“The Sacrament of Holy Baptism: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?”

Midweek Lenten Service
Wednesday, March 15, 2023

“The Sacrament of Holy Baptism: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?”

Today we continue our series on the six chief parts of the catechism, and we come to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. And the catechism has some pretty impressive things to say about Baptism: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”

“Wow! That’s quite a list! And you’re telling me that Baptism does all of that? That Baptism actually works? That it accomplishes such marvelous things? You’re kidding me, right? Just pouring some water over somebody’s head can forgive their sins and give them eternal life and salvation? Come on! You expect me to believe that?”

Why, yes, I do! I do expect you to believe that Baptism does those things. And today I’ll tell you why and how, under the theme: “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism: How Can Water Do Such Great Things?”

To illustrate this point about how unimpressive water can do some pretty amazing things, I’m going to go back to the Old Testament story of the cleansing of Naaman, as you heard in the reading from 2 Kings, chapter 5.

Naaman was a great and powerful man, the top army general for the nation of Syria. “He was a mighty man of valor,” it says, “but he was a leper.” Leprosy is a dreaded skin disease. It’s an infectious disease that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. It disfigures the body, and it gets worse over time. Naaman was a mighty man, but he had no power to stop the leprosy that had begun to afflict his body.

It looked hopeless for Naaman. There was no chance for him to get better. But there was this servant girl in his household, and she was an Israelite. She knew that through the Lord, the God of Israel, there was hope for her master. She knew there was a prophet of God in Israel who could help him, who could actually cure him of his leprosy.

The servant girl tells Mrs. Naaman, Mrs. Naaman tells her husband, and Naaman then tells his king: “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria says, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman sets out for Israel, taking with him a big load of loot for the king of Israel. Naaman figures this will help to secure him a healing. Like this is something you could buy.

So Naaman arrives in the capital of Israel, and he presents a letter from the king of Syria to the king of Israel. It says: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

Lots of money, a letter from one king to another, on behalf of a mighty general–if a healing could be arranged by human means, this would surely do it. But no, kings have no power to do what only God can do. Money can’t buy you a healing from leprosy.

The king of Israel knows that he does not have the power to do what the king of Syria is asking for. In his distress, he tears his clothes and says, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?”

“But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’” The answer to the problem, the power to heal, will come not from a mighty king, but rather from a lowly prophet, a preacher, a man of God with only the word of God at his disposal.

“So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him.” Notice, Naaman goes from a king’s palace, to a prophet’s house, and then, when he gets there, only a messenger comes out to meet him. It’s a bit of a letdown, each step of the way.

But the messenger has a word from the Lord to give to Naaman: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” Well, this is not what Naaman was expecting. The whole thing is a major letdown. Naaman says: “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.” No, Naaman, no big display. Just a word to go on, a word to go and wash in the Jordan.

Go and wash . . . in the Jordan? That too is not very impressive: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” You see, if you were basing the power to heal on the impressiveness of the water, Naaman would be right. I’ve been to the Jordan, I’ve seen it, and it is no mighty Mississippi. It’s not much of a river, as rivers go.

So Naaman goes off in a huff. But his servants tell him: “It is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So Naaman goes and washes himself in the Jordan, “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

“Wash, and be clean.” No amount of wealth, no king’s letter, no king’s power could get the job done. Only God has the power to heal leprosy. Only a word from the Lord will do the job. Even if delivered by a humble messenger, the word will do the work. And if the Lord chooses to attach his word to water as his means? Even if that water is not impressive, if it’s got God’s word working through it, the result is complete cleansing.

Now the message to us is clear. The first thing is, we have a problem much worse than leprosy. Worse than any skin disease is our sin disease. Sin–disobedience to God, defiance of his will–this is the disease that infects us all. And it’s a killer. Our sin disease is terminal. Eternal death is the end result. And we can’t do anything to heal ourselves. No amount of money or power can cure us of sin or deliver us from death.

Only God can do those things. And he has acted to bring about the cure. God sent his own Son into the world to pay the price that sets us free. That price is far more costly than “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing.” The price that was paid was the blood of Christ Jesus, our Savior, shed on the cross. You and I have been redeemed “not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”

But how does that redemption, that cleansing, get delivered to us? Through means. The means of grace, Word and Sacrament–these are the tools, the instruments, that the Holy Spirit uses to deliver the goods to us. And these means of grace are rather humble and ordinary-looking. In the case of Baptism, it’s just some water–and not very impressive-looking water, at that. But with the water, combined with it, is a great and mighty word from the Lord, “Wash, and be clean.”

Holy Baptism does for us, in an even greater way, what the washing in the Jordan did for Naaman. There is a parallel between the two, Naaman’s cleansing and ours in Baptism. Back in the second century, the early church father Irenaeus wrote: “It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but this served as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes.”

And it is the word that does it! When the word of God is attached to the water, you can know for sure that God is at work, doing a mighty cleansing. Baptism works. “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

“How can water do such great things?” The catechism tells us: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Dear friends, just as Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy by the washing of the water and the word, so you and I have been cleansed of our spiritual leprosy by the washing of the water and the word. Wherever the Lord has attached his mighty gospel word, assuring us of forgiveness and life because of Christ, there God is at work to do what his word says. Trust in his word. Thank God for the cleansing he has given you in Holy Baptism. God’s word will never let you down. No matter how unimpressive his works may appear, God does mighty miracles through lowly means. For Naaman, it happened in in the waters of the Jordan. For us, it happens in the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. “How can water do such great things?” Answer: By the power of God’s creative, life-giving word.


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