Friday, January 15, 2016

Sermon for Epiphany 1C, January 10, 2016

            Beloved in Christ, about a month ago we heard about John baptizing in the wilderness and calling people to repentance. He did so because He was trying to renew God’s people, especially since Christ was coming. But what John was doing was something that has been going on since the dawn of time and continues to this very day: he was calling God’s people to renewal because they had gone astray.

            You see, all humanity is by nature sinful. We have all rebelled against God. We all have at least part of us that would like to continue to do so. The heathen may have nothing but disgust for God or may disregard Him altogether, but even God’s people—people who have been taught about Him and have been called to faith in Him—still struggle with a side of their nature that wants to defy and disobey Him. To make matters worse, we have our ups and downs. Sometimes we are enthusiastic about God and all that He has done for us. Other times we are downright slovenly in our prayers, cold in our love, and sluggish in our works. This is one reason that we have several different seasons in the church year that call us out of our spiritual slumber and invite us to renew our faith.

            But sometimes there is a bigger cycle at work than merely having the spiritual blahs for a month or two. Sometimes God’s people backslide so much that they are indistinguishable from the heathen who do not fear God at all. If you read Old Testament history, you see that God’s people may start off being fervent for the Lord, but then they begin to neglect Him more and more until finally a generation arises that is nominally called God’s people but doesn’t really know Him. That is a disastrous situation. When the heathen believe and behave like heathen, it doesn’t blaspheme God’s name, but when Christians believe and behave like heathen, it dishonors Him and distorts Christian witness. The heathen then have no reason to reconsider the Christian faith, but remain in their hardened unbelief and unrepentance.

            That is why God has sent chosen individuals to call His people to be renewed in their faith. He sent the judges early on in Israel’s history every time that the Israelites lapsed into idolatry and then suffered as a consequence. Later he sent prophets. And then going into the New Testament age (our age) there have always been pastors who have seen the church languishing in ignorance and wickedness and called people to know the Lord once again. But not every person who has called the church to renewal has done so in a God-pleasing manner. Even some of the judges in the biblical days were not entirely faithful to God and did as much damage as they did good. And if you look at the history of the Christian church after the time of the apostles you will see that there were many would-be reformers who actually hurt the church’s renewal rather than helped it.

            John the Baptist, however, was not such an individual. And it might help us to consider why he was the greatest individual ever used by God to renew His people. That is all the more remarkable because there were plenty of people in his day who saw that the children of Israel were languishing and needed to be brought back to God. But none of their efforts made a difference.

            There were the Sadducees, who were mainly priests in the temple. They thought that by returning to the purest rituals they would ensure that Israel would be holy. Now it is true that we should pay attention to how we worship. God is holy, and He must be worshipped “in the splendor of holiness.” Worship should not be haphazard or based on what pleases us. But the Sadducees had no living faith in the LORD God. They rejected most of the Old Testament and denied the resurrection of the dead and other basic tenets. Now there is nothing better than when worship is done reverently and attentively because the pastor and people alike long to hear God’s Word and believe every last syllable of it. But there is nothing worse than when worship is done reverently, but merely covers the rank unbelief in the hearts of worshippers. So, liturgical renewal without a renewal in hearing God’s Word is pointless and even harmful.

            Then there were the Pharisees, who stressed ethical reform. They worked hard on getting the average person to hew closely to all the regulations found in Moses’s law, as well as in the traditions they had come up with over time. Similarly, we today have moral reformers, who believe that the best thing Christians can do is to change society or at least to get the church to obey their rules. Now it is true that when people delight in the Lord God again, they will be eager to do good works that please Him. But first comes the renewal and then the good works. Furthermore, these are not self-important good works, actions that we choose, but are rather the good works that are solidly based on God’s command.

            There were still others calling for renewal in John’s day. The Zealots stirred up revolution against the Roman Empire. They thought that violence was the only way by which God’s kingdom would come. And there were the Essenes who turned their backs on everyone and retreated to the wilderness where they didn’t have to interact with anyone. John didn’t choose any of those ways of calling people to renewal, either.

            So what did he do? He pointed people to Christ. He baptized because Christ was around the corner. He called people to come back to God because God had already come back to His people by taking on our flesh and blood and being one of us. He baptized because forgiveness of sins could truly be offered since the sacrifice for our sins would soon be made. But when people got excited about John’s ministry, he told them not to. It wasn’t about him, but about the Christ who would come soon.

            God’s people are renewed when they are pointed not back to themselves and their spiritual efforts nor to the preachers who call for renewal but to the LORD God, especially to Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. You see, we human being cannot renew ourselves but God has to do it for us. And that is why our eyes have to be turned to Him. In the New Testament era genuine renewal has always been connected with Christian baptism. When the church has been renewed, those who long despised baptism are brought to its waters, where they find the full and free salvation that God placed there. Meanwhile, those who had been baptized long ago embrace fully the gift that God had planted in their baptism. They take seriously as never before how baptism has connected them with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

            You see, one of the most spiritual acts that ever occurred in human history was when Christ was baptized, as is described in today’s Gospel. Sure, He had previously united His divine nature with ours when He was conceived by the Virgin Mary and born in Bethlehem. That indicated the direction He was likely to go. But lest there be any doubt, He submitted Himself to baptism so that He could take on mankind’s sin and free humanity from its just condemnation. You see, He could have merely chosen to live His own righteous life as a perfect human being, showing mankind from a distance how it ought to be done. But instead He chose to get close to us sinners. He entered the baptismal waters made filthy by all our sins and He claimed those sins as His own, even though He would never do anything like them throughout His entire life.

            It is Christ’s baptism that gives power to ours. We could have every drop of the swollen Mississippi pass over us, and it would do nothing to make us holy. But even a few ounces of water can bring us eternal life and salvation if they are grounded in Christ Jesus and combined with His Word. Baptism renews us because Christ put that power in baptism. And it continues to renew us, for God does not stop the work He has begun.

            We also see that our Lord prayed as He was baptized. Now we know that we ought to pray too, but we never seem to pray as much as we ought. Our life would be changed if we talked as much to God about our troubles and hopes and outlook on life as we do with other people—and if we were willing to listen to His words on those subjects. But we should be encouraged to know that Christ prays for us more fervently and more often than we do. When I bring a particular problem before God, I should know that Christ has been praying about it for a lot longer than I have and that He understands dimensions of that problem that I cannot even see. I say this not to excuse our laziness in prayer or to tell you to forget about praying, but rather to encourage you all the more to renew your fervency in prayer, for you see that Christ is already doing the hardest work in prayer.

            Finally, we see in our Lord’s baptism that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and the Father proclaimed that He was pleased with Jesus and acknowledged Him as His Son. Christ wasn’t setting out on a venture all on His own without the knowledge or approval of His Father. Instead, the Father fully approved His Son taking on the task of redeeming us. By extension, therefore, when He approved of His Son’s baptism, He was approving of the sort of people that He was hanging out with—namely, you and me.

            Now when we understand that God is the one at work bringing us back to Him, true renewal takes place. We no longer just go through the motions of piety. We no longer let legalism take the place of a living faith. Instead, we acknowledge that we are sinners and that we have only one hope, our Savior Jesus Christ. We cling to Him and to His teachings. And that brings about a real change inside of us, and that in turn leads others to consider Christianity even though they had sworn it off for good. May God grant that His church would be renewed in this way and that the heathen would also come to faith! In Jesus’ name. Amen.