Today, in the midst of concerns regarding a global pandemic, in the midst of the tensions of massive political campaigns and Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in the midst of worries about a struggling economy and confusion about what is the safest and most prudent way forward, something amazing has happened. And it did not happen out on the campaign trail or in the chambers of the United States Senate, it happened right here in this church. Right here a little infant boy was carried in the arms of his parents to the waters of baptism. To be sure, it did not look like much. The heavens did not part and the voice of God did not thunder down from above. No one was caught up in some sort of ecstatic vision and I do not think anyone started speaking in tongues. It was just a baby boy with water poured over his head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. An old ritual of the Church, an ancient practice that has happened too many times to count.
Yet, there are amazing promises attached to this simple, lowly act. Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The apostle Paul says to the church in Rome, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). And in his letter to the church in Colossae, He compares this act to circumcision which was done when a child was only 8 days old saying, “You, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:13-14). Of course, good old Saint Peter refers to the saving of Noah and his family in the ark and says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). These are huge promises. They speak of death and life, of hope and eternal salvation worked by God through the cross of Christ, given to you in baptism.
But when we see it play out before our eyes it is not as impressive as it sounds. To be honest, it simply does not make much sense that this simple act can give such great things. It looks far more like some empty tradition of the Church than it does a mighty working of God. Oh, we like to dress it up if we can. We light the candle and sing the hymns and pray the Lord’s Prayer but, in the end, it is still just the promise of God and the washing of water and the repeating of Words which have been said so many times in the history of the Church they do not even cause us to be filled with wonder or surprise any more. Common sense would suggest a baptism ought to be something more.
But then again, God’s ways are not exactly our ways, are they? As the prophet Isaiah spoke of hope and restoration to the people of Israel, he talked about a deliverer who would bring them out of bondage in Babylon. He says,
“Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue the nations before him and loose the belt of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed”(Isaiah 45:1)
So, you can imagine Israel filled with joy and excitement at this news. They were awaiting the coming anointed one, a savior, who would deliver them from their captivity. They did not yet know who exactly it was, but they knew his name, Cyrus. And they knew he would be an instrument of the Almighty God to set them free, to restore them to their homes, and even restore the gifts of the temple in Jerusalem. Oh, how their minds must have raced imagining who this might be and longing for his arrival.
Then he came. Not within the month or the year but several hundred years later he came. The promised anointed one would finally show up, but no one could have imagined just what this deliverer would look like. Cyrus turns out to be Cyrus the Great, and great he was. He was the powerful king of the mighty Persian empire. A pagan ruler who did not pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would surround the city of Babylon in 539 BC. His might and reputation were so established that the priests of Marduk, the god of Babylon, would submit and declare Cyrus to be the chosen king of Babylon itself. They then opened the city gates and allowed him to enter and take the city without the spilling of blood. It is as if God Himself was holding his hand paving the way before him.
An unbeliever, an outsider, a foreign king of unrivaled power was the long-awaited deliverer of the people of God. As king of Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to their land. He even allowed them to take back the furnishings of the Temple to restart their worship and sacrifices. Isaiah says he was anointed by God. That word “anointed” is the Hebrew word “Messiah” which, when brought into the Greek, becomes “Christ.” Now, this does not make any sense. Why not raise up a savior from among His own people? Why do it this way? Why allow the glory of a pagan king to serve as the deliverer of Israel? Why make Cyrus the Great a foreshadowing of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to Cyrus, “For the sake of the my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:4-5). The lesson of Cyrus the Great is the lesson of the sovereignty of our God. He can and will do whatever He desires to achieve His goals. All of creation is at His disposal. All we might consider good and righteous are His. Yet, all we would deem unworthy or even evil are also tools in His hands. Satan himself cannot escape the grasp of the Almighty God. For in the end there is no other. He says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).
So, our God will call Abraham out of worshiping false gods and promise to make him into a great nation more numerous than the stars in the sky. He will use a convicted murderer to stand up to Pharaoh and lead His People out of Egypt to the promised land. He will wield the empire building aspirations of a Persian King to deliver His captured children. And He will take on our flesh to do what we could not do. He will be born of a virgin in a small, backwater town. He will suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders of His day. He will endure excruciating pian and die a horrible death to be the final sacrifice, the final deliverer of all mankind. But He is not done there. No, your God will use a fierce persecutor of the Church to be its most famous Apostle. He will go on to use the weak and the lowly, the forgotten and the discarded, slaves and kings alike to make His promises known. Not just in Israel or Rome or Europe but around the world.
Which brings us back to baptism. That almost silly tradition of the Church. Some water and some words, a ritual honed by time and practice. We want more. This does not make much sense to us. How can this be the choosing of God? How can this be the moment when we know we are saved? How can such a thing be our death and resurrection in Christ? Yet, it is precisely here where God places His promises. It is all His anyway: His water, His words, His gifts for each of you. No matter how old or faithful or good you are, here He speaks to you like He spoke to Cyrus saying, “I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God.”