Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trinity's Baptismal Lesson

We don't yet have a date for Jackson's baptism, but I'm hopeful that the elders will allow me to bring a short lesson on the sacrament prior to his actual sprinkling. And as I started putting some thought into what I'd like to say, I recalled that I never posted the teaching I did two years ago (at Trinity's baptism) as some of you had requested! Sorry about that... but as the adage goes: better late than never! Here's what I had to say on the subject a couple years ago:


I would like to begin by thanking the elders for the opportunity to address the congregation on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism. In our day and age ecclesiology is a convoluted and complex issue, if it is made an issue at all… and I tremendously appreciate their willingness to include me in Trinity’s baptism.

I’d like to speak to you, briefly, on the biblical theology of vines and olive trees. You may remember that Jeremy spoke several weeks ago on the biblical doctrine of rocks, and vines are a similar example of how the Holy Spirit makes use of the same metaphorical language throughout the scriptures.

Now, when I mention vines and olive trees, Psalm 80 is probably not the first passage to pop into your head; yet it is highly instructive on how the imagery of the vine is used throughout the entire Bible. Listen to verses 7-15 “Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved. Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst [room] before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof [were like] the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. Why hast thou [then] broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine; And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch [that] thou madest strong for thyself.”

From this passage, we learn that the picture of the vine, and sometimes the olive or the fig tree, is frequently used as a symbol of the nation of Israel. And in the passages in which this is the case, the prosperity of the vine frequently pictures the prosperity of Israel. Is the vine healthy, and bearing abundant fruit? If so, the story probably centers around an obedient Israel, a nation doing God’s will and being rewarded accordingly. Conversely, if the story describes a fruitless fig tree, such as the one Jesus cursed in Matthew 21, then we’re probably being instructed on the consequences meted out on an unfaithful Israel.

The Apostle Paul takes his cue from this language when he speaks of God’s covenant people in the same way. Listen as I read again from Romans 11 (v18-22) “Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, [take heed] lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in [his] goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” – Here we see the continuity of God’s covenant with Adam extended to the New Testament faithful. Note that it’s still the same tree as in the Old Testament; it just looks a bit different due to some pruning and grafting. We also see the metaphor mature from being simply a blanket application to covenant Israel, to a more complex picture of both the covenant as a whole and some of its particular members. The apostle closes this illustration with a sober warning about the consequences of “not continuing in God’s goodness.” Both fruitless branches and branches which bear evil fruit will be cut off the tree; that is, removed from the number of God’s covenant faithful by means of public excommunication. The apostate fail to truly abide in the vine per John 15:5 “I am the vine, ye [are] the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”

So if departure from the covenant (or “breaking off”) is seen in excommunication, what does it look like in time and history when the covenant is enlarged? What are the means that God uses to grow his covenant vine? There are two correct answers to these questions.

Of course one of God’s ordained means is seen in the Romans 11 passage we just read: grafting, or evangelism. This is impressively portrayed throughout the book of Acts as the apostles spread the news of Christ’s death and resurrection to Cornelius, Lydia, and many other gentiles; bringing them into the covenant and baptizing them in recognition of their engrafting. In fact all of history is generously peppered with stories of God’s mighty work through His prophets and evangelists. And for us number-savvy Americans, it would seem quite clear that this should be God’s primary tactic for expanding His kingdom on earth.

But God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts our thoughts. And what a monumental understatement! Seriously now, which of us would have thought to have the Savior of the world born in a stable? Or who would have suggested to God, “You know, it might be a good idea to place your people in slavery in Egypt for 400 years or so.”

So while I certainly don’t want to disparage or minimize the importance of evangelism (after all, scripture commands us to do it!), I think it would be a mistake to assume that it is God’s primary means of producing fruit on the vine. Just think about it for a moment: does a vine produce more fruit by means of grafting or by natural growth? Of course the answer is the latter. In fact, in viticulture, grafting is never intended as a final goal, but is itself a means to future growth!

Thus even though it is technically correct to say that we were grafted into the covenant as gentiles in the early history of the church, our children should not be thought of as grafted branches; because in a very real sense, they are feeding on the vine and are growing naturally from that nourishment. Trinity can be thought of as a blossom on our family's branch of the covenant, and her baptism is rightly considered as her first fruit. Some might argue that the baptism itself is her entry into the covenant, and it's true that we can view it as the formalization of her covenant membership. But remember that she is natural growth on the vine of New Israel. And as Calvin said, in essence, our children aren’t in the covenant because they are baptized; rather we baptize them because they are in the covenant. The baptism you are about to witness is God growing His kingdom; down through our generations and out into the world.

Since the “Daniel ----” branch on the covenant grew, in turn, from the “Paul ----” and “Clark ----” branches; and since both of Trinity’s grandfathers are here today, I’d like to close by reading for them the blessing from Psalm 128 as a reminder to us all of God’s covenant faithfulness: “Blessed [is] every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy [shalt] thou [be], and [it shall be] well with thee. Thy wife [shall be] as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table. Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD. The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life. Yea, thou shalt see thy children's children, [and] peace upon Israel.”

Amen!


Lord willing I'll post my teaching from Jackson's baptism at a later date.

1 comment:

JubilateDeo said...

Ahh, such sweet memories of that day! God is good all the time, and we look forward expectantly to hearing more of His blessings for the righteous, shared in Jackson's baptismal teaching. Love from the Clark" branch in Hayward