Baptism of Our Lord
1 Co 1:26-31
“After all, you’re not so great.” That’s what the apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our text this morning. He writes, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”
It was a reality of that was impossible to deny. For the most part, the Church was comprised of the poor, women and slaves. To be sure, there were a few Christians who fit the categories Paul listed, and they were certainly important for the Church. We have seen in our Bible study that Luke goes out of his way in the Book of Acts to mention when people like this converted to faith in Christ. But Paul was right: not many were wise according to worldly standards; not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
In fact, Paul goes on in our text to describe the Corinthians as weak, low, and despised. He says, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
The apostle is using the Corinthians as an illustration of the way God works. God does not do things in the way the world expects – in ways that make sense to the world. If you want proof of this, look no further than the cross. Paul has just said, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
God takes the way the world does things, and turns it on its head. The apostle explains, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
We see this truth on display today in the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. You see it in John the Baptist’s response to Jesus. Jesus came to John who was baptizing in the Jordan River. John’s ministry was calling Israel to repentance. His baptism was a baptism of repentance – by submitting to John’s baptism people showed they repented of their sin and were looking for Yahweh’s salvation.
When John saw Jesus he responded, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” In fact John wanted to prevent it from happening. But Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” We learn that when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance – a baptism that was for sinners. At that event the Spirit descended on Jesus and God the Father spoke words that drew upon Isaiah chapter 42 as he said, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” Jesus is identified as the Servant of the Lord. And the Servant is the One about whom Isaiah wrote: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The cross may be foolishness to the world, but Jesus’ baptism was all about the cross. At his baptism, Jesus stepped into your shoes – a sinner who deserves God’s judgment. You do because you don’t always obey your parents. You do because you don’t always carry out your vocation as parent – your calling to teach your children the Christian faith by what you say and do. You do because in your jobs you don’t always work as unto the Lord and not unto men.
From the moment of his baptism, Jesus’ life and ministry was focused like a laser on one moment – his death on the cross for you. He predicted it again and again. But he predicted something else as well – resurrection. By his death he has taken away your sin and given you forgiveness. By his resurrection he had defeated death and begun your future.
After his resurrection, Jesus instituted his own baptism – Holy Baptism. And it is baptism that grounds the way Paul talks about the Corinthians in our text. To be sure, not many of them were wise according to worldly standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. The Corinthian believers were what is foolish and weak to the world – just as you are today. But this was God’s “foolishness” and “weakness” at work. The world saw the cross in this way, but the reality was that it was God’s wisdom and strength. As Paul says at the end of our text, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Paul says that the Corinthians were “in Christ.” This had happened in their baptism. God had joined them to Christ and given them a share in his saving work. What Christ had done in his death and resurrection, he had done for them. Through faith and baptism they were now “in Christ” and so the saving benefits were theirs. Later in the letter, Paul recounted the sin that had characterized their lives. But then he went on to say, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The same is true for you. In Ephesians Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Through the washing of water and the Word, Jesus Christ has washed away all your sins. The Lord Jesus has sanctified you. That means he has made you holy. You are not holy in yourself – not even close. But instead in Christ you are. Paul opened this letter to the Corinthians by saying, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” A reading of this letter reveals very clearly that the Corinthians failed in many ways. Yet Paul still describes them as saints who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
This is comforting. And when we are troubled by our sin – when Satan wants to use it to raise doubts about whether we really are justified and sanctified in Christ, we need this comfort. But that’s not the only way he works. Satan is a master at twisting what is good in order to harm us and use it against us. And he can use the certainty of the forgiveness found in Christ and his Means of Grace to do this. For since I am forgiven and am a saint, can’t it be said that my sin doesn’t really matter? Why worry about struggling against sin when my forgiveness is certain? In fact if I am concerned about what I do, am I not just smuggling in the exact opposite of what Paul taught – that we are saved by faith in Christ apart from doing?
In fact, in this very letter Paul teaches us about this too. The Corinthians were treating the sacraments as if they were some kind of protection against spiritual harm. They believed that they could be involved in pagan settings of sacrifice and eating because, after all, they had been baptized; they were receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. But Paul warns them that things don’t work this way. In fact God’s word tells us the opposite. Paul wrote in chapter ten, “For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
Paul compares the miraculous experiences of the exodus to the New Testament sacraments. But then he adds, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” The apostle declares to them that the saving gifts of God don’t provide the ability to indulge in sin without consequences.
Instead Paul says in chapter nine that life in the faith is one that struggles against sin. The apostle compares the Christian life to that of an athlete. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
And so the Christian life is one in which we constantly return in faith to our baptism. When we fail in the struggle against sin, in repentance we return to the promises that God has made about our baptism. There our sins were washed away. There we shared in Jesus saving death for us. We find forgiveness and comfort in the knowledge that before God we are saints.
Yet baptism is about more than just forgiveness. Baptism is also the means by which the Holy Spirit strengthens and endows us to lives as the new man. As Luther writes in the Small Catechism such baptizing with water,” indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Because of baptism, the Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from the dead has given you rebirth and is at work in you. The Spirit is the resurrection power of Christ already at work in you know – the same Spirit who will raise you on the Last Day. As Luther says in the Large Catechism: “In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and strength to suppress the old man so that the new may come forth and grow strong.”