Monday, January 28, 2013

Epiphany 3 of Series C (Luke 4:16-30)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, the Prophet was anointed, set apart for the work of the Lord. We saw it last week; as the Prophet stepped into Jordan’s stream, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended as a dove, and a voice came forth: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Testament were anointed with oil; this Prophet who is also Priest and King was anointed with water and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, His title is Christ, the Greek word that means ‘anointed one.’ But no one is anointed simply to stand around and do nothing. Prophets, priests, and kings are anointed for a task, they are anointing to do something. This Prophet is anointed for a purpose, and when Jesus comes home, He tells us why: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The Prophet, the Christ, the one anointed at the Jordan then declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today the poor have good news preached to them. You are spiritually impoverished, conceived and born without any good, without any capacity or desire to love God. You are conceived and born with Adam’s sin, which has robbed you of all good. Spiritually, you are bankrupt, and always have been from the very moment that you began to exist. And there is no upward mobility in spiritual things, no way for you to work your way out of your situation. Your poverty is complete, total, and out of your control. Today the Prophet preaches good news to you, for He was anointed in the Jordan to bring you heavenly treasure. Today He has come into your midst to reverse your fortunes, transforming you from total and complete poverty, having nothing, to incredible wealth, having everything. You, who had no good before God, who had no ability to love God, who were conceived and born in rebellion against Him, are reconciled today with your Creator. Today you are given the very treasures of heaven itself; all God has is yours!

Today the captives have freedom preached to them. You are in captivity, imprisoned, bound to your sin. All sin enslaves, and it has enslaved you. Each of you has a sin or sins that have you fast-bound in its chains, the sin that you cannot escape, no matter how hard you try. Is it the desire for approval, the constant need to have others think well of you? Is it lust, the desire for those who are not your spouse that brings unstoppable images to you mind? Is it the language the comes from your mouth, filthy words, words that hurt, words that spread rumors and gossip, words that you are unable to hold back? Is it anger, the wrath that bubbles up uncontrollably, hurting those whom you love? Or is it a whole host of other sins, all of which hold you in bondage, all of which enslave you? Today the Prophet has come to free you. He was anointed in the Jordan to declare freedom to the captives. Today, freedom has come, today He will loose your bonds, He will break your chains. The Prophet has come to bring freedom to a creation in bondage to sin and death, to release all in prison. Today is your day of freedom; sin no longer holds you, it no longer controls you—today the Prophet has come!

Today the blind have their eyes opened. You are spiritually blind, blind to God, blind to His Prophet. Your sinful eyes cannot see your Creator, you are blind to His ways, to His great deeds in this world. You are blind to the spiritual realities that surround you, instead seeing what the world wants you to see: money, pleasure, selfishness, all under the banner that there are no spiritual realities—that this world is all there is. The blind cannot see anything but what the world tells them to see, and that vision has nothing to do with God. Today the Prophet has come to open blind eyes. It is for this reason that He was anointed in the Jordan, declared to be God’s beloved Son, Jesus the Christ. Today He reveals Himself to your blind eyes as God in the flesh, come to open eyes made blind by sin, opening them to see their God as a God of mercy and grace. Today sight has come, today those who are blind will see. Today your eyes are opened, and the sight is glorious; you see your Creator, your Lord, bearing your human flesh, standing in your midst, come to deliver, come to save, come to bring sight to the blind.

Today the oppressed are set free. You are oppressed, broken by the sin that fills this fallen world, by the sin that fills you. You are broken when others sin against you, when they attack your body or your reputation. You are broken, shattered, when relationships fall apart, when friends or loved ones abandon you, when they hurt you in ways that only those closest to you can. You are oppressed when natural disasters come upon you, from drought, to fire, to storms, taking your property and threatening your life. You are broken when disease strikes, when your body is stricken by malicious attackers with names like ‘cancer,’ ‘heart disease,’ ‘stroke,’ and ‘Alzheimer’s.’ You are oppressed by death, as it takes your loved ones, as it threatens you. Today the prophet comes to proclaim freedom. He was anointed in the Jordan to free the oppressed, to heal the broken. Today He will free you from your brokenness, He will deliver you from your oppression. Today even death will be a victim of the Prophet’s righteous wrath. The Prophet has come to proclaim the end to brokenness; through Him, you will be made whole. Today is your day of freedom, from all oppression, all brokenness.
Today the Prophet came to His hometown “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” His agenda of freedom would begin among those who knew Him best. But those who knew Him best rejected Him. They claimed to know Him too well: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” We grew up with this guy; how can He claim to be God’s anointed one? And so they want a miracle. “And He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” But no miracle is coming; the Prophet hasn’t arrived to put on a magic show, but to declare freedom to a creation in bondage to sin. And for that, the people will respond in anger. “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove Him out of the town and brought Him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw Him down the cliff.” The prophetic pattern is rejection. Elijah knew this, as did Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the rest. They were all anointed to be rejected, to preach God’s Word to ears that wouldn’t listen. The Prophet anointed in Jordan’s stream, with the heavens open and the Spirit descending, would follow their pattern, He would die a martyr’s death as many of them had. But His hour was not yet. “Passing through their midst, He went away.”

The One who refused to do a miracle is saved by a miracle. But He is only delivered from the wrath of Nazareth in order to face the wrath of Jerusalem. His hour would come, for the Prophet, Jesus the Christ, was anointed to die. He walked through the crowd in Nazareth in order to walk the way of the cross. His death, His rejection at the hands of His relatives, His people, would bring freedom. His death wins heavenly treasure for the poor, the spiritually impoverished, for you and me. His death brings liberty to those captive to sin, for His death breaks the bonds of sin; forgiveness flows from the cross to you and me, the only proclamation that can sever sin’s chains, the only proclamation that can bring release. His death opens eyes blinded by sin, opening them to see your Creator as a God of love, mercy, and grace. Your eyes are opened to see God as He is present in the flesh of Christ, in the Word proclaimed, and the Sacraments administered. His death brings liberty to the broken and oppressed, for His death frees this creation from the bonds of sin. With His death, death itself is robbed of its power, and a day is coming when disease, disasters, and even sin will be no more. The Prophet’s death in your place inaugurated the “year of the Lord’s favor.” God is now favorable to you because of Jesus; you are acceptable to Him, He is well pleased with you. Through the cross and empty tomb, the song of the angels came to pass: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” The Prophet was rejected, even to the point of death, so that God could be well-pleased with you, forever.

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today you have been set free from the bonds of your sin through the Absolution. Today you have heard good news preached to you, giving to you heavenly treasure. [Today you will receive Christ’s Body and Blood, healing balm for your brokenness.] Salvation has come among you today, just as surely as it came among the people of Nazareth, as their ‘hometown boy’ proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. The gifts of Christ are not something in the vague and far-off future; they are yours right now, they belong to you ‘today.’ The Day is coming when you will fully partake of them forever, but they are your present possession and treasure even now. Today you have been given a treasure that the world cannot give: the Anointed One has come into your midst, God’s Prophet, bearing His gifts. God’s favor is upon you; the year of the Lord’s favor on you will never end: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” In the Name of our anointed Prophet, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 6

Our society has fallen quite far when we see death as a solution, as an answer. When a woman faces a crisis pregnancy, when someone is infirm or aged, the answer too often is death. Death is never the answer, it isn’t a tool that we can wield. What kind of compassion do we have when we tell a frightened young woman to kill her child, when the only comfort we offer is more evil? God has a different way, a much better way. Our God is a God of life. It is His gift of life that triumphs over a culture of death. We may never end the scourge and evil of abortion, our nation may continue to deceive itself that a country which allows for the killing of its own children can protect any other liberty. But the victory remains with God; He is still in control. Death will not win, for Jesus’ grave remains empty.

God loves life; that is why He sent Jesus. Our Lord and Savior passed through every stage that we did, from conception to birth, and then walked this earth to win life through His death. His death broke the bonds of death, for His death was in our place, it was the penalty for our sin. Every sinner, from the woman who has committed an abortion, to the abortion doctor, to the abortion supporter, and even the chief of sinners, you and me, died with Christ upon that cross. It was a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended, but the victory remained with life. The tomb is empty, and it remains empty. He is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Christ’s life is more powerful that death itself; our greatest enemy is triumphed over, He is struck down, never to rise. Roe vs. Wade cannot change that; no power in this world can change that. On the Last Day, death itself will be destroyed, and there will only be life, forever.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 5

It is so easy to see abortion and other life issues as political. That is how they are framed in our media and in our culture. But that is a grave mistake, a misunderstanding of the issue, and even idolatry. A political issue can be dealt with by an election, a new law, a Supreme Court reversal. We think that if we elect the right people and pass the right laws, we have done our good deed to protect life. And there is some truth to that; the evil of abortion is protected by law, and so the law must be changed. But life is much more fundamental than politics; a human being deprived of life is excluded from politics. Life comes before, it stands above politics. Trusting in princes and presidents, in laws and court decisions is nothing else than idolatry. Only God can change hearts, and He changes them one at a time, through His Word.

God loves life, and He protects and preserves life in the same way that He preserves and protects all other good gifts, through Law and Gospel. Christians are obligated to declare to the culture, as I have done this week, that abortion is a great evil. Mothers and fathers considering abortion, and all those who support the abortion culture, are to be called to repentance, they are to be told that the Fifth Commandment applies also to the human being within the womb. But the Law can only rail against sin, it cannot change individuals or society. Only the Gospel can do that. To those broken by the Law, who see their great sin, we proclaim the Gospel. Abortion isn’t an unforgiveable sin; even that great evil has been covered with Christ’s blood. Elections and laws are important, but only the Gospel changes hearts.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sanctity of Life Sunday (Exodus 2:15-22)

“But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the book of Exodus. Dear friends in Christ, our God is a God of life. He loves life; He created it. We read in Genesis that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” With love, with intimacy, with care, God literally stoops into the dirt to form man; He leans over to breathe into our nostrils the breath of life. And He has created with the same love and care ever since. The Psalmist declares, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” He loves life, every life, for he has created life, every life. He created and loves the life of the smallest embryo at the moment of conception, to the life of the one a breath away from death. He loves us despite the effects of sin in our lives; He loves the sick, the infirm, the aged; He loves the mentally and physically disabled. He loves us all; each and every human being, no matter the stage of development, no matter the age, no matter the disability, can confess with David: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”
It is this love for life, all life, that human beings, the crown of God’s creation, are to have in their own lives. Even before the Lord declared on Mount Sinai, “You shall not murder,” it was clear that God wanted people to respect the lives of their neighbors. The second sin recorded in the Bible is murder, and when Noah leaves the ark, the Lord reminds him, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” This law was written on man’s heart, every person knew that innocent human life is sacred, it is to be respected and protected at all costs. It is this ingrained knowledge, this fundamental law, that Pharaoh violated. “Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’” Out of fear, out of jealousy for Israel’s rapidly growing population, Pharaoh violated God’s ancient and firm command. And even worse, he didn’t target those who could fight back, but instead condemned the littlest, the most vulnerable, and condemned them to death.

The government declared that killing children was allowed; in fact, Pharaoh himself commanded it. The king had created a culture of death, where an entire classification of human beings was killed out of fear. But some rebelled; Shiphrah and Puah, those appointed to bring forth life, refused to be agents of death. They boldly stood for life in a culture of death. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” The most powerful man in Egypt, the one who held all Israel in the iron grasp of bondage, was defied by these two women. They feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. They held to His command over the words of mere men. They put their lives on the line to protect life; in fact, far from killing the male children, the Hebrew text indicates that they redoubled their efforts to help them survive the rigors of birth. The government called on them to explain their beliefs, to discard their stand for life, but they refused. “So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and let the male children live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” They were called before kings for God’s sake, and they obeyed God rather than men, they refused to submit, and through them, many children were saved.

Infanticide was Egypt’s national sin, and their violation of God’s command would result in devastation by God’s mighty outstretched hand. America is little better; in fact, America is far worse. The children of Israel died because of the fear of one man. The children of America die because of the fear of their own mothers and fathers, encouraged by a whole host of medical personnel, politicians, and nearly half of the population, the citizens of our culture of death. Fifty-four million. That is the death toll after forty years of legalized abortion on demand. Fifty-four million. It is hard for us to get a handle on those kinds of numbers. Imagine Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota, all uninhabited. Every day, abortion kills as many unborn children as Al-Qaeda killed on 9/11.

Abraham Lincoln considered slavery to be America’s national sin, and he saw the Civil War as the deadly and destructive consequence of that sin. Abortion is our current national sin, and we are already seeing the consequences. A nation that has legalized the destruction of one class of human beings will have little trouble eliminating another class, and so the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled are all threatened. We are already seeing this in Europe, and the push for eliminating undesirables, those no longer deserving of life and precious resources, has begun to extend to our shores. Who knows what other consequences may follow? I am not saying that God will send judgment against America; I have no Word of God to say something so bold. I am simply saying that following God’s laws brings benefits in this world, and transgressing them carries grave consequences. America paid the price for treating a class of humans as sub-human before, as did ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany, and we may do so again.

Shiphrah and Puah are the patron saints of life; their bold stand for life in a culture of death is to be our pattern. They refused to give in, they feared God rather than men, and they acted in accord with their convictions. Their reverence for life came from their reverence for God, the One who gives life. They stood boldly for life, even before Pharaoh himself, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, we do not have the same boldness; forty years of legalized abortion on demand has lulled us to sleep. Abortion is our national sin, and we are all guilty, even if we never committed or encouraged an abortion. It has been our silence that has allowed this culture of death to reach epidemic proportions. We have been silent as television and movies separate sex from marriage; we have even been silent when sex outside of marriage enters our own families. We have been silent as politicians have opposed life or simply given it lip service; we have failed to hold them accountable and have let other issues take priority. We have been silent as women around us have entered crisis pregnancies, failing to give them the support they need; where we have been silent, the world has spoken, offering death as the solution. Our excuse cannot be that we didn’t know; abortion may occur behind closed doors, but the debate is right out in the open. We are called to boldly enter that debate, to take a stand for life with Shiphrah and Puah, regardless of the consequences; we are called upon to fear God rather than men. The time for fear is over, the time for action has come.

But even if we do follow the heroic example of Shiphrah and Puah, even if we boldly stand for life in a culture of death, we have no guarantee of success. Pharaoh, when confronted with the defiance of the Hebrew midwives, simply changed tactics. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.’” Their heroic stand didn’t end the slaughter, and neither may ours. But we are not discouraged. With them we stand for life and entrust the results to God; if our text teaches us anything, it teaches us that God remains in control, despite the sin and death that surrounds us.

For our God is a God of life. In Exodus chapter two we learn that God spared a child from Pharaoh’s murderous designs, a child named Moses, who would deliver his people from such tyranny. In our Gospel lesson, we learn of another child spared from death, a child named Jesus, who would deliver all people from the tyranny of death. Our culture of death is doomed to defeat, for our God is a God of life, and He spared Jesus so that He would go forth and win life for all. Herod and Pharaoh thought that they were in control, but they weren’t. God is in control, and He is truly a God of life. Life will triumph over death, for Jesus Himself triumphed over death. He walked the way of the cross, standing for life even to the point of death, and then rose victorious over death itself, robbing it of its power, winning forgiveness and eternal life for all.

It is this forgiveness and life won by Christ that is brought to a guilty people; grace everlasting, given freely to those corrupted by sin. And it is this forgiveness, this grace, this life that alone is the solution to our culture of death. Only forgiveness can heal hearts broken by abortion, only forgiveness can send forth Christians to proclaim life in their world. If you have committed or encouraged an abortion, hear today the only message that can bring healing, the only message that can comfort: I, as a called an ordained servant of the Word, forgive you of that sin and all others, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Christ has died even for that sin, He has died for you. You are His forgiven child. And for the rest of us, you and me who have the stain of our national sin upon us by our silence, Christ has forgiven that sin as well as all others. You are forgiven! The God of life sent His Son to die for all your sins. Life has the victory, even in the midst of death, even if abortion is never eliminated; life has the victory, God created it, and He redeemed it, with the life, death, and resurrection of His Son. In the Name of that Son, who won life, everlasting life, for you, for me, for all people, Amen.

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 4

If abortion is America’s national sin, then none of us are clean, none of us are exempt. We all have participated either actively or by standing on the sidelines. We have allowed our culture to divorce sex from marriage and sex from children, with a whole host of consequences, not least the destruction of fifty-four million innocent lives. The shows we watch, the movies we see, all encourage a culture that makes abortion possible, even necessary. We have unthinkingly accepted contraception, forgetting that abortion and contraception goes together; you cannot have one without the other. We have allowed other issues to take priority; we haven’t held our leaders accountable for this evil, especially our so-called ‘pro-life’ leaders. And on the most basic, personal level, we have failed to give pregnant women the support that they need, especially those in crisis situations.

God loves life, and He uses people like you and me to protect and preserve it. We are on the front lines, and we are called upon to speak. The patron saints of life are Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives found in the first chapter of Exodus. These courageous women stood up for life, defying Pharaoh in word and deed. “The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” They obeyed God rather than men, their bold stand is an example to us all. We are called on to stand for life, to support life, to speak up against evil. We pray for forgiveness for our silence, our inability or refusal to stand up for life, and Christ’s blood covers that sin, as it even covers the sin of abortion itself. Then, forgiven and redeemed, we speak boldly for the most vulnerable among us.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 3

Forgive me if I take the issue of abortion personally. It’s hard not to; Roe vs. Wade was ten years old when I was born, which means that I am missing peers, classmates, and friends. In fact, Roe vs. Wade declared that it was permissable to kill me. So, I apologize for taking abortion so personally, but for me and all those who dwelt in the womb in the past forty years, it is personal. That is really the point. We aren’t talking about globs of tissue or some other creature, we are talking about human beings. That is simple science; when conception happens, you have a new life, a new human being. And every human being should be protected. If the child in the womb isn’t a human being, then no justification for abortion is needed. If the child in the womb is a human being (and it is!) then no justification is sufficient. A hard case, when the life of a mother is in jeopardy, then is the difficult ethical choice between the lives of two human beings. But even that decision respects the life of both child and mother, declaring that every human being should be protected.

God loves every individual life; He loves you and me. The psalmist declares, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Every life has value, because every life has been formed and shaped by God. The stage of development doesn’t matter; old and young, embryo and elderly, are all protected. The effects of sin don’t matter; the disabled and the infirm are all worthy of dignity, respect, and life.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 2

Abortion is America’s national sin. Abraham Lincoln considered slavery to be a stain upon his nation, a sin for which there was the accounting of the Civil War. He was right, not in the sense that God directly sent this war in response to the evil of slavery; we have no Word from God to make that declaration. But a nation that flaunts God’s Law will find that there are consequences to such evil. God doesn’t just arbitrarily make laws, He declares laws for our good, for the betterment of society as a whole. And so our national sin has consequences, and it is already happening. You cannot devalue life, declaring that an entire classification of human beings can be killed for any reason, and expect it to have no effect. Whether we like it or not, this world is ordered according to God’s holy Law.

God created life, and so He acts to protect it. The Fifth Commandment is God’s definitive statement on the value of life, for there God declares, “You shall not murder.” Luther gives us the explanation: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” God created life, and He expects that the crown of His creation, the human race, would have the same respect for such life that He does. The Fifth Commandment calls abortion what it is: a sin, a great evil, perhaps the greatest evil this world has ever known. The Fifth Commandment calls on us to help and support our neighbor in his or her physical needs; it call us out on our silence. But what the Fifth Commandment ultimately does is drive us to Jesus, for forgiveness, for grace, and He will provide; even the sin of abortion, even the sin of quietism, is nailed to the tree.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reflections on 40 years of Roe vs. Wade--Part 1

It has been almost exactly forty years since Roe vs. Wade, the most famous and controversial Supreme Court decision in our nation’s history. For forty years the killing of unborn children has been legal, for any reason, or no reason at all. We live in a nation of abortion on demand, a culture of death. There are days that I think I’m living in a nightmare, that someday I will wake up; the one thing that all people should agree on, regardless of religion or political preference, is that we should not kill our children! The scourge of abortion is so evil, so wicked, so ridiculous, that I can hardly believe that any society allows it to happen. But still we do. We need anniversaries like this to throw a bucket of cold water over our face, to wake us up to the reality of what is happening around us. The lives of the most vulnerable among us is being threatened and taken each and every day. This cannot continue.
God loves life; He created it. All other creatures, the heavenly bodies, and even the earth itself were created with a powerful Word from His lips, but when it came to man, the crown of His creation, God stooped down and got His hands dirty. We read in Genesis two: “Then the Lord formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” See the intimacy that God has with us! His love, His care, His compassion is shown to humanity, so that the David can sing, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Life is God’s gift, His loving and intimate gift to us. He formed you and me in the womb, He shaped us there to be His own unique creation. The womb is God’s workshop, the location of His creating love.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Baptism of our Lord (Luke 3:15-22)

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Baptism of our Lord comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: of all people, surely Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Dirty people need to be washed, not the clean. Baptism is for you and me, people who are sinful, filthy with corruption. John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is for those who lie, who cheat, who lust, who hate, who rebel against God. John baptizes those who see their sin, this scum that clings to their skin and bones, and in repentance cry out for cleansing. The ones coming to the river to be washed by that desert prophet are those who see the needs of their neighbors and ignore them. Yes, John’s baptism is even for the self-righteous, if they could stop gazing at their own navels long enough to listen to his call for repentance. We need to be baptized because God is not pleased with us, not in the least.

John’s baptism is for you and for me, poor miserable sinners, it isn’t for Jesus. Jesus is perfect, clean, pure, and holy. He is more than simply a nice guy, a great teacher; He is God Himself in the flesh. The first two chapters of Luke teach us that Jesus is the last person on this planet who needs to be baptized by John. The Baptist himself says it: Jesus is the coming one, the one who is mightier than he, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” A perfect man, a holy man, a man who is also true God, has no need of baptism.

But yet, Jesus is baptized. He walks into the Jordan, the river where the people of Israel were washing away their sins, and submits to the baptism of John. He is baptized, with the multitude of others, sinners all, and He is praying. Then all heaven breaks loose; the heavens themselves are opened, the veil is torn, the curtain pulled back, the great divide between earth and heaven, between God and His creation, is done away with, if only for a moment. And something comes down from the opened heavens: “The Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove.” If that wasn’t enough, the Father, the Lord, the Creator of the universe preaches a sermon: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” With this sermon, we have Epiphany; the entire Trinity is revealed to us at Jordan’s stream. The Father speaks from heaven, the Spirit descends as a dove, and the voice of God tells us that this Jesus of Nazareth, this man standing in the river, is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, the one with whom He is truly well-pleased, and He has been anointed for salvation.

John declared about Him, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” The Father’s voice proclaims that this Jesus has come to gather in the harvest, to burn the chaff of sin away. He has come to do battle with sin by carrying it within His own body and doing away with it. Most people wash in order to become clean; Jesus washes so that He can become dirty. He washes, identified with sinners, as the sin bearer, the One who will carry all sin. His baptism by the Holy Spirit anoints Him for the task that is ahead of Him; it prepares Him for another baptism that is yet to come.

The Father is well-pleased with Jesus because He willingly became the sin-bearer, to take the heavy weight of humanity’s sin upon Himself. But Jesus carries that burden only so that He may be rid of it; the Father is well-pleased with Jesus because He willingly submitted to another baptism: a baptism of fire upon the cross. At the cross, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan found its fulfillment in Christ’s suffering and death under the fires of God’s wrath. At the cross, the Father who declared, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” abandoned that Son to the very fires of hell. There the Son, so gloriously anointed in the Jordan, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He who was baptized with water, identifying with sinners, with you and me, is baptized with fire, in your place. He dies under God’s fiery wrath, God’s righteous judgment, as the sin bearer, as the One carrying your sin and mine upon His beaten and bloodied shoulders. This was the only path of salvation, the only way that you and I could be delivered from sin, death, and hell. And so in love Jesus submitted to a baptism by the Holy Spirit in the Jordan, and in love He submitted to a baptism by fire upon the cross. There was no voice from heaven that day, but as Jesus cried out “It is finished!” the Father said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

God proved the truth of those words three days later, when Jesus came forth from the tomb. He had passed through the baptism of fire and had left sin behind, burned and consumed by the Father’s righteous wrath. Now the crucified one was the risen one; as He came up out of the waters of Jordan’s stream to an opened heaven and the Father’s voice, so He came up from the tomb to an opened heaven and the Father’s approval. Jesus ascended into that opened heaven, to take His rightful place at the right hand of the throne of God. Now He commences the work that the Baptist prophesied He would do: “John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Jesus Himself was baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire; at the Jordan and at the cross. He sends forth the Church to baptize you and me with the Holy Spirit and with fire; at the font you were baptized into His fiery death, as Saint Paul declares: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Our sinful nature was crucified in a baptism of fire. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” In baptism you died to sin! It was drowned in those waters, consumed by God’s holy fire. And make no mistake; you needed to die. You needed to die to all of your sinful desires, your desires to satisfy your own needs above those of all others, your desire to place other things ahead of God. You needed to die to your rebellion against your Creator, your disregard of His Law, your lack of love for Him and for your neighbor. Your sinful nature cannot be reformed, it cannot be better trained, it cannot be improved; it must be put to death! Sin cannot be dealt with in any other way.

Every baptism includes death, but every baptism also includes resurrection: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” Christ died in His baptism of fire on the cross, but was then raised up on the third day victorious over death. You, too, die in your baptism, and then you rise. “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.” Your old nature is put to death in the fire, and from those fires emerges a new nature, a new man or woman to live before Him in righteousness and purity. Death and resurrection is the pattern of your life; each and every day Christ returns you to the font in faith, putting your sinful nature to death once again in repentance and raising up in you a new nature. Death and resurrection is the pattern of your life; as you have died and risen in your baptism, you will rise, to newness of life, forever. You will follow the pattern that Christ set, in His death, in His resurrection, in His baptism.

For at your baptism, the heavens were opened just as they were at Christ’s. No one could see it with their physical eyes, but as your head was held over the font and the pastor applied water “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” heaven itself was opened to you. The division between earth and heaven, between God and you, was erased, done away with, forever. Heaven was opened to you never to be closed again. Christ has torn down the curtain, He has opened up heaven, for all the baptized. From that opened heaven came the Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to you, come to dwell within you, come to create and sustain faith. You were anointed with the Holy Spirit, anointed as God’s own beloved child, adopted by His grace through Christ. And then the Father preached. He preached as powerfully as He preached that day when Jesus came up from the Jordan, saying now to you: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” He is well pleased with you because of Christ, because Jesus has joined you with His death and resurrection. He is well-pleased with you because He is well pleased with His Son, who submitted to John’s baptism in your place, who submitted to the baptism of fire for your salvation. You are His beloved child; with you He is well pleased!

You hear these same blessed words whenever you receive the Absolution. When your sins are forgiven by the pastor as by Christ Himself, God says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” You hear them when you receive the Lord’s Supper. When you depart from this altar, having partaken of Christ’s own Body and Blood, God says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” And you will hear it once more; on the Last Day, when your crucified and risen Lord appears, you will stand before your Creator and He will say to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” And then your baptism will be brought to its completion; your sinful nature will be completely destroyed, and you will follow Christ’s pattern in glory, in honor, in resurrection, forever. In the Name of the One baptized for you, who baptizes you into His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Higher Things Conference, Carlisle, Iowa (Hebrews 9:1-14)

“[Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and bulls, but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the text read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter the letter to the Hebrews. Dear friends in Christ, the tabernacle, and the temple that followed on its pattern, was an assault on the senses. The sights, the sounds, the smells, were overpowering; the nearest parallel we have in western Iowa is a packing plant. Your ears were greeted with the bleating, the bellowing, the cries of animals doomed to die; the chants, the prayers of priests rising above this tumult. You could smell the sweet scent of incense and burning candles, but more overpowering is the smell of death: the smell of slaughter, the stench of burning flesh. And what you saw was blood. Blood everywhere, cast on the altar, sprinkled on the people, flowing in rivers, a clear and certain testimony that what the tabernacle was about was death, the death of innocent animals to cleanse and purify God’s chosen people.

Sin is serious business; if nothing else, the sounds, the smells, the sights of the tabernacle prove that God and His people take sin seriously. Our text tells us that the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place only once a year, and never without taking blood with Him. Without blood, the High Priest was worthless; without blood, the tabernacle had little use. Don’t trust the un-bloody teachings found in the world and even in the Church; don’t trust an un-bloody Gospel! A Gospel without blood doesn’t take our sin nearly seriously enough; a Gospel without blood doesn’t comprehend the depth of our corruption. 

Don’t trust a Gospel that explains away sin, that tells you it isn’t a big deal, that ‘rules are made to be broken,’ ‘everyone else is doing it,’ or ‘you’re making too much of a little thing.’ It’s just your words, just your body, just your neighbor’s reputation. Don’t trust a Gospel that says ‘you can just ask for forgiveness later,’ that claims God will be ok with it—He’s a God of love, right? Don’t trust a Gospel that claims God’s laws were just for people back then, not really for us modern people, that thinks God is moving us in a new direction, a more ‘tolerant’ direction. A Gospel that explains away or ignores sin, that tosses out God’s Law, is no Gospel at all.

A Gospel that acknowledges sin, but points you to anything other than blood is little better; such a Gospel still doesn’t understand the depth of your sin and corruption. Don’t trust a Gospel that calls for anything but blood. Don’t trust an un-bloody Gospel! Don’t trust a Gospel that tells you to live a ‘good life,’ to outweigh your sins with some good deeds. Don’t trust a Gospel that points you to your feelings, your emotions to know that you have found favor with God. Don’t trust a Gospel that tells you to ‘pray harder,’ ‘worship more sincerely,’ or ‘love God more.’ Don’t trust a Gospel that puts the ball in your court, that calls on you to do something yourself to take care of your sin.

If you say God doesn’t much care about His Laws or about sin, you are deceiving yourself, and you are calling Him a liar. If you claim that there is anything that you can do, no matter how good, no matter how pious, to remove that sin, then you have no idea how serious and how great your sin is. The tabernacle calls all those other Gospels lies; the blood that flows in rivers from the sacrifices offered there declares that sin is serious, dead serious, and the only answer is blood. 

There God taught His people, each and every day, with every drop of blood, that the only Gospel worth trusting was one covered with blood. Sin requires blood; the tabernacle was Israel’s living demonstration of that fundamental fact. Sin requires blood; but the blood of bulls and goats could never completely take away sin. The sacrifices offered by the priests day after day in the tabernacle pointed to the once-for-all sacrifice that was coming, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s own blood. Don’t trust an un-bloody Gospel—trust the Gospel that gives you Jesus’ blood. Trust the Gospel that covers your sin with His blood.

Jesus came as the greatest and final High Priest, and He came to enter into the tabernacle of heaven, the Most Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but by means of His own blood. The cross shows how seriously God takes sin. What you hear is the cries of a dying man, and what you see is blood, flowing from His thorn-encircled brow, from His scourged back, from His pierced hands and feet. Sin requires blood; the blood of the sinless Son of God, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Trust the Gospel that gives you Jesus’ blood as the once-for-all sacrifice, the only price, the only blood that could fully atone for sin. The cross shows how seriously God takes sin; the cross shows how seriously God takes our salvation, for He offered the only price that would suffice, His own Son.

Don’t trust an un-bloody Gospel—trust the Gospel that gives you Jesus’ blood, which opens the way into the Most Holy Place, which gives you access to God Himself. What the High Priest alone entered only once a year Christ entered once for all, to tear down the curtain, to open what had so long been closed, with the shedding of His own blood. “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” This blood reconciles us with our God, removing the dividing wall of hostility between Creator and creature. Trust the Gospel that gives you that blood, that proclaims nothing of yourself, and everything of Christ.

The tabernacle was all about blood; the blood of lambs, goats, and bulls, all offered for the purification of God’s chosen people. The Church is all about blood, the blood of Jesus Christ, poured out on Calvary’s cross to cover your sins. Don’t trust an un-bloody church; trust a church dripping in the blood of Christ, that proclaims to you Christ’s blood every Sunday. Trust the Church that gives you Jesus’ blood, even into your mouth, the same Body and Blood that was the price of your redemption. There you are forgiven, there your sin is covered, there the tabernacle finds its final fulfillment. The only Gospel that proclaims an end to sin is the true Gospel, the Gospel that proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection, for you, for your salvation, so that you will rise with Christ to live before Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, our perfect High Priest, whose blood secured our eternal redemption, Amen.