I’ve become convinced that the real “crisis” if you want to call it that in American Christianity is the dismissal of the calls of the spiritual life. Even the church seems to have a very utilitarian view of the faith. It “sells” faith as something that will be good for you. It will make you healthier, wealthier and maybe wise. The trouble is that The Faith makes none of those claims. It doesn’t necessarily rule them out, but the norm would be the life of Christ, which is a life of trial. What the Faith does claim is truth. Christ is Lord. He bids us follow him. Hence the real test, do we follow?
This particular sermon was composed to take part in a specific liturgical situation. We had a baptism at the start of service. It was also helped by one of the great hymns of the Faith – I Walk in Danger All the Way (LSB 716).
The Sunday after the Epiphany for us is always the Baptism of the Lord. And it is an incredibly rich text. Off the top of my head I can think of five “topics” that are justifiable to preach on from it. Looking at the sermon file I had done most of them over the past 11 years. The one that might be the most apparent, but is actually tougher is Jesus’ Baptism connected to our Baptism. Now you can just say Baptism and elide the difference, but if you do that you miss what this theophany in the Jordan tells us about God. Because Jesus baptism is not like ours. As Luther says in his Baptismal Liturgy prayer, it is by His baptism that all waters have become a blessed flood. We get Jesus’ baptism, because God stood with us and took ours. We get brought through the chaos to life, because he defeated death.
There are times I walk a Pentecostal line, or I might say more mystical. I’m not talking about tongues here – although I’ve seen that before. I’m too intellectual personally for that. What I am talking about is the election and will of God. What God wants to have happen will happen. That includes unity with his disciples. The tough thing for us humans and collectively the church to get over is that union is rarely with the power and the glory. That’s what we really want. And we will go to great extremes to “help” God in this. But in this world God’s power is most often seen in weakness. We are most at unity with God when we recognize our weakness, when we embrace the foolish things. And the biggest foolish thing is simply his Word. We baptized a baby this morning. That stood a bit as the example. We are told to bring the little children. And that doesn’t make rational sense. But that is the Word. We find our unity with God in the weak things like water, and Word, and babies.
Biblical Text: Mark 1:4-11, Romans 6:1-11 (and the general Epiphany Texts of the Magi, Cana and the Transfiguration) Full Sermon Draft/a>
Holy Days, like Epiphany, often come with a phalanx of texts associated with them. The day itself is a concept, and over time various texts carry that theme with slightly different emphasis. For Epiphany the texts are: The Magi, The Wedding at Cana, The Baptism of Jesus and then the Transfiguration. Stars, and lights, and voices and glory manifest. The actual text of the day is the baptism, but the sermon is a pondering of all of them, and really of the season. How do we see the glory? How do we see God? Is it all at once? Are we capable of understanding that? The sermon points at two expressions of the glory that are manifest in waters of the Jordan. And then how that glory is given to us and how it is manifest here and now, and in the world to come. At some point along that trail of Epiphanies, we do really “get it”. Be rest on the promises of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit will enlighten us and one day sanctify us.
All of the canonical gospels have their own spirit, a spirit expressed often at the very beginning. This is “year B” in our three year cycle of readings, so we are in the Gospel according the Mark. Mark’s spirit is one of immediacy, of now. It is a spirit of beginnings and ending. It relentlessly presses us with the oddness of the inbreaking kingdom. And with that very wonder and strangeness invites us to begin. To prepare the way. To make the paths straight. Now. Because you know not the time. The mighty one comes right behind, and all flesh will see the glory of the Lord. This sermon is a attempt to capture that strangeness, to experience the beginning of the gospel. To hear and fear the word to make straight the paths to our hearts.
Worship note: I have left in two hymns. The one before the sermon and the one after. Both share a word – Hark! It is the call of the herald, the Baptist, listen! Important information follows. LSB 349, Hark the Glad Sound, I believe reflect the pure Gospel content of that message. The greater one comes bringing a baptism of the Spirit. A baptism that bursts the gates of brass, and make the iron fetters yield. LSB 345, Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding, captures well the immediacy of the Hark and the pressure it puts on us. “Cast away the works of darkness, all you children of the day!” And that pressure it recognizes coming from its eschatology. “So when next he comes in glory, and the world is wrapped in fear…”. Two marvelous advent hymns that happen to have a couple of wonderful tunes as well.
The picture above is our confirmation class. Today was both Pentecost and our Confirmation day. Both of those things are closely connected to baptism, so that makes an appearance. This sermon is roughly divided into two halves. The first half is the Pentecost and Confirmation as a day portion. Why do we observe these things? What do they do? How do they relate to the gospel? The second part is more specific to the confirmands. I went old school and instead of letting/demanding that the confirmands choose a verse, I assigned them one. That verse becomes both a charge and a blessing – the old duties of a bishop, to teach and to bless. That second part is where the title comes from in preaching those confirmation verses.
I think I mentioned that because Christmas was a Sunday there are a bunch of small feast days that end up on the calendar. Today was another, the Baptism of Jesus. These days might seem extraneous, but with a little reflection are often quite deep and meaningful. The baptism of Jesus is connected to our baptism. Because he stood under those waters for us, we receive his baptism of grace. He took our unrighteousness and gives us his righteousness. This sermon meditates on a slightly different theme supported by the Epistle lesson. When we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to new life – freedom – what is the quality of that freedom. Are we made free to do whatever we want? As Paul answers, by no means. The freedom that Jesus displays is not the freedom to do what he wants but the freedom to become what we are. In Jesus’ case he is the Son of the Father and the savior of mankind. Was Jesus at liberty to proceed right to the fire? Well, he could have, but that would not have been freedom because it was less than Jesus was to be. We also, through our baptism, are free to become Children of God. We are freed from our fear of death and our bondage to sin, free to live as God intended. And we do this by faith. The sermon investigates
The season, Advent to be specific but you could say the extended Christmas season, begins for me when I hear “On Jordan’s Bank”. That was our opening hymn – LSB 344. The funny thing is that hymn reflects some of the theological turns that obscure the Baptist’s message. It turns from the direct and present cry of John on the Banks of the Jordan toward a spiritualized understanding. “The Lord is Nigh” becomes “and let us all our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.” Charles Coffin, the hymn writer, was a French Jansenist. What that means is a Catholic Calvinist. The Jansenists eventually were repressed and died out within the Catholic church, but in Coffin and Pascal they remain in the Church Universal. His Jansenism dominates verses 2 and 3, but he returns is verse four to the Baptist’s message which is not a retreat to a spiritual realm, but the coming down of the Lord.
The sermon attempts to get us to hear John the Baptist. True religion is not a matter of choice – something those Jansenists would understand. True religion in the reign of Christ. Today that is the reign of grace. Christ has taken our deserved baptism of fire and given us his baptism. This time the people of God don’t cross into the promised land across that Jordan on dry ground with swords for conquest. This time we cross by water and by our absolute repentance which is our acknowledgement that before the Lord we’ve got nothing. Coming right behind, is the final baptism. The Holy Spirit which we have as the down payment will be set free to recreate everything. Those sealed in the living water shall live, those without perish in the refining fire.
The final hymn – LSB 345 – Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding is a old Latin hymn that captures well that progression. Hear the Baptist; hear the solemn warning. Today see “the lamb of God with pardon. Let us haste with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven”. Tomorrow, “when next he comes in glory, the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with his mercy, and with words of love draw near”. The Lord has treated us with love and solidarity. We have nothing to fear in his drawing near. Come Lord Jesus.
Recording Note: Sorry, the live recording was unusable, so this is a re-recording after the fact.
I was sure walking into the pulpit this morning that I had failed. I was a page or more short. And I felt like that shortness wasn’t because I had successfully condensed a good word, but simply because I had wrestled with the text and lost. The Samaritan Leper is an easy story to just make into a moralistic word. There is nothing wrong with saying “give thanks”, the law is good and wise, but such often comes off not as “give thanks” but “give thanks because there are starving children in China”. There is always something specious about that old common phrase to get kids to eat. It doesn’t bring about thanks. It rarely made you eat your vegetables. So what I was struggling with was a way to preach not just “give thanks” as the law, but to make thanksgiving like the Samaritan Leper, full of wonder and joy and recognition. I thought I had failed, but somewhat surprising to me is that I got more good feedback than I would have expected. My inner cynic would say that is because it is only 10 minutes long, but I’m going to dismiss him as the crank he is. The Spirit takes the lessor and makes it greater.
Worship Note: Because of the recording problem you won’t hear it, but an important thing was this service started with a baptism. Baptism’s place in the sermon’s conclusion rests partly on what we had all witnessed that morning. Also, I just want to put this here. Lutheran Service Book 788, Forgive Us Lord, for Shallow Thankfulness, was the hymn of the day, surrounded by the staple hymns of Thanksgiving. This is also probably part of the rescue. Those are some of the best hymns in Christendom. But 788 is a powerful text. It is a comparatively modern hymn from 1965. I could wish that the text had a better tune, although Sursum Corda is not bad. It is the text that carries a necessary message about recognizing the greater and less, and not confusing them. The fifth stanza stands out to me: Forgive us, Lord for feast that knows not fast/for joy in things that meanwhile starve the soul/for walls and wars that hide your mercies vast/and blur our vision of the Kingdom goal. I’m sure it was written by a old fuzzy commie, but one that never let his politics become unmoored from the signs and wonders of the true kingdom.
We had a baptism in service today which always serves as a great visual object lesson. The strongest visual element of the text is the narrow door. As the sermon would proclaim that font is the narrow door. The gracious call of Christ to come into the household of His Father is the narrow door. And that door narrow door is entered one heart at a time.
What this sermon examines is our natural and sinful inclination to want to smash our group through the door, or more appropriately to claim that our clan, whatever its size, is the household. We want Jesus to bless our streets. We don’t want to leave our streets to enter through the narrow door into God’s streets. But that is the pattern of Abraham and the prophets. God’s gracious call followed by a life of faith seeking to fulfill that call. Rarely is that call fulfilled in this world, but we see it from afar. Baptism is our gracious call to be a royal priesthood and holy nation. Baptism is the grace of call calling us to the life of faith. Just like the patriarchs and prophets. Baptism changes one heart at a time, from east to west and north to south.
Worship Note: There were several good hymns today. I left in the recording Lutheran Service Book #644, The Church’s One Foundation. It carries in the first verse the theme of “water and the Word” is the creation of a new house. It carries that over to the universality of the church that springs from its oneness – one Lord, one faith, one birth. The collective multitude of the Holy Bride brought together one by one. And it is honest about that call that in this world is is not a call to immediate peace, but to perseverance, to the life of faith. It is a great hymns encompassing the themes of the worship of the day.