child’s name… From previous baptisms you and I also can know some very important things about our Savior and our life as Christians. That’s why on this day on which we especially think of what the baptism of Jesus means for our baptism, I’m going to use this lesson from Luke’s Gospel to have us think about some previous baptisms – The Baptisms before Yours, the day God called you by name.
One baptism that happened before your baptism was the baptism John the Baptist is talking about in the opening verses. As the people who were flocking to John heard him preach and saw him baptize for the forgiveness of sins, they wondered if he might possibly – just possibly – be the long-promised Christ that the faithful people among the children of Israel had been waiting for for many generations and centuries. You see, they didn’t know the Savior’s name. They knew he would be called Immanuel, but they didn’t know the given name that the coming Christ would have. John didn’t call him by name at the moment, but he did tell them that it was not he who was the Christ, but it was someone who would bring with him another baptism that would show he had the ultimate power to give his baptism the ability to wash away sins. “I baptize you with water,” John said – and that’s great. “But one more powerful than I will come … who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Do you know what baptism John was talking about? Jesus had not yet begun his earthly ministry, but what John was doing was looking down the road to the fulfillment of everything the coming Christ would do after he had died on the cross and risen from the grave and returned to heaven. Then, just as he would later promise, he would send the Holy Spirit in what looked like tongues of fire on the heads of all those who were gathered in that room on a the special Jewish holiday called Pentecost – fifty days after Easter – the day we still celebrate today as the day Jesus gave his disciples the ability to speak in languages they had not learned and the ability and courage to share with everybody else the great things he had done to be their Savior, the Savior whose name truly is the name above all names – Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior of the world – the day we can call The Pentecost Baptism.
That work of salvation officially started on another baptism day before yours – the day Jesus was baptized, as recorded in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel. On that day still another baptism or anointing took place in addition to the baptism with water that John the Baptist gave Jesus. That other baptism was the anointing of the Holy Spirit who came down on him in the form of a dove, together with the heavenly Father’s voice, which spoke from heaven, assuring the people that he was well-pleased with the work his Son had come to do.
What is remarkable about that work Jesus came to do was that in his case he knew very well the names of the people for whom he was dying in the entire history of the world, which means he also knew very well that not a single one us deserved to have him do it. That becomes very clear in St. Matthew’s longer account of Jesus’ baptism, when he talks about John the Baptist saying, “I need to be baptized by you. Why are you coming to be baptized by me?” Like he said in the words we read earlier, John knew that he didn’t even deserve to stoop down to untie the thongs of his sandals. Jesus told him, though, “I am doing this to fulfill all righteousness.” John, it is the right thing to do, because the only way anyone can know their sins are forgiven is if I take their place to suffer and die for them. When Jesus was baptized, he was being baptized as the Holy One in place of the unholy ones.
And that’s why another baptism before yours and mine that we can think of is all the baptisms of all those who have come before us, people who had parents bring them to Jesus, because they knew that those precious gifts from God were still unholy in God’s sight and needed to have their sins washed off of them in baptism. Through the ages there have been millions of baptisms before yours, 99.999 percent of whose names we will never know until get to know them in heaven. Little did any of them know at the time of their baptism what kind of earthly journey lay ahead of them. Some of them had more human happiness than others, but all of them were victims of sadness and fear and doubt and death. Some of them also lost their lives because of their faith in Jesus. One of those martyrs was the one who baptized Jesus – John the Baptist. Luke tells us in these words that the King of the country – King Herod – put him into prison for having the audacity to tell him that his taking of his brother’s wife to be his own wife was a sin and needed to be changed and repented of. That imprisonment ended in death a short time later, when King Herod honored his wife’s request through her daughter to put the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
The vast majority of those who have gone before us did not end up with that kind of suffering, but all of them went through suffering, just like we do, and all of them made sacrifices to whatever degree they could, to make sure that the message of the Christ and the courage of Pentecost would be passed on to people who would live long after them, people whose names they would never know and perhaps could not even pronounce, but people who, just like them, needed to hear the message that their sins kept them away from God, and that their Savior brought them close to God in trusting faith, ready to face whatever the world would throw at them until it would also be time for them to live in the world that is without end.
All those baptisms before yours are extremely important, but they would not mean anything to you if were not for the baptism that is yours. In our Second Lesson this morning St. Paul called it the “washing of rebirth.” There is no way we can ever understand what our baptism means for our everyday life if we don’t know that we needed rebirth – that we had no spiritual life when we were born. We may have been the cutest baby God ever made, but the Bible says that at birth we were born apart from God as unbelievers, dead in our transgressions and sins, unable to care about God or to show any love for God – until God intervened with something so simple that it seems too small to be able to accomplish such great things. God had someone pour a few drops of water on our head – and with that water he had someone speak words that gave us a new name – and a new life – and a new family – the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – the name which assures us that our name is written in the book of life, the name which God promises he will never forget, since he knows all his children by name – the name which also means you are able to receive the same inheritance everyone else is able to receive who is part God’s family by faith – the inheritance of a life that will never end in a place where we won’t have to worry any more about any persecution or problem or sadness or suffering or tear or heartache or confusion that may be going on in our life right now. In heaven they all will be un-named, unable to torment or challenge us, unable to keep us from being well-pleased every day with the one the Father said he was well-pleased with that day when he was baptized in the river and anointed by the Spirit to begin the work that would culminate with that same Spirit coming upon those disciples who would begin the process of going into the world and preaching the gospel to every creature.
“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus said just a little while before that great day of Pentecost, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” God’s people want to have more of God’s people, more people whose names we may not ever know until they greet us in heaven and say, “Thank you” – yes, more people who are able to think about the baptisms before theirs, just like I pray you will always think about the baptisms before yours – and in that way never forgetting what your baptism will lead you to be and to do as a member of the family of God – a brother or sister of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Amen.