Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
The Baptism of Jesus is an integral part of the season which we call Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation.” While Christmas is about the fact that God became man, Epiphany is a season celebrating the manifestations that this Man, Jesus of Nazareth, is truly God. Jesus’ baptism was done to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus’ baptism shows us what we receive in our own baptism.
Just as Jesus received the Holy Spirit when He was baptized, so do we. The Heavenly Father, who identified Jesus as His only begotten Son with Whom He was well-pleased, also identifies us as His children by adoption and is well pleased with us for the sake of Christ. During my time here, we have spoken quite a bit concerning the benefits which baptism gives, especially to babies.
But as I was reading through Mary Ellen’s obituary, I was reminded of another conversation we had in Bible study. What about those babies who die in the womb? What about miscarriages? It often happens that devout parents, particularly the wives, suffer such agony and heartbreak in child-bearing when, despite their best intentions and against their will, there was a premature birth or miscarriage and their child died at birth or was born dead. What about the children who do not have access to the divine benefits of Holy Baptism?
There are some who taught that unbaptized infants would be damned. Dante Alighieri, in his famous poem The Divine Comedy, taught that Limbo–technically the first circle of hell–included virtuous non-Christian adults in addition to unbaptized infants. These souls would not see God but they would not suffer any punishment either. The Roman Catholic church still teaches that Limbo is “a possible theological hypothesis.”
So, what do we know from Sacred Scripture? First, we know that babies are sinners in need of a Savior. Babies die because they are sinners; death is the direct result of sin, as Romans 6:23 says: “the wages of sin is death.” We also know that there is no age of accountability. Obviously, infants are held accountable for their sins; otherwise, they would not suffer deformity or death. In short, infants are not innocent. They are enemies of God and children of wrath, until the Spirit of God creates faith in them.
But why does God take some infants and spare others? Why, after every possible care had been taken, does God not allow the child to be born alive and be baptized? We do not know. We cannot, and ought not, know the hidden judgment of God in such a case. These things are beyond us. But these mothers should calm themselves and have faith that God’s will is always better than ours, though it may seem otherwise to us. Parents should be confident that God is not angry with them or with others who are involved. As the Psalmist says; “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.”
Another point which we can take comfort in is this: God has not limited his power to the sacraments, but has made a covenant with us through his word. As our wonderful hymn today expresses: “GOD is no captive Deity,/ But all things’ Source and Measure:/ The Lord of life and death is He,/ Who takes us at His pleasure.”
And again, “We are the ones constrained, not He. He never shall be captive.” God is free. While He has bound Himself to the Word and to the Sacraments for the sake of our certainty, He can do what He wills. But this is not by itself a comfort. Just because God can do something, it doesn’t mean that He will do something. We must go to the Scriptures, as our hymn does, for answers.
There are many examples that our wonderful hymn today gives. But the best is the reading from 2 Samuel 12. After his adultery with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan delivers the Lord’s consequences concerning David’s sin. There are a few which will happen in the future, like the rebellion of Absalom, but one very poignant consequence of sin will be that David’s newborn son will die. “However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.”
By divine revelation, we know that David’s sin directly caused the death of his son. But is that always the case? Many mothers feel guilt when their babies die in the womb. They feel as if they have done something to deserve this punishment. But that cannot be said. We have no Word of God which says that you, like David, caused the death of your son.
On the contrary, mothers with stillborn infants can take John 9:2-3 to heart: “And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
And David prayed hard for the life of his son. He fasted, he wept, he laid on the ground all night. And yet, his son still died. But that’s not the only heartbreak here. David’s son didn’t have a name in the reading because he wasn’t circumcised yet.
As we learned from December 31st’s Gospel reading, Jesus only received His name when He was circumcised. Why else would the first reading say: “Then on the seventh day it came to pass that the child died?” Circumcision was the sacrament of the Old Testament.
Indeed, baptism and circumcision are compared in Col. 2:11-12: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” This child didn’t receive circumcision, the sign of the covenant.
And yet, look at David’s change when he learned that his son is dead. “So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate.”
Why? Don’t you usually mourn for a child after they are dead, not before? But it shows David’s great faith and trust in the effectiveness of prayer. Listen to David’s
wonderful confession: “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?”
Our God listens to prayer. Jesus commands us to pray and promises that He will hear us. Jesus prays for us before the Father’s throne. Romans 8:26-27 applies here: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Also Ephesians 3:20 applies here, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.”
Our God listens to our prayer because Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for our sake. At His baptism, our Lord Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit for the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. At His baptism, our Lord began His trek toward another baptism, which He speaks of in Luke 12:50: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!”
That baptism was a baptism of blood. In that baptism, Jesus was dipped, not in water, but in the fire of God’s wrath and displeasure. That baptism of Jesus was accomplished on the cross at Calvary. It was that baptism which only the Son of God could undergo for our sakes.
And it was that baptism that gave us the right to pray to God and to ask Him for favor. As the explanation of the catechism says; “We pray in this petition that God would not look at our sins nor deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.”
The apostle James writes, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” While David’s prayer concerning the physical life of his son wasn’t granted, David had complete and utter confidence that God did give his son eternal life.
Listen to David’s confident words: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” The hymn which we sing today says it better than I ever could: “The infant son of David died/ Before his circumcision,/ Though much the king for mercy cried,/ Denied was his petition;/ When David yearned to go as well,/ It was not to the flames of hell/ But to the joy of heaven.”
This episode from 2 Samuel 12 teaches us quite a bit. It teaches us about the consequences of sin. It teaches us about faith and prayer. It teaches us about children who died before receiving the sacrament, either of circumcision or of baptism. And it teaches us that we do have a great promise in prayer. God promises to hear us. Of that we can be sure and certain.
This is why it is important that when husbands and wives find out that they are pregnant, that they tell the pastor. Not for gossip’s sake. But tell them so that they too might pray for the unborn child. God hears prayers. We know that not all children survive. And while you cannot give them the promise of baptism at this point, we can rely on God’s promise which He attaches to prayer.
And if, God forbid, your unborn child does die, let us bury that child with all Christian pomp and honor. Let us comfort you with God’s Word. Let us pray that God would comfort you who mourn. Let us bury that child in consecrated ground, next to all of the saints who have gone before us. You don’t need to hide it. You don’t need to suffer alone. You don’t need to pretend like the child never existed. He or she did exist. He or she did have a soul. He or she was a person. Don’t hide, but let the church help you heal.
The will of God is always best, even when we do not understand it. And so, let us take comfort where God has constrained us. He has constrained us with the command and promise of prayer.
Jesus promises in John 14:14: “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” Pray, weep, and fast while the child is alive. But when the child is dead, trust that God has graciously heard your prayer for that child on account of the merits of Christ. And so, rejoice in these words:
Dear Christian mothers, then take heart!
For grief this comfort borrow,
That if your infants should depart
In urgency and sorrow,
When you commit them first to God,
The heav’nly gate through Jesus’ blood
Is open to receive them.
Amen. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our lord. Amen.
The hymn referred to throughout this sermon can be found here.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord” copyright Edward Riojas. Used by permission. Prints are available here.