Written by: The Rev. Nathan Stomberg
January 10th, 2021
Our collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, where we recognize the Baptism of our Lord, makes this petition of our Father in Heaven: “Grant that all who are baptized into Jesus’ Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.” We would do well to pray this prayer earnestly, lest we take our Christian journey too lightly.
Indeed, after placing saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Baptism is one of the most important moments in the life of a Believer, because of the outpouring of God’s Grace in the Sacrament and within the Congregation, and through the weight of the covenant taken on by the newly Baptized and the Priesthood of Believers. Yet it is far too easy for us to dismiss or entirely forget the covenant we make in Baptism, and in so doing we fail to steward the Grace which God has given us through the Sacrament. For Baptism is not merely a symbolic gesture, not merely a rite of passage used to make a child right with God, and so release the family from the obligation to ever attend church again. Nor is Baptism, accompanied by saying the Sinner’s Prayer, the only act of obedience required in the faithful Christian life; we do not affirm it as a license to live the rest of your life in sin and disobedience. You are not saved by the faith of your parents, nor do you do your family any good by failing to uphold the covenant made in Baptism.
For these reasons, and because we sinners so often forget the responsibilities God gives us, we collectively recite the Baptismal Covenant several times a year: at a feast day of the Congregation (which our Leadership is diligently working to establish as we develop our Bylaws); on All Saints’ Sunday; and today, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord. For we affirm that Baptism is a covenant we enter into, both with God and with the Congregation of the faithful.
As the Catechism states, “Holy Baptism is the Sacrament by which God adopts us as his children, and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church Universal, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God.” There is real substance to the Grace we receive in Baptism, founded in our faith in Jesus Christ, through which we are given Grace and received as children of God.
For while the outward sign in Baptism is water, “the inward and spiritual grace is union with Christ in His Death and Resurrection; birth as a child of grace into God‘s family, the Church Catholic (the Universal Church); forgiveness of original and actual sin; and new life in the Holy Spirit.” That’s some serious stuff! The Christian life is serious business, and so the Baptismal Covenant is serious as well.
Covenants in Society
We are reminded that a covenant is a formal pledge, at times a legal agreement, made between two parties. When you are hired for a job and you sign a contract, you are entering into a covenant with your employer. Both parties agree that they will subject themselves to the terms of the contract, to achieve some mutually agreed upon result; the employee pledges to perform a service, and the employer agrees to provide fair compensation for that service. And if the contract is broken, then there are consequences: discipline or firing for the employee, or legal ramifications for the employer.
A just society is a covenant made between groups of people. Every person agrees to be subject to the rules of the society in order to receive the benefits and protection of ordered civilization, and to perpetuate that society into the future. A representative government, such as a democratic republic, is also a covenant. It is a contract made between the members of a society and its government; a constitution is the contract between the parties. The people agree to submit to governmental authority, in exchange for the protection and provision only a government can provide. In exchange, the government agrees to respect and uphold the rights enumerated to the people, or risk losing authority granted by the people.
In all these examples, the success of the covenant is dependent upon the mutual submission and obedience of all parties involved. To be sure, without a foundation of Judeo-Christian values, the weight of a covenant (especially a government) rests solely upon the opinions and actions of sinful, broken man. As we’ve all witnessed in recent days and weeks, when human beings cast God aside in exchange for idols, and rely on their own strength, the inevitable result is chaos, and a breakdown of the covenant of society. The point here is, any covenant made exclusively among men has no chance of lasting very long. We alone as sinful people will always turn back to evil, and eventually forsake our vows for the desires of the flesh. Thank God, then, for His steadfast faithfulness to us through His Son Jesus Christ! Baptism is the only covenant we can enter that will last into perpetuity – not because of our own strength, but because of the faith of Jesus, who then makes it possible to uphold our Baptismal vows by Grace, through faith.
God is the Ultimate Covenant-Keeper
See what the prophet Isaiah has to say: In the 42nd chapter of the book of Isaiah, we read what is considered the first of four “Servant Songs” in the book. Through these lyrics, the Prophet speaks of the servant as a member of God’s people, who is a representative for His people, through whom salvation is delivered. As Christians, we can clearly see the prophet pointing to the Messiah. Here the prophet reminds the hearer that this servant will represent the people in God’s covenant:
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”Isaiah 42:6-7, ESV
God, as He does time and again for His people, makes a pledge of ultimate faithfulness. God is the ultimate covenant keeper – He always makes good on His end of the bargain. You will recall God’s covenant with Abram, in Genesis 15, where God appears as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passing between the broken animal pieces. In that pact, God is the only one who participates – He is swearing by Himself that His promises to Abram will come to pass. Because there is no higher power than God, there is no higher assurance than His Word. And because He is so faithful, he takes it one step further – pledging to empower His people to remain faithful to Him, for both parties must be loyal to the covenant.
We see God’s ultimate faithfulness through the Incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ, becoming a human just like us. But why did Jesus need to be baptized, if He was sinless? We know that John the Baptist was baptizing the Jews in a ritual of repentance. Why then would Jesus do the same? As we learn in the Gospel of Matthew, He does so “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15, ESV). In keeping with God’s ultimate act of solidarity, condescending to be human as we are, Jesus enters the waters of Baptism by John the Baptist – an act of solidarity with God’s people. For as we just read, Jesus is a covenant for God’s people! And because His perfect life was necessary for Him to fulfill God’s covenant on our behalf, it was equally necessary for Him to be Baptized, as an act of willing obedience to God’s will.
In so doing, Jesus is anointed by God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, to begin His earthly ministry. We see this hint of the Holy Trinity in the Gospel of Mark:
“…Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'”Mark 1:9-11, ESV
The early church Fathers understood Jesus’ Baptism as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Cyril of Jerusalem described it as an act of going down into Hades, beginning His task of taking on our sin, saying, “When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man.” If we adopt this lofty understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then we will realize our own Baptism means we are joining Jesus in this earthly struggle against sin and the devil. It is God’s gift, joining us to the side of Christ in His defeat of Satan.
Stewarding the Covenant of Baptism
What is required of us, then? As the catechism states, “It is required that we renounce Satan and all his works, the arrogance and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh; that we repent of all our sins; believe in all the Articles of the Christian Faith as articulated in the three great Creeds; accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior; and keep God’s holy will and Commandments, walking in the same all the days of our lives.”
We are to be obedient all the days of our lives. That’s not obedience some of the time. It’s not obedience only when we feel like it, or when things are going our way. No, Baptism is a call to repentance and a lively Faith, every single day. It is obedient participation in God’s covenant with His people.
As the Apostle Peter proclaims in Acts, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35, ESV). He goes on to remind his hearers of the basis for such obedience: “…You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:37-38, ESV).
We affirm that we follow Jesus’ example in the Christian life; here is Jesus’ example! His work didn’t finish with Baptism, and neither does ours! We are to join Him in His life of obedience – this is our duty in the covenant of Baptism. It’s a call to a lively faith! And not only for ourselves, but to see to it that we encourage the same in the family of God. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own power to do this. As we will soon say, in response to our charge in the Baptismal vows, “I will, with God’s help.”
We don’t give so much weight to Baptism merely because of tradition, or because that’s the way we’ve always done it. No, we affirm the inward Grace and outward responsibility of Baptism, because Jesus Himself submitted to the same. And we re-affirm these vows today, and throughout the year, as a reminder of our duty, and that God is the one who sustains us. We will be tempted to despair, as the covenants of a Godless society begin to crumble around us! But take heart – the one true Covenant, the one that matters most, is backed by the One who will never fail us, Jesus Christ. Our allegiance to Him supersedes all else! Let us run the race with endurance, then, and join in Christ’s obedience, boldly confessing Him as Lord and Savior. Amen.