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The Great Physician: Was Powerfully Declared

The Baptism of our Lord, 13 January 2019
A Sermon on Luke 3:15-22 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS

Luke 3:15-22 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and together the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Great Physician: Was Powerfully Declared

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Listening to John the Baptist is like listening to your doctor when the news is bad. You may not want to hear bad news. You may feel stunned that there could be bad news. You may get angry with the doctor for having nothing but bad news to share with you. How you feel about getting bad news and how you feel about the person delivering the bad news is all about you. But, at the end of the day, how you feel doesn’t change in the slightest bit that there is bad news to hear.

Well, I don’t like bad news. Bad news stinks. I hate cancer. I hate lying. I hate cheating. I hate sin, death, and evil. But how I feel about all those things doesn’t change in the slightest bit that sin, death, and evil exist. And…each one of us is born into bondage to sin, death, and evil. That’s the bad news. That’s the truth. And not wanting to hear it doesn’t make it go away any more than not wanting to hear bad news from your doctor can’t make the bad news go away.

Five and then four Sundays ago, Luke introduced us to John the Baptist fully grown, preaching repentance and calling people to receive a washing of forgiveness. From before his conception, the Lord God had chosen John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of His Son Jesus. Let us be clear once again: John’s baptism is not Christian baptism. It is a rite of preparation for the Messiah’s coming. It is a rite that does not continue after John’s arrest and beheading. In other words, once the Lord Jesus appears in the flesh, John’s ministry of preparation is done.

So, if Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, and sinless, why does He come to John for Baptism? It is the completion of John’s preparatory work. Once John has prepared the way for Jesus and has anointed Him with water, once the Holy Spirit has descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove, and once the Father has declared Jesus as beloved Son with whom He is pleased – then, John has done everything God has called him to do. All that is left after that is for John to preach bad news to King Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife Herodias and to be martyred. John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets to be martyred, just as Stephen will be the first of the New Testament servants to be martyred. Indeed, our Lord Jesus will weep over Jerusalem before His crucifixion saying: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (13:34). Jerusalem has become emblematic of those who stop their ears to God’s bad news. They will die in their bondage to sin, death, and evil. God forbid that anyone should die with such closed ears!

Did John not understand? Or, is it we?

Foolish, narcissistic readers of God’s Word say stupid things like, “John did not understand God’s love,” or worse, “Jesus had to be taught about God’s love or about showing mercy.” Nonsense!

Good parents understand all too well that love is not abusive, but love is also not weakness in response to evil behavior. Physical or emotional abuse is not a sign of parental love. Indeed, it is the absence of love. But, in the same way, failing to speak a clear no to a child’s evil behavior and failing to hold that child accountable for evil behavior is an absence of love not only of the child but of God and one’s neighbors. Woe to the parent who confuses permissiveness with love.

Novelist Chaim Potok wrote “The Chosen,” a book about growing up Jewish in New York in the mid-20th century. Two sons of rabbis, one a Conservative observant Jew and another a Hasidic Jew. As the friendship grows by the permission of the Hasidic rabbi, the storyteller is aghast that the Hasidic rabbi only speaks to his son when studying the Scriptures and hardly more than that. The Hasidic boy grows to adulthood in virtual silence, and, because of that, he ends up studying psychology. When the boys are on the cusp of manhood, the Hasidic rabbi explains to both why he raised his oldest son as he did. He explained that the child was so brilliant and precocious already as a toddler, that the father saw the son reading a book with pictures of suffering and responding with laughter. The father exclaimed, “Master of the Universe, how could you give me such a brilliant child and yet for him to have no soul.” And so, through silence he taught his son about suffering. There was a severe love, but a passionate love, in his stewardship of the boy.

We live in a culture greatly confused about God and about love. Yes, because of some excessive severity, but more on account of an unwillingness to be faithful to God as parents, our culture has literally tried to emasculate God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For more than sixty years, Christ-less, cross-less Christianity, which is little more than the baptizing of bad therapy, has overtaken many churches and certainly American culture. From the 1970s on, biblical literacy was replaced by biblical illiteracy. Many teachers in seminaries and church colleges espouse doctrine that would cause Martin Luther and the early church fathers to cry out with one voice, “No!”

We must say it again, as John and our Lord Jesus said: “Repent! Turn around! Have a change of heart and mind.” God despises sin. His response to sin and evil is wrathful. Death is His verdict! The wages of sin is death. That’s the bad news!

The fire of the Holy Spirit

Apart from Christ, we find only a God of wrath. But through Christ, we are embraced by a tender Father who loves us more than His own life. Martin Luther calls this the happy exchange (der froehliche Wechsel), whereby God in Christ takes our sin and our death upon Himself on the cross and gives us in exchange His eternal life and righteousness.

When Christ Jesus is baptized by John and powerfully declared to be God’s beloved Son and filled with the Holy Spirit, it is the beginning of His saving work for us. In the Jordan River, He “… is marked as the one to bear God’s wrath that burns with ‘unquenchable fire’… He will do what Adam and Eve could not do and we cannot do: to be faithful to the Father in all things, even unto death, and therefore conquer the tempter” (Arthur Just, Concordia Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:50, 139).

So, then, when we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit that fell on the apostles like tongues of fire on Pentecost. We are marked with Christ’s holy cross and powerfully declared beloved sons and daughters because of the Great Physician’s saving work. As Peter later writes, “Baptism saves us” – and not because of the mere application of water, but because of the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus to which we are joined by His promise (1 Peter 3:21). Receiving the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit of the living God falls on us again and again through God’s fiery Word written, spoken, and enacted in the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit creates faith in us through our hearing of the fiery Word of God, and so it is that we keep the Sabbath by gladly hearing and learning God’s Word that kills sinners and raises beloved sons and daughters from the dead through Christ’s fiery Word of forgiveness!

Dear ones, I am never surprised by unbelief in the culture around us. Because of sin and evil and the fear of death, the surrounding culture narcissistically fills its ears with false gospels that offer what they cannot deliver. Oh, yes, they will almost always give just enough of a penultimate payday, like winning a few dollars now and then off the Lotto, to keep the suckers coming back for more. No surprise there. But they cannot give forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. Only Jesus can!

The sad truth about Christians is the rampant unbelief that does not heed the voice of Jesus. He doesn’t say: “This is like my body” or “This represents my body” or “This symbolizes my body” or “This is a reminder of my body.” Rather, our Lord Jesus Christ makes a promise without metaphor, simile, example, or mnemonic device! He promises, “This is my Body. This is my Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s not merely the elements that one might have at Carrabba’s, Bonefish, Ruth’s Chris, or wherever one might have bread and wine with a meal. Rather, there’s only once place where He promises to be so intimately. And if you don’t believe it’s Jesus here, then you probably don’t believe He is God in human flesh. But, if you do believe He is God in human flesh, and you do believe you are in bondage to sin, death, and evil and cannot free yourself, then why not go all in and trust His promise that this is His Body and Blood given and shed for you?

So, dear ones, in my first sermon of 2019, I ask you very simply: “If you believe Christ’s promise is true, how can you possibly ever go more than one week without receiving your Lord where He has promised to be for you?” The Great Physician was powerfully declared by the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Jordan River. He is still powerfully declared in His fiery Word and Sacraments for you!

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert
The Great Physician: Was Powerfully Declared!


“Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful in their calling to be your children and inheritors with him of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 272-273).


Luke 3:16 “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

St. Cyril [late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria]: “This too is of great importance for the proof and demonstration that Jesus is God and Lord. For it is the sole and peculiar property of the Substance that transcends all, to be able to bestow on people the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and make those that draw near unto it partakers of the divine nature. But this exists in Christ, not as a thing received, nor by communication from another, but as his own and as belonging to his substance. He baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 63).

Luke 3:16 “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

St. Cyril [4th century Patriarch of Jerusalem]: “John, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, was sanctified for the purpose of baptizing the Lord. John himself did not impart the Spirit but preached the glad tidings of him who does… Why fire? Because the descent of the Holy Spirit was in fiery tongues.” (63-64).

Luke 3: 22 “and the Holy Spirit descended on him… like a dove; and a voice came from heaven ….”

St. Ambrose [4th century Bishop of Milan]: “Now, let us consider the mystery of the Trinity. We say, ‘one God,’ but we confess the Father, and we confess the Son. For although it is written, ‘You shall love the Lord they God and serve him alone,’ the Son denied that he is alone, saying, ‘I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’ Nor is he alone now, for the Father bears witness that he is present. The Holy Spirit is present, because the Trinity can never be separated from Itself” (66).

Luke 3: 22 “and the Holy Spirit descended on him… like a dove; and a voice came from heaven ….”

St. Gregory Nazianzus [4th century Patriarch of Constantinople]: “Christ is born; the Spirit is his forerunner. Christ is baptized; the Spirit bears him witness. Christ is tempted. The Spirit leads him up. Christ performs miracles. The Spirit accompanies him. Christ ascends. The Spirit fills his place” (67).


1. Do I trust God’s Word when He declares that I am God’s child forever?

2. When someone questions how God can be three and yet One, do you respond: “How is it that you expect God to conform to your time-and-space limited, mortal ideas about what is reasonable or possible, when the God who made you and all things is unlimited and eternal?”


The Lord’s Prayer (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.

The Third Petition

Thy will be done.

What does this mean?

The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?

God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.


1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.

2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend what it means to pray to do God’s will specifically within the context of your life together and your relationships. Put into your calendar weekly worship and Bible study to conform your life to the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

4. Don’t spend your time fretting over New Year’s resolutions that are easily broken by a sinful human nature. Rather show up for worship and Bible study weekly and use your gifts to the glory of God and for the well-being of your neighbors!

5. As you begin a new calendar year and perhaps begin to work on your tax forms, take a very close look at how your management of God’s resources reflects your adoration of the precious gift of God’s beloved Son Jesus. Does your legal will reflect your gratitude to God for all that you have?

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”