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Advent Study Series: Our Baptismal Calling (Week 2)


Week 2 | Our baptismal calling

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

(Isaiah 40:3-4)


A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

What does baptism look like in your congregation? How is it celebrated? What rites are practiced? Without consulting an official survey, it’s probably a safe bet that most baptisms don’t involve camelhair vestments, locusts during the after-service meal, or much crying out (except, perhaps, for an infant who just got doused).

Perhaps this wasn’t even what most folks reading Isaiah envisioned when they first encountered John the Baptist, the strange messenger assembling a following from “the whole Judean countryside” (Mark 1:5). But the Gospel makes clear the link between John and the one prophesied in Isaiah, the one who would announce the coming of God’s salvation in the form of the Messiah.

The voice crying out, the one Mark identifies as John the Baptist, “calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord to all people.”

The very natural landscape of the earth will be changed by the arrival of the One who is to come. The author of 2 Peter keeps up this theme, proclaiming that “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” on the day of the Lord (2 Peter 3:10).

The world is about to turn, mightily, and that transformation is coming.

Mark’s brief but powerful introduction to John the Baptist is a prelude to Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Voices crying out, the transformation of the earth proclaimed, and release to captive Jerusalem is announced (Isaiah 40:1). It is quite the scene!

So, again, the question – what does baptism look like in your congregation?

In baptism, we are made children of God, “sealed by the cross of Christ forever.” In the covenant of baptism, Lutherans believe we are claimed by the power of grace, gathered into community with one another, and send by God’s grace into the world. When we affirm our baptism, we affirm our identity as part of the body of Christ with a solemn vocation to:

  • live among God’s faithful people;
  • hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed;
  • serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and
  • strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

In baptism, we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, but we are also baptized into the transformation of the world that God is enacting, a transformation that heralds “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13) in which “God’s glory may dwell in our land” (Psalm 85:9).

John’s pronouncement, drawing on Isaiah’s prophecy, is “comfort” to the people who wait with eager longing for redemption and a word of warning to their oppressors: the world is about to turn, make straight the paths.

Change is coming, and that right soon.

We, the people of God, are called to be part of that chance. In baptism, we are commissioned to increasingly live, hear, proclaim, serve and strive for the transformation of the world. As it was in Jesus’ time, the baptismal announcement today should be joyous news to those anxiously awaiting transformation and terrible news for those who would perpetuate an oppressive and unjust status quo.

What would it look like for the pronouncement of Isaiah and John the Baptist to shape our own practices of baptism, to see the sacrament as the sacred calling, gathering and sending of one who will be part of the very transformation of the world? “I introduce you to the newest member of the body of Christ!” would be words that would shake the foundations of community, for they would announce the re-birth of a person into the work of God “who is turning the world around!”

Reflection questions

  1. How can our celebration of baptism better reflect the commissioning of new Christians to be part of God’s transformation of the world? How does our celebration of baptism already do this?
  2. What voices do we hear “crying out” today, declaring the need for the transformation of the world? What “voices crying out” today do we hear proclaiming the transformation of the world?
  3. Re-read the baptismal covenant quoted above. What do each of these commitments mean to you? How do you live them out in your life?


Gracious God, in baptism, you welcome us to fellowship with you and claim us as your own. Give us strength and courage to live our baptismal vocation as a sign of hope to all who await the fullness of your reign. Open our eyes and hearts to see your hands at work in our world, reconciling all creation to you. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, into whose death and resurrection we are baptized. Amen.

Hymn suggestions

There’s a Voice in the Wilderness ELW 255

Prepare the Royal Highway ELW 264

I’m Going on a Journey ELW446


To download this entire study, or to see some of our other congregational resources, please visit



Called or Commanded?


I recently visited a congregation that has been a very generous supporter of ELCA World Hunger for many years. They also have their own thriving anti-hunger ministries for their community. During an adult forum, I asked them, “Why do you do it? How does your faith motivate you to serve?” They gave a lot of different answers, but in general, there were two themes that came up: “This is work God invites or calls us to,” and “This is work God tells us we have to do.”

Which is it for you? Do you serve because God invites you to be part of this work? Or, do you serve your neighbor in obedience to God’s command? Are you called or commanded?

Lutherans have a great way of talking about this difference. We call it “law and gospel.” There are a lot of books and articles on this, but honestly, I think the best example of how Law and Gospel work is found on bus stops in my city during the winter. Chicago, for a Catholic city, is profoundly Lutheran when it comes to shoveling snow:


We Northerners know how frustrating it can be to trudge through knee-high snow. Chicago helpfully reminds us to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians. But why should we do it? Take a closer look at the poster:

closeupAs the poster says, “It’s neighborly.” It’s just what you do to help each other. But if that doesn’t move you to grab a shovel, maybe a ticket will: “and it’s the law.”

Hopefully, most people will clear the sidewalk out of concern for others. But just in case some ruffian leaves the white stuff out front, the city will send a citation with a hefty fine to make sure it gets done.

This is a great example of what Lutherans mean by “Law and Gospel.” With the Gospel, the hope is that we will do what is right because we feel called to do it, out of gratitude for God’s love and out of our love for one another. But, if that doesn’t work, God commands it, too.

When it comes to serving the neighbor, Martin Luther left room for both:

“This demonstrates that we are children of God, caring and working for the well-being of others…”

That’s the gospel side. And appropriately, it comes from Luther’s treatise “Freedom of a Christian,” which is, ironically, all about the freedom we have in Christ. Luther’s main argument is that we serve because we feel called to it in gratitude for God’s grace. We were saved by a free gift, so we serve others freely.

But just in case:

“If your enemy needs you and you do not help him when you can it is the same as if you had stolen what belonged to him, for you owe him your help. St. Ambrose says, ‘Feed the hungry: if you do not feed him, then as far as you are concerned, you have killed him.’ ” – Treatise on Good Works (1520)

And thus the Law side. Just in case gratitude doesn’t move us, perhaps condemnation will.

Does our motivation matter? Think to the snow-shoveling sign. If I clear my sidewalk out of love for my neighbors, how good of a job will I do? When I was a kid, I used to clear the walks for our elderly neighbors, a really nice couple. I made sure their path was as wide as could be. Heck, there was grass showing at the edges. It was a labor of love to help them, a way of showing thanks for their kindness to me over the years.

What will that path look like if the sidewalk is cleared just to avoid a ticket? If you’ve ever walked down a sidewalk shoveled so poorly that your legs knock snow off the mounds at your sides, you might have an idea. Some of the paths in my neighborhood are about ten inches wide and as slick as a skating rink. But, at least they’re shoveled. No tickets today.

Love pushes us to go as far as we can, to encounter our limits and then to find ways to go beyond them. The gospel draws us into a life of faith that is consuming, energizing, and challenging. The Law, on the other hand, sets a minimum standard we have to meet. We look for clear, minimal expectations and do what we must to meet them (or, sometimes, find a loophole.)

Another interesting thing about snow-shoveling in Chicago: elderly and differently-abled people are still required by the law to clear their walks. How they are supposed to this isn’t exactly clear. But if they don’t, they get cited like the rest of us. That’s the way the Law works. The Law doesn’t help us follow it. It merely condemns us when we get it wrong.

The Gospel, on the other hand, invites us into relationships where we support each other. So, the “Lutheran” government of Chicago encourages people to help their neighbors if they know they can’t take care of their sidewalks. It encourages the sort of “gospel” activity where we go out of way to serve one another, not out of fear but out of love and concern. The Gospel lets everyone participate.

What motivates your ministry? Each of us has days when we need the Law to get us out of bed and back to the work of fighting hunger. But each of us also needs the Gospel to help us see God’s reconciling grace at work, creating something new in our midst, something all of us can be part of. How can we be continually reminded of both the Law and the Gospel in our service?


Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is program director for hunger education with ELCA World Hunger.  He can be reached at

A vocational poster assignment

ace_at_11_-_vocation-731923Tonight I came across this picture of my daughter, Annie, eleven years old at the time, with a poster project for a class. It seems to be a “What do I want to do when I grow up” assignment. Some of the images she included were predictive: a picture of a pastor, a diploma, and the words “Making money while making a difference.”
So why bring this up in the Hunger Rumblings blog? I am struck at the wisdom of a girl knowing that she can grow up to make money and make a difference. AND! It’s not either/or it’s both/and. I am humbled by the people in my life, like Annie, who hear God’s call and answer “Here I am, send me.”
Finally, I’m wondering how I would complete a vocational poster assignment at this age and stage in life. Think about it. What would you include on your poster?
Blessings on your day, Sue-s