The Power of God in Baptism
Will you pray with me? Almighty God, in the birth of your Son, you came to save us. By his death and resurrection, you conquered sin, death and the devil. On the day of Pentecost, you sent to us your Holy Spirit. All these great and wonderful gifts you have made available to us in baptism. As we live for you, help to make full use every day of the power you have provided us through your Holy Spirit in the gift of baptism. We ask this with confidence, for we ask it in the strong name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
In 1523 Martin Luther wrote a liturgy for the sacrament of baptism. 1523 was still very early days in what we call the Reformation. It was only two years since the Diet of Worms when the break between Luther and the Catholic Church became irreversible. So, two years into the new fledgling movement that they called evangelical, Luther did two things. He revised the Catholic Mass, though he actually kept the word Mass as the title for his liturgy, and he wrote a new liturgy for doing baptisms. Two of the most important things Luther could give to this new church was a way to worship God as He comes to us through His Word and Supper, and a way to understand what God does for us in baptism.
Some of his baptismal liturgy you’re already familiar with. The basic outlines of it are still present in the LBW, including, almost word for word, Luther’s famous flood prayer. That’s the prayer at the beginning of the liturgy where he enumerates practically every use of water in the whole Bible, starting with creation and going forward, as an illustration of how God creates and saves by using water. But what interests me is not just what we still use of Luther’s but what we don’t use. Actually, that interests me more.
The very first words in Luther’s liturgy is the pastor’s injunction, Depart thou unclean spirit and give room for the Holy Spirit. But the really good stuff comes after the flood prayer in the exorcism pronounced by the pastor. Here it is: Therefore, thou miserable devil, acknowledge thy judgment and give glory to the true and living God, give glory to his Son Jesus Christ and to the Holy Ghost, and depart from this person, his servant; for God and our Lord Jesus Christ has called him to his holy grace and blessing, and to the fountain of baptism so that thou mayest never dare to disturb this sign of the holy cross + which we make on his forehead.
So hearken now, thous miserable devil, adjured by the name of the eternal God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and depart trembling and groaning, conquered together with thy hatred, so that thou shalt have nothing to do with the servant of God who now seeks that which is heavenly and renounces thee and thy world… Give glory therefore now to the Holy Ghost who cometh and descendeth from the loftiest castle of heaven in order to destroy thy deceit and treachery… I adjure thee, thou unclean spirit, by the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost + that thou come out of and depart from this servant of God, for he commands thee, thou miserable one, he who walked upon the sea and stretched forth his hand to sinking Peter.
Luther certainly knew how to put the devil in his place, didn’t he? Here’s what I love about Luther’s exorcism and why I wish we hadn’t done away with it. On the one hand, he took the devil and evil with great seriousness, but he never, ever, ever exaggerated the devil’s power. Luther grasped a reality that very few Christians balance properly. I’ve known lots of Christians who were way more afraid of the devil than they should be, and I also know Christians who dismiss the whole notion of the devil and evil as a silly and unfortunate product of Luther’s medieval worldview. A story that epitomizes Luther understanding is the time during the winter of 1513/14, he was working on his Psalms lectures in the refectory when he heard some rustling over by the furnace. This was right at the time that Europeans were making a connection between rats and plague, so most people who heard rustling in the refectory would have thought, oh no, it’s rats! Luther, however, thought it was the devil, and dismissed him the words, oh, it’s just you.
Here’s what Luther did not believe about the devil. He did not believe the popular wives’ tale of the time that the devil went around in hooves, a tail, and so on. That is to put the devil in human form and he cannot become human! Only God can become incarnate. That is the great victory of Christmas, that God in becoming human like us and taking on our weaknesses found the way to defeat the devil. Luther felt that Christmas is extremely important because it is the day that God came down to us, to find us and save us. Luther’s contemporaries believed that God came to save moral human beings, human beings who had already demonstrated their goodness and capacity to love God. Luther, however, knew that was all wrong. He understand better than anyone else that God came to save sinners, people who cannot know God or love him on their own. Including us.
Luther had three nicknames or titles that he used for the devil. I’d love to cover all three, but for time I’m going to limit myself to just one of them: Dr. Comforter. I’ll bet that’s a surprise for you. How can the devil possibly bring us comfort? Because, says Luther, the devil is a liar. That means every time he tries to tell us something bad about us or God, we know he’s lying and therefore, against his will, he is actually telling us how much God loves us. Every time the devil comes and tries to tell us that we belong to him, we know he’s lying. We are God’s children. We belong to God, and there is nothing that the devil can do to change or alter that reality. Every time he tells us that God must be angry with us or disappointed in us or is tired of us, that is a lie. It is bogus. It is false. We are God’s because God made us his children in baptism and gave the devil the boot. So every time he raises the specter of doubt we have reason to be comforted because whether that old devil likes it or not, he can only serve to remind us of how much God loves us as his children.
As much as I would love to continue with that and Luther’s other nicknames for the devil, my purpose here is to highlight how it is through baptism that God gives the devil a boot. You’ll notice that the sermon title is about baptism and the power of God, the power of God to evict the devil from our lives. So, I want to switch tracks just a little bit here and ask you a question. Has it ever struck you as odd that Jesus never baptized anyone? That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think, that as Lutherans we confess that baptism is the unleashing of God’s great power in our lives and yet Jesus never performed a baptism. True, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, but from that moment on in Jesus’ own ministry, baptism disappears. But then, just as soon as Jesus ascends into heaven, baptism becomes absolutely essential and indispensable as the assurance of grace given and received. So, If baptism is that important and that significant and that powerful, why didn’t Jesus do it?
The reason is this: Baptism is the sign and signifier of everything that Christ accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection. Baptism is all about victory; baptism is all about God defeating sin, death, and everything that would enslave us. And that is why Jesus did not baptize: because the power and the true significance of baptism was not available until his death on the cross and his resurrection. But once that was accomplished, once Jesus had triumphed over sin, death and the devil, it was imperative that his followers receive that same power of God in their lives. We call that power of God “baptism."
In a sense, baptism is a like a set of bookends in the ministry of Jesus. He began his ministry by being baptized in order to show his identification and solidarity with us sinful human beings, and to show our need of baptism. His ministry concludes with the other bookend, which is his triumph over the devil on the cross and in the resurrection. That triumph went out to the church and all believers through the ministry of his apostles and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Here’s something interesting. Luke, the author of the gospel we are reading in the year ahead, and also the author Acts, uses the word power quite a bit in his writings. His favorite word for power is the Greek word δύναμις, from which we get the word “dynamite.” Twenty-five times Luke uses this word and almost always in connection with the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit whom we receive in baptism. That’s a lot of power coming our way in baptism. That’s a lot of ability to live for God. That’s a lot of strength and reassurance that we really belong to him and are inheritors of all his blessings. Fortunately for us, there is nothing standing in the way of our receiving all this power. Know why? Because God gave the devil the boot in baptism and he’s not there to plague us anymore. Amen.