“Back to the basics: He saved us”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
January 13, 1982 was an extraordinarily cold and snowy day, so cold that the Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., had closed earlier in the day. But later, just after noon, when conditions improved, Air Florida Flight 90, bound for the Tampa International Airport, was cleared for departure.
But there were a number of other aircraft also scheduled for departure, so it had to sit on the runway, along with all the other aircraft, to wait its turn.
The only problem was that, the longer it sat, the more ice built up on its wings. Then when it finally took off just after four o’clock in the afternoon, it couldn’t get enough lift. And after being airborne for about thirty seconds and reaching an altitude of three hundred and fifty feet, it crashed into the 14th Street bridge. Seventy-eight people, including four on the ground, lost their lives.
And as onlookers watched in horror from the bridge, news cameramen recorded the disaster for everyone to see. As a U.S. Park Police helicopter hovered close overhead, it plucked survivors one by one and carried them safely to shore. And of the six people in the water, all of them made it out of the water, all of them, except for one. His name was Arland Williams.
Williams was a forty-six year-old bank examiner for the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, Georgia, and had been a passenger on that flight. And after somehow managing to survive the crash, he did all he could to save the rest.
Whenever the helicopter crew dropped a life vest or a flotation ball or a lifeline, every time he gave it to someone else, someone he didn’t know. But by the time help came to save him, last of all, he was gone. He had disappeared beneath the water.
In the words of Time Magazine, “The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, personal enemy; he fought it with charity and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.”
Matthew, in his account of the gospel, tells of another Man in the water who risked everything to save us. His name is Jesus Christ.
I’ll read the words of Matthew chapter 3: “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?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 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’” (Matthew 3:13-17).
By this time, quite a lot of time had flown by. Just as soon as the Bible told of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the wise men, suddenly we meet Him again, a full grown Man, standing on the banks of the Jordan.
So what happened for the past thirty years? Where did He go and what did He do? We don’t know! The Bible doesn’t say.
As soon as He was born, shepherds came looking for a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. An old man named Simeon and a woman named Anna held Him in their arms. Then wise men came from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. When He was twelve, He amazed the teachers of the Law. He said to Mary, His mother, and Joseph, “Didn’t you know I had to be in My Father’s house?” Then for the next eighteen years, the Bible says absolutely nothing at all.
So what did He do? We guess that, for all those years, He simply grew up as “Joseph, the carpenter’s son.” There was nothing that made Him stand out, nothing by which anyone could identify Him as the world’s heaven-sent Redeemer.
Until finally one day, He stepped out of the shadows of anonymity and into the light of ministry. One day, this Man from Nazareth came to stand on the banks of the Jordan to be baptized by John.
Let’s stop there for just a moment. If I were to ask you to list the most significant events in the life of Jesus, and there were many, what would you say? You’d probably say Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension.
And it’s easy to understand why. He was born on Christmas Day. He died on the cross on Good Friday. On Easter, He rose from the dead. And on Ascension, He returned to His Father in heaven.
But of all the significant events that took place in the life of our Lord, there’s one more--His baptism in the Jordan.
And why is that so important? Because that’s the day He began the work that He came to do.
Think of how it must have been. As John began to preach in the wilderness, literally thousands came out to hear Him speak. And as they stooped down into the water, all their sins were washed away.
Then one day, of all people, who should come, but Jesus. John knew full well who He was. He was the Messiah, the Lamb of God, who had come to take away the world’s sin.
He said, “You’re coming to me? I need You to baptize me! I’m not even worthy to stoop down and untie Your shoes!”
Still Jesus answered, “Let it be so now, to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
These words are important words, because they make us remember just how important our own baptism can be.
If you could, I’d like you to think of your own baptism for a moment, and all that it means for you. Because whether you realize it or not, it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened to you.
If you were to look at it from the outside, not much seemed to have happened at all. A pastor poured water on your head and if you were like most any other child, you probably squirmed and cried.
But it was the words He spoke that made all the difference in the world. As he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he put you into the hands of our almighty God.
It wasn’t just some rite of dedication. You weren’t simply consecrated and set apart as someone special to God.
Instead, this is what happened. Your sins were forgiven. You were made part of the kingdom of God. And instead of a home on earth, you were given an everlasting home in heaven.
That’s what your baptism means for you.
How do we know it? Because that’s what the Bible says!
When Peter preached his sermon on Pentecost, three thousand people believed on Jesus’ name. And when they asked, “What must we do to be saved?” he said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
When Ananais commissioned the apostle Paul to preach and teach in Jesus’ name, he said, “Stand up and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 9:18).
When St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, he said, “You are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).
And when a jailer in Philippi felt the earth shake and saw prison doors break open, he was afraid for his life. So he said to the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” And as Paul baptized him, he said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Luther wrote in the words of his Small Catechism: “How can water do such great things? 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.”
And he wrote in the words of his Large Catechism: “How dare you interfere with God’s order, and tear away the most precious treasure with which God has connected and enclosed it, and which He will not separate! For the kernel in the water is the name of God, which is a treasure greater and more noble than heaven and earth.”
And he said: “Do you think it was a joke that, when Christ was baptized, the heavens were opened and the Holy Ghost descended visibly, and everything was divine glory and majesty? Consider if there were somewhere a physician who understood the art of saving men from dying…so that they would live forever, how the world would pour in money like snow and rain, so that because of the throng of the rich no one could find access! But here in Baptism there is brought free to everyone’s door such a treasure and medicine as utterly destroys death and preserves all men alive…So here we have that whoever rejects Baptism rejects the Word of God, faith, and Christ…but whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Born two hundred and thirty years ago, in March of 1793, Sam Houston would later serve as an general in the Mexican-American War and then as the first governor of the Republic of Texas. Today, the state of Texas remembers him as one of their favored sons.
That’s the good news. Now for the bad news.
At the tender age of sixteen, since he had absolutely no interest in farming or working in the family store, he left home to live with the Cherokees. And there he began to enjoy what he called, the “free and unsophisticated spiritual expression of the Native Americans.” As time passed, in the words of biographer Marquis James, “His lapses increased, and he got the name of a wayward boy.” And why not? As James wrote, “Frontier life was hard, and no wedding, log-rolling, dance or funeral was complete without whiskey.” Even the Cherokees would give him the name “Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee,” a name that meant, “Big drunk.”
Then in 1840, when he was forty-seven and she was twenty-one, he met and married a girl named Margaret Lea. And from that moment on, his life would never be the same.
You see, she was a Christian and for years, she prayed for him and talked with him about his need for salvation. And wonder of wonders, after sixty-one years of fighting Mexicans, fellow politicians, and his own sin, he finally turned his life over to Christ.
And he asked to be baptized. So he was, on a cold November day in 1854, in a creek, just outside of Independence, Texas.
After he was baptized, a friend came up to him and said, “Well, General, all your sins have been washed away.” To which Houston replied, “If they were all washed away, the Lord help the fish downstream.”
As another author put it: “What happens in Baptism? In Baptism we are initiated, crowned, chosen, embraced, washed, adopted, gifted, reborn, killed, and thereby sent forth and redeemed. We are identified as one of God’s own, then assigned our place and our job within the kingdom of God.”
And how is all this possible? As the apostle Paul wrote to a pastor named Titus: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).
We thank You, Lord Jesus, Son of God, that You took on Yourself the form of a servant and became like us in every way. Encourage us to remember our baptism, that we may die to sin and rise to new life in You. This we ask in Your name. Amen