I live by one very simple rule in preaching: the shorter, the better. I have never heard a long, excellent sermon. This, no doubt, has a great deal to do with my gutter level of sanctification. It also has to do with the fact that most preaching simply bores me—not to tears, but to frustration. The office of the ministry is not enhanced by logorrhea. Say what you have to say, with precision and truth and (if possible) beauty, then vacate the pulpit. The best sermons I’ve heard have been those that ended before you wanted the preacher to shut up and sit down.
And sometimes, the best sermons aren’t preached by preachers at all. They are declarations of truth by strangers, friends, children, that are branded in your memory. One of those unforgettable, short sermons was preached to me by my three-year-old daughter on the question of why Jesus died.
We were living in Wellston, Oklahoma, where I served as a pastor of a small Lutheran church. My daughter, Auriana, was one of the first children I baptized, and, if memory serves me right, the youngest—three days old. My goal was for her to have all the Bible, Catechism, Hymnal, writings of the Church Fathers, and at least half of Dickens’ novels memorized before she was three. Though that proved a bit too optimistic, she did at least have the Catechism down by heart by her third birthday. And it was during that third year that, from her Bible-storied, catechized heart, came forth a very short sermon—a mere four words—that revealed a truth profound in its meaning, and of inestimable comfort.
One day while she was playing with her toys, I walked in, sat beside her, and began playing as well. It was a farm set, with cows and sheep and a barn and tiny bales of hay. As we played, and talked, my eye fell on the simple crucifix that hung on her wall. I pointed at the cross, and asked her, quite simply, “Sweetie, why did Jesus die?” Of course, I expected her to say something like, “To pay for our sins” or even “for me”. Instead, she looked up from her toys, over at the crucifix, back at me, then responded, “Because he was baptized.”
Because he was baptized. That’s why Jesus died. His baptism is the only baptism that there’s ever been. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” as Paul writes. What happened in that one baptism? Jesus, stepping into the Jordan, became as a sponge, to soak up the flood of our wrongdoings. To fulfill all righteousness he became our unrighteousness. He became all the bad we are, that we might become all the good he is. Jesus died on the cross because he was baptized, because he who knew no sin became sin for us, absorbing a world saturated with hatred and lies and lusts and murders and all we do wrong. And he carried it to the hill and tree of death. So even Jesus himself speaks of his death as a baptism with which he must be baptized. Of course he does. Because besides my daughter, if anyone knows what baptism really is, it’s the only one who’s ever been baptized. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” It all belongs to Jesus. But like his death and resurrection, which become our own, so his baptism becomes our own. We are joined to his oneness, and in that oneness find fullness.
But lest I be guilty of the very thing I complained about in the first paragraph, this is the end. For the sermon has already been preached in full, eleven years ago, by a little girl who knew well the man who hung upon her wall, and why he was there.
“Why did Jesus die? Because he was baptized.”