Sermon 01-08-2023: “God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters”

January 12, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 3:11-17

Let me begin by asking, Did anyone make New Year’s Resolutions?

I don’t typically make them myself… but I’m afraid a new year’s resolution was made on my behalf. You see, I had a checkup with my doctor recently. And all was well, I’m happy to report. But he did tell me that I’m not hydrated enough; that I’m not drinking enough water. 

How much is “enough”? He told me: “Two liters of water a day minimum.”

And although, as a red-blooded American, I often have trouble picturing amounts that are in metric units, I know what two liters looks like… because I know what a two-liter bottle of Coke looks like!

So you know what two liters of water looks like? It looks like entirely too much water! It looks like way more water than I will be able to drink in a day!

To make matters worse, he said, “Three liters of water a day wouldn’t be too much.” 

I didn’t quite believe him. And when I left his office, I was in the parking lot googling, “Can you drink so much water that it kills you?”—because I was pretty sure that three liters was in the danger zone!

Well, I guess it’s not, but I thought, “I can’t do this!”

At least I thought that until Lisa gave me a Christmas gift of a giant adult sippy cup… you know, a giant water bottle with a straw. This thing is huge: when Jack went up the beanstalk and saw the giant, the giant was drinking from this thing!

It’s a one-gallon water bottle. One gallon, by the way, is 3.8 liters. My son Townshend tells me that this water bottle is nicknamed the “Judgment Jug.” He says it’s something that you often see “gym rats” walking around with at the gym. But it’s called a “judgment jug” because it has hourly markings on the side beginning at 7:00 a.m. and running down the side to 9:00 p.m. So you can compare the amount of water you’ve drunk up to that point in the day and see if you’re behind schedule. If it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, for instance, and you’ve only drunk enough water for 10:00 a.m.—well—you feel judged by this thing.

And I don’t like being judged… so I’ve been drinking a ridiculous amount of water since Christmas Day. In fact, I may have to excuse myself before the sermon is over! Just kidding!

So… “Drinking a gallon of water a day” is apparently my New Year’s Resolution… We’ll see if it lasts.

Given my personal history of keeping resolutions, however, you would have good reasons to be skeptical.

And of course it’s not just me… We humans tend to be really good at making resolutions; it’s the follow-through that we struggle with.

But here’s one reason why Christian baptism is so good for us… and, indeed, it’s why we’re observing a traditional Sunday of the Christian year—the first Sunday of the Season of Epiphany season—called “Baptism of the Lord Sunday.” Today’s sermon concentrates on two verses: John’s objection to Jesus in verse 14 and the Father’s words in verse 17. And I’ll make two main points: What does baptism mean for Jesus? And what does baptism mean for us?

And what will  become clear, I hope, is that baptism reminds us—in a helpful way—that being a Christian isn’t mostly about anything that we “have to do”—in which case, like New Year’s Resolutions, we would likely fail and feel guilty; no, being a Christian is mostly about what has already been done for us!

And we have a hard time believing this… We have a hard time believing that our relationship with God depends less on us than it does on God. Which is another way of saying, we have a hard time with a relationship based on grace.

For example, I was at a church conference one time and this one particular church leader told this crowd of pastors: “The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to the world.” The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to the world. Now, I assume by “incarnation” this person meant that we’re supposed to bear witness to Christ, to love other people with Christ-like love… And I’m all for that!

In fact, you may not know this, but when it was freezing cold the week before and after Christmas, there was at least a temporary shortage of warm places for the homeless population of Stephens County to gather in. And, when we found this out, immediately many people from our church said, “We’ve got to do something!” And leaders in this church—like Kathy Whitmire and Larry Wiese and David Semones, among others—were like, “We’ve got to help!” And they swung into action. Brought supplies. Opened up the youth building. Other people showed up to volunteer.

It happened so quickly… and with no fuss… with no hesitation… I was proud of y’all!

That’s bearing witness to Christ! That’s showing Christ-like love! How can we do more of that! I love it. I want us to be all about that!

So I don’t disagree for one moment that we should be all about demonstrating Christ-like love… 

But what we do to love other people is always only “because God first loved us”—1 John 4:19. It’s always only because of what God did for us first.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t mostly about anything that we do—therefore the “heart of the gospel” can’t be about something that we do; the “heart of the gospel” is about what God has done for us—the weak and helpless sinners that we are. And baptism perfectly illustrates this.

To see this, let’s look at verses 13 and 14:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

It’s easy to see why John the Baptist would object to baptizing Jesus. John has been preaching very fiery sermons urging his listeners to repent of their sins and turn back to God… or else face God’s judgment. “Even now,” he said in verse 10, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

If you want to avoid this judgment, John was saying, repent now, and be baptized. Baptism symbolizes the repenting of sins… and the washing away of sins. And as John well knows, his cousin Jesus is literally the only human being who’s ever lived who has no sin of which he needs to repent! So why would Jesus come to John to be baptized?

And the answer is this: because baptism represents much more than just repentance from sins and the washing away of sins.

It also symbolizes God’s judgment and God’s wrath—that is, God’s justifiable anger toward sin. This is what John himself means in verse 11 when he talks about how the coming Messiah will baptize people with both the Holy Spirit and “fire”—that fire is the fire of God’s judgment and wrath toward sin.

But as far as John is concerned, this “baptism of fire” will be something that the coming Messiah will do to others—a “baptism” that he will force unrepentant sinners to undergo. 

So now, by asking John to baptize him, Jesus is communicating something strange and unexpected—something that John himself wasn’t expecting at all… Even though Jesus never sinned at all… even though Jesus doesn’t deserve God’s judgment and wrath at all… Jesus was signaling to John and everyone else that he himself was going to endure God’s judgment and wrath for sins… for our sins… in our place. He’s going to be our substitute.

So, in submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is giving us a symbolic “sneak preview” of what he will do for us on the cross.

In case you’re still not convinced, consider these words of Jesus in Luke 12:49-50, Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

Jesus is speaking with what’s called “semitic parallelism”: that is, he’s saying the same thing twice using different words and phrases. The Psalms and the prophets in the Old Testament do this all the time. 

So Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled”—those are words of God’s coming judgment and wrath, which the Messiah will bring… So far, so good… That’s very much in keeping with what John the Baptist has preached. But then—as a way of referring to the same event using different words—Jesus talks about an upcoming baptism—not the baptism he undergoes in today’s scripture, but a future baptism. He says, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

And this future baptism, of course, is what Jesus will experience on the cross… this future baptism is Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross… 

So, yes, by all means, the Messiah Jesus has come to bring the fire of God’s wrath and judgment… But here’s the twist—and here is what John himself failed to understand—the Messiah Jesus himself would stand in our place and endure God’s judgment and wrath for sin—so that we could be saved from it!

We deserve the god-forsaken death on the cross, not Jesus. We deserve the hell he experienced, not Jesus… But Jesus is going to be our substitute

And that’s Point Number One… that’s what baptism means for Jesus.

Point Number Two: What does baptism mean for us?

Consider this: When John objected to Jesus’ request for baptism… When John asked, “Why would you let me baptize you?”… It was exactly equivalent to his asking, “Why would you die for me, Jesus? Why would you endure the wrath of God for my sins, Jesus? Why would you take my place on the cross, Jesus? You’re not the one who deserves the cross; I do. Why would you suffer like this?”

And the answer is, “Jesus must really love us to do that for us!”

He must really love us

To say the least, baptism is a powerful reminder of how much God loves us

Can we even comprehend just how much God loves us? Do we live our lives as if we really believe that God loves us?

Sometimes I wonder

I referred to this last week in my newsletter and my Bible study, so bear with me if you’ve heard it. But just last week, on New Year’s Eve, a fellow pastor I know tweeted the following. He said, “I am not sad to see the end of this year. It has been a hard one. Here’s to happier days.”

First, I’m sure we can all sympathize. While I didn’t experience 2022 that way, I’ve known my share of difficult times. We all have!

So I feel for this pastor, but even still… As a Christian, I’d sure want to say more than he said in this tweet!

And the first and most important thing I’d want to say is this: While I’m sure 2022 was hard for this pastor, it was only as hard as God wanted it to be for him. After all, nothing happened to any of us in the previous twelve months that God, in his sovereign love for his children, didn’t allow to happen for his children’s ultimate good: Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Maybe it will take years for this pastor to see what God was up to in 2022—or maybe he’ll only see it in eternity… after he gets to heaven. But some day God’s good purposes for this difficult year of 2022 will become clear to him

But here’s what I believe… If this pastor could only see—right now—all the good that God was accomplishing for him, all the good that God was working in him and through him and for him—even in the midst of the difficult year of 2022—then I believe this pastor would fall on his knees and thank God and praise God and glorify God for this past year! He would not say, “Here’s to better days”! Because the days of 2022 were exactly as good or bad as they should have been… And they were already far better than he could imagine!

After all, does this pastor not believe that God is a perfectly loving Father? Does he imagine that God his Father loves him less than a typical human father loves his own children?

What human father wouldn’t do his very best for his children—assuming this father has the power, the ability, the money, and the resources to do so… What human father would fail to give his children what’s best for them? What human father wouldn’t act in his children’s best interest?

No… even sinful human parents typically love their children more than life—and would always do their best for them if they were able.

Do we dare think that God our Father would do less for his children?

And if a father gives the very best gifts that he can give to his child, should that child turn around and say, “These aren’t good enough. I don’t want these. You can do better, father”? Perish the thought!

Jesus makes this point himself when he says, in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Even when we can’t see what God is up to, or how he’s working good in the midst of difficult circumstances, we’re supposed to trust him: We’re supposed to say, “I know God has got something good for me in this, even if I can’t know what it is right now. I know that whatever God is doing in my life right now, he’s doing out of perfect love for me—even if it’s incredibly hard.” 

I’m not saying we passively accept whatever is happening… If we don’t like what God is currently giving us, we need to pray. And if God gives us what you pray for, then we can be sure that even praying these prayers, and watching these prayers get answered, was for our own good! God wanted to bring us to a place where we would pray these prayers!

As the great nineteenth-century English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Anything that causes us to pray is a blessing.”

Consider Jesus in today’s scripture: The Holy Spirit descends on him in verse 16, and then, in verse 17, he hears the voice of his Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That sounds like God the Father couldn’t love his Son more, right? The Father couldn’t be prouder of Jesus! Couldn’t be more pleased with him! Now look at the next verse… the very next verse: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” 

Brothers and sisters, it wasn’t in spite of the fact that Jesus was God’s beloved Son, in spite of the fact that God was “well pleased” with him,that Jesus had to endure the most difficult forty days of his life at that point. It was because Jesus was God’s beloved Son, because God was well pleased with him… God the Father was not powerless to prevent his beloved Son from being tempted by the devil. The Father didn’t say, “I wish that my beloved Son didn’t have to go through all this bad stuff, but I don’t have the power to prevent it from happening.” By no means! Look at Matthew 4:1! It says that the Spirit himself—the Holy Spirit himself, who is God the Third Person of the Trinity—led Jesus… led Jesus… into this incredibly difficult period of temptation!

And of course, the Holy Spirit will go on leading Jesus every step of the way for the next three years of his ministry… and lead him up those incredibly difficult steps to the hill called Calvary, lead him up those incredibly difficult steps to the cross!

To say the least, none of the “hard stuff” that Jesus had to endure was in spite of his Father’s love for him! It was always only because of his Father’s love!

God never loves his children in spite of anything 

Do we believe that?

As one newsworthy example, God doesn’t love Damar Hamlin in spite of whatever caused his heart to stop beating during last Monday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. In case you didn’t hear, Damar Hamlin is the 24-year-old Bills safety who suffered a cardiac arrest after what appeared to be a routine tackle. At this moment, I’m relieved to say that Hamlin is recovering. Of course we don’t know whether he’ll be able to resume his football career, assuming he’d want to—there are many unknowns at this point… 

But God’s love for Hamlin is not in spite of this terrible, tragic thing that happened… 

And if, God willing, Hamlin is able to recover, and when he reaches the end of the year 2023, he will likely be able to tweet out, “This was the hardest year of my life. But I thank God for it. Look how God loved me!” 

Hamlin—like everyone else who places their faith in Jesus—is a beloved child of God, and he will have seen the power of God at work through his incredibly difficult experience—and he will have seen God at work through his teammates and coaches and fans… I mean, you had an ESPN broadcaster, leading other ESPN broadcasters, in prayer, on national TV. 

To God be the glory! You know God is doing something powerful through all of this!

But I am sure that Damar Hamlin, if he recovers, will be able say, “I thank God for this incredibly difficult experience”… maybe he’ll say, “I thank God especially for this experience.”

But, God forbid, if things go in the opposite direction… if worst comes to worst and he doesn’t recover… If the healing that so many millions of people in this country and around the world have been praying for happens not in this world but in the world to come—if Hamlin soon leaves this world to be with Jesus in Paradise—well, I know this for sure… I know for sure what Hamlin will say… He’ll say, “I thank God for this incredibly difficult experience. Because what I have right now is better than anything!”

Either way, Hamlin will look back on his experience and know for sure that God loves him… And he will see all the ways that God was loving him even through this difficult trial that he experienced this year!

There won’t be an “in spite of”! There will only be a “because of.” Because of God’s love for Hamlin, here’s what God did…

And so it is with us…

When it comes to God’s love, there is no “in spite of”…

Let’s look again at verses 16 and 17: 

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Bible says that through faith in Christ—and through the baptism that is its seal and symbol—a great exchange takes place: We give our sins to Christ, and he suffers the punishment for them. In return he gives us his righteousness. The Bible says that through baptism our life becomes connected to Christ, so that what’s true of him is now true of us. His death counts as our death. His righteousness counts as our righteousness. Just as he received the Holy Spirit, so we receive the Spirit. Just as he is resurrected, so we will be resurrected. Just as the Father tells him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” so our Father speaks those words to us—his adopted children.

Our baptism says, “You’re now part of God’s family. You are now God’s beloved son or God’s beloved daughter… because of your faith in Christ. And God is well pleased with you… God is giving his favor to you.”

In fact, it may be helpful to review some of God’s promises to us, all of which are confirmed, sealed, and symbolized through our baptism:

As I just said, we are a highly favored sons or daughters of our heavenly Father, 1 chosen by him to be his child before the foundation of the world, 2 adopted into his family through faith in Christ… Our Father chose each of us to be his “treasured possession.” 3

Our Father has numbered every hair on our heads, he values us so much. 4 He promises only to give us good gifts. 5 He promises only to give us what we need. 6 He promises always to be on our side. 7 He promises that because he’s for us, nothing or no one can ultimately be against us. 8 He promises that he loves us, his children, exactly as much as he loves his Son Jesus. 9 He promises to work all things in the universe together for our good. 10

So… Point Number Two: What does baptism mean for us? It means that God will keep all of these promises!

Surely one reason Christ has given us this outward, visible, tangible,and physical sign of baptism is because the inward, spiritual, eternal, invisible reality doesn’t always or often seem obvious. Christ gave us baptism in part because he knows that we so easily get distracted by our feelings, misdirected by our feelings, diverted by our feelings. 

Jesus gave us the sign of baptism because our feelings so often deceive us. 

Baptism tells us: “It doesn’t matter how I feel at this moment; what matters is that God has done this objective thing within me—he’s given me saving grace, he’s given me new birth, he’s made me part of his family forever… and even though I can’t see it, and I can’t always feel it, it’s real… it’s solid… it’s substantial…it’s more substantial than anything in this world.And it changes everything. 

And I can know for sure that God has done of these things within me, not by how ‘different’ I feel right now (because feelings are unreliable), but because of my outward, visible, tangible, and physical baptism. My baptism happened… Even if I was just a little baby at the time, there were witnesses there to observe it. My parents were there. My family and friends were there. 

It happened. 

Well, guess what? So did my salvation… so did God’s gift to me of eternal life… so did the great exchange of my sin for Christ’s righteousness… so did becoming part of God’s family forever… so did my receiving the Holy Spirit… so did God’s declaration over me, “You—even you, Brent White—are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”

These things happened…

Can we even comprehend how much God loves us!

And when you come to the font during this closing song (or hymn) and touch the water, tell yourself, “God’s love for me, and all that that love entails, and all that he promises to give me… are at least as real and substantial as this water… that I can touch… that I can see… that I can hear”…

So come… and “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Amen.

  1.  Luke 2:14
  2.  Romans 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:1
  3.  Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18
  4.  Luke 12:6-7
  5.  Matthew 7:11
  6.  Luke 11:11-13
  7.  Romans 8:31
  8.  1 Corinthians 3:21-23
  9.  John 17:23
  10.  Romans 8:28

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