- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: February 25 2021 February 25 2021
Several years ago something rare occurred in California's Death Valley National Park. Death Valley, appropriately named, is one of the hottest places in the world; ground-level temperatures can reach up to 200 degrees in the summer. We drove through Death Valley in the summer of 2002 moving from southern California to St. Louis Missouri to attend Concordia Seminary. Death Valley is a hot and desolate place to say the least!
The winter storms of 2004 brought unusual and record amounts of rainfall to southern California including six inches of rain to this dry desert. This small amount, three times more than normal, produced a rare super bloom that hadn't occurred in almost fifty years. A vast and wide array of wildflowers sprouted up and bloomed in this dry and desolate valley of death. Experts say that these wildflower seeds can hibernate for decades and then sprout to life with just the right amount of moisture. The very waters that brought mudslides, death and destruction to the western part of the country brought with it life in the desert!
Sound familiar? If this doesn’t remind us of the flood account recorded in Genesis, then it should at least remind us of our own baptism. Like those dormant seeds that were raised to life in a valley of death, we too have been raised from death to life through our baptismal waters. St. Paul writes, “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).
Life through death, life in the dry, desolate, desert like places of this world through our death and resurrection with Jesus. This is the Christian life. This is especially true for us in the holy season of Lent as we journey over these forty days through the desert, the wilderness, with Jesus to Holy Week and Easter. And so, Lent and Baptism, Baptism and Lent, go together.
In the early church, Lent was a time when catechumens completed their catechesis instruction, preparing to renounce the world and be baptized into the Christian faith at the Easter Vigil. The connection of Lent and Baptism, however, is much deeper than this historical tie. Even as Lent is a time that the church focuses more intently on the suffering, passion and cross of our Lord Jesus, so there is an inescapable bond between Jesus' death and our baptism.
As one theologian put it, “We never speak adequately about Christ's passion unless we also eventually speak of our baptism, and we never speak adequately of our baptism unless we connect it to the cross and grave of our Lord.” 1 This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” 2 Bonhoeffer spoke of our death to sin and self in the context of baptism. He continued,
Every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. 3
The penitential season of Lent calls us to die to sin, to die with Jesus, that we may also rise and live with Him. This is what our baptism into Jesus did and continues to do for us.
Luther reminds us that the whole “Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.” 4 Why? Luther explains, “For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth.” 5 That is, we must die daily to sin with Jesus and rise with Him to new life.
Repentance, Luther says, “is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism … What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it." 6
Lent and Baptism, death and life, repentance and faith, are all connected to Jesus. Like those wildflowers that sprouted up and bloomed in Death Valley, so our Lord has raised us to new life even as we live in this valley of sorrow and death. And as we follow Him through the valley of Lent He bids us to die with Him; to die to our self-seeking wills, our self-centered agendas, our coveting, our envy, our greed, our pride, our hatred, our unhealthy attachments to this world, our lack of faith and trust in Him and His Father's will. He calls us to die with Him so that we may also live with Him.
And so the only way to really live is to die with Jesus. Or as Harold Senkbeil puts it in his book Dying to Live, “There's no other way to live than through the death of Jesus. We're all dying; we can either die alone, or we can die in Jesus. But His death brings life, and it's when we die with Him that really begin to live." 7
Thankfully, what God began in our baptism, connecting us and grafting us into the death and resurrection of Jesus, He continues to do for us today by the power of His Word and Spirit, burying us with Christ Jesus and raising us anew to live in and with Him. Life in the desert of Lent comes through our baptism into Jesus. And in this same Jesus life sprouts up, blooms and bears the abundant fruit of new life (John 15:16) even in the deserts and wildernesses, the valleys of sorrow and death, in this world as we look forward to and pray for the fullness of life in the world to come.
- Gilbert Meilaender, Love Taking Shape: Sermons for the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 89.
- Bonhoeffer, 84.
- Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, IV, 66.
- Luther, IV, 66.
- Luther, IV, 79, 76.
- Harold L. Senkbeil, Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness (St. Louis, MO: CPH, 1994), 55.
Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at nettleton@StJohnsFC.org or at 970-305-2420.