Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Authority?

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29th, Year of Our + Lord  2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
 Why Authority?     Mark 1:21-28

     [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

     Authority matters.  We are taught this clearly in all our readings this morning.  From Deuteronomy we heard God’s promise to raise up for Israel a prophet like Moses, another prophet through whose mouth the LORD would speak.  In order to believe a prophet, one must know that prophet speaks with authority, and God promises to provide Israel with just such a prophet. 

     From Paul writing to the Corinthians we learn that with authority comes responsibility, even the authority of being known as a wise Christian.  Paul acknowledges the freedom of the Christian, but points out that if in his freedom a wise Christian causes confusion in a brother or sister whose faith is weak, then love has been defeated.  The weaker brother or sister looks at the wise Christian as an authority, and so the wise Christian in love will take care to not allow his actions to injure the faith of another Christian with a weaker conscience. The specific situation Paul uses as an example is whether a Christian should eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol, that is to say, should a Christian go to the pagan temple potluck at which meat previously sacrificed to an idol is being served?  Paul denies that there is any reality to the idol or anything necessarily harmful in eating the meat.  But how will that appear to a Christian who is struggling in the faith, perhaps one who has just recently come out of pagan temple worship to worship the one true God?  Seeing a wise, long time Christian eating meat sacrificed to an idol may greatly confuse such a weak brother.  Paul concludes thus:  Therefore, if food (that is food which has been offered to an idol) if such food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble in his faith.  Wisdom is a form of authority, and so Paul encourages Christians to use their wisdom in love. 

     Finally, in our Gospel, in the fulfillment of Gods’ promise to raise up a prophet like Moses, indeed, even greater than Moses, Jesus Christ comes, teaching, not with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘maybes,’ like the Jewish people had grown accustomed to with their scribes, who read God’s Word to them but could not explain its meaning with authority or confidence.  Maybe it means this, maybe it means that, who can say, that is how the scribes taught.  Not Jesus.  He comes, speaking His Words as the very Word of God, with authority and clarity and confidence.  The people are amazed, and excited, especially when the authority of Jesus’ Word is backed up by the casting out of an unclean spirit from the possessed man who followed Jesus into the Capernaum synagogue. 

     If you’ve known me for any length of time, you aren’t surprised to hear me extol authority.  And from our readings, we see that authority clearly matters.  We should gladly maintain its importance.  But why?  Why is authority important?  Why should we want to see authority maintained?  What good does authority do for us? 

     Authority is important, but not necessarily for the reasons we might assume.  There are a number of reasons we sinful humans might maintain the importance of authority.  Authority matters, most of all in the Church, but pursuing authority for the wrong reasons or basing our identity on the wrong authorities will cause all sorts of troubles.  This morning, let’s take a closer look at the reasons authority matters, praying God to grant us to know and pursue and proclaim His authority, in His way, for His purposes. 
     Very commonly we extol the virtue of authority for family or cultural reasons.  At the Eastern Circuit Forum last Sunday evening in Glendive, where pastors and laymen from our corner of the Montana District met to select the Circuit Counselor and to consider a number of resolutions to the Montana District Convention next June, I had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with Andrew Johnson, lay representative from Concordia Lutheran Church of Forsyth, where I grew up. 

     Looking at him, I knew right away who he was, what family he came from, for all the Johnson men were tall, lean ranchers, with clear eyes and a preference for prominent moustaches and beards.  Andrew is cut from the same mold.  In an extremely satisfying overlap of generations, we figured out that he was the child of one of my Sunday School teachers, (I’m sure I remember when she was pregnant with him), and my mom had been his Sunday School teacher, and his dad had been a relatively younger elder the same time as my dad, whose funeral Andrew remembered, along with my mother’s, which he attended as a young adult.  And so two families with long LCMS roots and long Concordia Forsyth ties were re-united at the Circuit Forum.  Great fun. 

     Later, when Andrew was speaking on the wisdom of a particular resolution we were considering, I felt proud as he spoke up for good old, strict and serious Lutheran teachings.  He, I believe, was upholding the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions for all the right reasons.  But I must confess in that moment my inward celebration of his stand for authority found its source in other reasons, reasons for extolling authority that don’t really measure up.  I was excited because this man made a connection for me to the good old days, to a past and to memories of people that are very dear to me.  Which is o.k., even a good thing, especially if our concern is simply cultural and human.  Certainly in our world today, many of us long for the good old days when the authority of what our forebears understood to be right and wrong still held sway.  Don’t we all believe that things would be better, if people held the same respect for authority that our parents and grandparents did? 

     Unless and except where our forebears were mistaken.  Which is the problem with cultural authority:  blindly following the authority of those who have gone before us is no guarantee that we are doing the right thing.  Cultural authority has real limits.  Would our country have ever rid herself of the shame of slavery if nobody ever questioned the things many of our forebears held to be true?  Or what about those German and Scandinavian Lutherans who for decades resisted allowing English into American Lutheran Churches?  Where would the ministry of the LCMS be if we were still the Deutschen-evangelisch-lutherischen Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten?   Now, in their day, negotiating the change in language slowly and carefully was most likely the right thing to do, but what good purpose would we serve in Sidney or Fairview today if we still worshiped in German?  Basing our actions and beliefs today on the authority of our cultural forebears, or on the leading cultural voices of our day, will always leave us open to repeating and compounding the errors of others. 

     We need a better authority, especially in the Church.  Which of course we have, the Word of God as recorded and preserved for us in the Bible.  This is one of the main points of our readings today:  God has established the authority of His Word, given through His prophets, proclaimed by Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God, and we are commanded to stick to the truth He has passed on to us through His Apostles.  That’s what it means when we confess our belief in one, holy, Christian and Apostolic Church, that for us, the Word of the Apostles, and by extension the Prophets, is our authority.  And we find that authoritative Word in the Old and New Testaments.    

     One reason to carefully follow the authority of God’s Word is laid out quite clearly in our Old Testament reading.  For the hearers of God’s prophet, Moses passes on this warning from the LORD:  ‘Whoever will not listen to my words that [my prophet] shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.’  God clearly expects His people to listen to and obey the Word He has given through His prophets.  There will be consequences for disobedience.  And for the prophet, there is an even stricter warning, for the LORD continues:  ‘But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.'

     So there you have it: we are to maintain and submit to the authority of God’s Word because God has commanded us, and because He threatens severe penalties to anyone who fails.  This should be the end of debate.  God says so.  God is all powerful, and serious about what He commands.  End of conversation. 

     Except that it isn’t.  God has clearly commanded us to stick to His Word, but our commitment and ability to follow the commands of God are sorely lacking.  Submitting to the authority of the Word of God is good and right, and the Church must continue to declare this.  But commands and threats, however true and right they may be, do not in the end mean we will obey.  In fact, eventually we will do just the opposite.  That’s when you really know you are a sinner, isn’t it, when you know the right thing to do, and you know the consequences of disobedience, and yet you find yourself doing the wrong thing, anyway?  We poor miserable sinners need a better reason for submitting to the authority of God and His Word. 

     And we have it, in the example of the man whom Jesus freed from the demon.  He gets little mention in our reading, but think about that day from his perspective, put yourself in his sandals.  Driven by the power of evil to follow Jesus into the synagogue, imagine the pain and fear you are suffering.  An evil and hate-filled voice comes from your own mouth, challenging God’s Son, face to face.  But then, in a moment, with a word, everything changes.  This nameless, formerly demon-possessed man knows why we should want to acknowledge and submit to the authority of God’s Word:  God’s authoritative Word sets you free from demons, from evil, from the power of sin and death.  God’s authoritative Word is what delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land.  God’s authoritative Word forgives our sinful rebellion, rescues us from the hands of our enemies, and lifts us up to live with Christ. 

     Before the service, I mentioned the death of little William Daniel Penix, a child of just a year, who was born with severe medical issues, who spent most of his short life on earth in hospitals.  Where do his parents and grandparents turn in this hour of deep sadness?  To the authoritative Word of Christ, who said let the little children come to me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.  They turn to Jesus who said, Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to Peter who called the Pentecost congregation to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, a promise that is for you, and your children.  These authoritative words and many others teach us to know that William’s soul now rests with Christ, and that one day all who trust in Christ will join him, in joy and glory, forever. 

     Why should we extol and fight for the authority of God’s Word?  Because only the Word of God can give true and lasting comfort in our darkest hours.  Only the Word of the Cross and Empty Tomb is strong enough and good enough to give hope in the face of death and evil.  Only the authoritative Word of the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness in the blood of Jesus, can save us from ourselves. 

     It’s easier to put on a tough face and fight for the authority of culture, to demand we do things the way our parents or grandparents did, or the way our favorite pop star does it, just because we think highly of them.  We can carve out a pretty self-satisfying existence by being culture warriors, fighting the good fight for whatever way we think is right.  But our way is guaranteed to lead us away from God.  There is no life for dying sinners in the authority of culture.

     It’s also easier to stick to the Word of God because God said so, to give a cold shoulder and stern look to anyone who doesn’t understand or who protests our stern ways.  But there is no life for dying sinners like us in the authority of  God’s Law.  We should obey it, and we need to hear it in all its harshness, for otherwise we will begin to believe we can make our own way to God.  But the Law of God can only show us our need, only point out our failures, only make us realize that we cannot avoid sin and death and sadness by our own power. 

     It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because the sinful nature that remains in us does not want to die.   It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because to do so means we must confess that this world, for all its many joys and pleasures, cannot satisfy our greatest need.  It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because that always includes confessing our own sinful weakness, our inability to do anything to save ourselves. 

     But, there is life for dying sinners in the authority of the Gospel, for the wisdom of God’s authority is revealed in the love and new life of Jesus.  When by God’s grace we cling to the authority of God’s Word, when in that dark, demon-tormented hour of trial we are still listening to Jesus, His better Word of grace and peace and forgiveness will rescue us.  Faith craves authority.  Faith longs to know that  the promises to which it clings come not from human imagination, but from the very mouth of Almighty God.  And they do.  The promises of Christ, crucified and resurrected, are God’s authoritative Word to save you.    Hear God in the story of Christ.  Believe His Word.  Rejoice in His mercy for you.  Amen. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

God the Fisherman

3rd Sunday after Epiphany – Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, MT
January 22, Year of Our + Lord 2012

I'm not a fisherman.  Even though I grew up along the Yellowstone, even though I have fished, I can't say that I'm a fisherman.  My Dad and older siblings hunted, and so I hunt.  But we never fished much.                 

I like to eat fish.  Many people here in Sidney and Fairview have invited me fishing.  I'm not opposed to it.  I can cast and reel in the line.  But I don't really know much about fishing.  I'm willing to learn, and maybe someday I'll become a fisherman.  But it would be an insult to all the fishermen and fish out there if today I was to claim to be a fisherman.    

God is a fisherman.  Remember how Jesus helped out Peter and James and John in their fishing efforts?  "Cast your nets on the other side of the boat, I'm sure you'll catch some there."   Wouldn't you love to have Jesus as your fishfinder?  One of the last things Jesus did before He ascended into heaven to reign at the Father's right hand was to help the Apostles with their fishing, one last time.  Jesus not only pointed them to another miraculous catch of fish; when they got to shore, Jesus already had fish on the fire. 

Jesus is a fisherman, and Jesus uses fishing metaphors when he talks about other things.  Like salvation.  Jesus has been baptized by John, He is ready to begin his work, his ministry.  Jesus began preaching the Gospel, the Good News: "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"   And from the very beginning Jesus chooses men to be with Him, men to believe in Him, and then to be used by Him as His special servants.  His Apostles, the men upon whom and through whom Jesus would build His Church.  Listen:
          As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men."  At once they left their nets and followed him. 
Jesus is fishing for souls, seeking to draw men and women out of the sea of death into the New Life that He offers in His Church.  And to do this Jesus chooses these men:  Andrew, Peter, James and John, a bunch of smelly fishermen.  Uneducated, blue collar guys. Fishing, not religion, was their life. It's seems like an odd choice. 

But then God's methods of fishing for souls always seem strange to us.  Consider Jonah, sent to preach to Ninevah.  When the Church today considers a new mission effort, we try and determine a target audience that we think is likely to be open to the Gospel.  We look for someplace where we have some connection or ability to establish relationships.  And when we choose missionaries to send, we always look for men with hearts for the lost, servants who are eager to reach out in love to those who don't yet know Christ. 

But not God.  Not always at least.  The Ninevites were the last people we'd expect to care about the God of Israel.  They were Israel's most bitter enemy.  Rich and powerful and pagan, that is, they worshiped any number of false gods.  Why should they  care what the LORD's prophet had to say?  And Jonah?  Well, he hated the Ninevites, and tried with all his might to avoid going to preach to them, taking passage on a ship going the opposite direction.  But God, fishing by His own rules, determined to use Jonah to reach out to the Ninevites, bringing back this reluctant prophet in the belly of a great fish.  And God made it work.  Through His Word alone, spoken into the most unpromising circumstances, the LORD worked repentance in a whole city of pagans. 

God's way of evangelizing doesn't always meet our expectations.  This is because God's way of salvation does not meet our expectations.  The Good News is that Jesus died.  Salvation from sin and hell is found in the suffering and punishment of the only man who never sinned.  New life only comes through death.  We by our nature can know nothing of such a salvation.  God must reveal it to us.  God must change our hearts and minds in order to make us believe and begin to understand that in the Cross, and only in the Cross, can we find a solution to the problems that plague us.  Solutions for the hurts that the world, and our own friends, neighbors and family inflict on us.  An answer for the pain we cause ourselves and others. 

The event of salvation, Jesus' death and resurrection, is not something we would ever think up on our own.  So we should also learn that God's way of delivering salvation is not going to work the way that we'd expect. 

So, Jonah, a reluctant prophet with no heart for the Ninevites, is used by God to work repentance in them.  And common fishermen are chosen by Jesus to be His Apostles, the foundation of His Church. 

And so too, we, the Church today, find our most important avenues for preaching the Gospel in the most unlikely places.  Like in life issues. 

Life issues.  That sounds nice.  Life is good, life comes from God.  But we know that in our world today, supporting life means saying some very unpopular things.  To support life, we have to speak out against abortion.  To support life, we have to point out that the problem with sex in our world today isn't the babies that are created.  It's the bad choices that so many people make, before and after the babies are conceived.  To support life, we have to support families as they pour their life into allowing their parents and grandparents to die in a Godly way.  To die in faith, neither fearing death, because of Christ, nor giving in to the temptation to hasten the end.  Because the end of life, just like the beginning, is God's to determine, not ours. 

Such things are hard to say and do.  To speak forgiveness, first the Church must speak of sin.  And that's hard.  It's hard because the people we speak to don't want to hear it, and neither do we.   All of the problems with our culture's attitude toward life also infect us.  Abortion, sexual immorality, the desire to hasten death in order to avoid discomfort, all of these sins are as real for us, inside the Church walls, as they are outside them.  You, and I, all of us, share some responsibility for neglecting life.  We too need to hear the message that Jesus spoke in Galilee:  The kingdom of God is near, repent (that is, turn away from your sin), and believe the Good News.  The cross of Jesus, His unlikely way of salvation, covers all sin.  His death gives new life, to all who believe.  Abortion, assisted suicide, neglecting life, all these are sins, but they are sins that the blood of Jesus covers.  There is forgiveness, for you, in Christ, no matter what you've done.  Repent, confess your sins and believe the Good News.   

God has an odd way of fishing for souls.  His bait does not seem very attractive.  His message of grace and forgiveness is always proceeded by the truth about our sin.  His messengers are nothing but poor, miserable sinners.  But this is God's way.  Through this unpopular message, spoken into unpromising circumstances by forgiven sinners, God catches souls. 

And what joy there is in the catching.  What a privilege to be present as God reels in another one.  Sometimes the fish fight wildly, using all their strength to avoid God, but God prevails.  And when the fish are finally in God's boat, when sinners realize that God forgives them and gives them New Life in Jesus, then there is great joy, in heaven and on earth.  Being part of God's Mission to the lost can be hard, even frightening.  But there is no greater privilege than to be a part of God's fishing expedition, to behold the joy of new believers, and to share in that joy, as God binds you ever more firmly into His net, even as He uses you in His Mission. 

God by His Spirit daily and richly forgives you all your sins, for the sake of the Great Fisherman, Jesus Christ.  May He use you and His whole Church on earth as live bait, to draw yet more fish into His boat.  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What Can Neighbors Do For Each Other?

Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana 
John 1:43-51

We’ve seen a lot of this the past 9 days.  We have seen a great deal of good done, between and for neighbors, these last 9 days.  We have seen family and friends surround and bear up the family of Sherry Arnold as they struggle with this great tragedy.  We have seen the broader community come out, long time residents, and new comers, to search for Sherry.  We have seen people come together to support and to pray and to hold each other, that we might carry on.  We’ve seen a lot of good done for neighbors, in these last nine days.  A lot of good done in response to great evil, to a great evil that was always out there, but not so much here.  And maybe in our memory, not like this.  A great evil that has taken a friend and a sister in Christ.  A great evil who has shaken all of us and our community.  We have turned to God in prayer and supplication and in song.  But we have not seen the one thing we most wanted, we have not received our sister back.  

The one text from Scripture that seems obvious this morning is the Good Samaritan, because that text is all about neighbors.  “Who is my neighbor?” the Pharisee asks Jesus.  So Jesus tells us and him about the Good Samaritan.  You know the story.  You know the story about the man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem, who was struck down by robbers, beaten and left on the side of the road.  You know about the priest, who, for what  reasons we are not exactly told, but we suspect because he did not want to get involved, he did not want to be made unclean by this potentially dead person, this priest passes by on the other side.  And the Levite too, the building trustee of the temple, going to Jerusalem as well, he couldn’t be unclean, so he also passes by on the other side.  But then a Samaritan.  You remember who the Samaritans are, the Samaritans are hated, the Samaritans are, for the Jews, those half breed cousins that we don’t like to talk about.  The Samaritan comes down the road and sees the man lying on the side of the road, and he goes to him.  And he washes his wounds with oil and wine and he binds up his wounds, and he puts him on his donkey and he carries him to the inn, and he pays for his care in the inn until that day when he can return and continue to care in person for the man who was left on the side of the road.  

We have prayed and we have wanted the Good Samaritan to come to our the rescue, to bind us up, to wash us clean, and most of all to deliver our sister to us.  And He has, just not in the way that we expect, and not in the way that we have wanted. 

Because Jesus our Good Samaritan has come to our rescue  by becoming the victim, as well as the one who rescues us.   He was the only one who could rescue us, for as we should always have known, but certainly know now, we cannot overcome the evil that is in this world.  We cannot overcome what’s wrong with us.  He is the only one, for He is God Himself.  God alone can save.  Jesus is the only one who could save us by swallowing up suffering in his own body, becoming the Son of Mary so that He could bear her sins and your sins and my sins.  Only Jesus could come and rescue us.  

By her faith, by Christ’s Baptism, given to Sherry at this font, by His  Holy Body and Blood, by His precious word, Sherry was  joined to Christ, and Christ has always been joined to Sherry, and so Jesus has always been with her, and is always with her, and is with her now.  And He continues to come.  Not always as we wish, with the healing of physical and emotional wounds, not always with rescue from the evils of this world, but always with us, coming with eternal healing, coming with the oil of salvation, coming with the new wine of the heavenly kingdom.  He comes with the healing that He purchased when He became the one abandoned, struck down and left.  He came to become sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  Covered by Him, forgiven by Him, clothed by Him, we poor sinners have been called righteous and holy in the sight of God our Father.  

And so now as saints of God we can do more as neighbors. We can give of our time, lives, possessions, as we seen so many people do these last nine days, because we know Who our true treasure is.  We know that all the things of this world that we have we‘ve received from Him, and that none of them can compare to the life and the joy and the glory and the honor that is ours in Christ, seated at God’s right hand, right now.  We can do more as neighbors, because we can love, as He has first loved us.  Pouring out His life that we might be His own, we now can pour out our love for our neighbors.  We can care for people, we can reach out to people, and we, like Philip, can tell our Nathanaels about Jesus. 

Philip is called by Jesus, and goes to his friend Nathanael and says “Come and see this one, the one promised from of old in the Scriptures, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.  
     Nathanael is skeptical.  Nathanael is skeptical, because he probably knows Nazareth and he knows his scripture and he not sure  know why we should expect a savior from Nazareth.  But Jesus, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, is the One.  Philip knows it, so he just says to Nathanael, “Come and see.  Come and see.”  

Can anything good come from the horrible events we have suffered through these last nine days?  Yes.  Many good things have already come from these horrible events, acts of love between neighbors.  And more than anything else, Christ and His Word have been in our midst.   Our community Has been speaking the truth of Christ, hearing the truth of Christ, praying in the Name of Christ.  It has been my profound privilege to be with the families and hear them confess the faith that I could hardly speak.  Confessing Christ crucified and resurrected, even as they reeled in pain, even as they cried out, “Why God?”      

So good has and will continue to come, because of the  One Good Man who came from Nazareth, calling disciples to Himself, the Son of God, who is also the Son of Mary, our Savior Jesus Christ.  

We have always known in our minds, we have always known from Scripture, we have always known from the news that presses in upon us from all around the world, we have always known that evil is real.  And we even know that evil is real because of who we are as sinners.  But now we know, perhaps like never before.  Now perhaps we know in our gut that evil is real.  

And so now is even more the time to know and receive and yes, rejoice, in the One Savior Jesus Christ, who has swallowed up evil in His own body, and taken away the sins of the world.  In Jesus Christ Sherry, and you, and all who trust already have the victory.  You have a seat at the heavenly feast, there’s a chair waiting for you there. You have the promise that every tear will be wiped from your eyes. 

So love one another.  Love one another because you are loved.  Love one another because you can, in Christ.  Love one another, and by that, then, you will not give in to evil.  You will not give in to doubts and to anger and to hatred, and the what ifs.  “What if I…”  Love one another and be loved by Christ, and know that all these what ifs and all these doubts and all these questions are attacks from Satan, who wants to destroy your faith in the one who died and rose and lives on high for you. Know that these are attacks from Satan, and do not succumb, do not give in.  Because there is no need; Jesus has conquered.  All of your sins are washed away in His blood.  Every evil thing that can happen to us in this life, He has already gone through, and He is even with you in the midst.  Despite what has happened, despite the questions we have, know this: the devil is on a short leash.   He cannot touch you.  Yes, bad things will happen.  Bad things will happen to you and to me,   horrible things have happened here.  But Satan has not defeated Sherry, for Christ Jesus is with her and she is with Him. 

So Feed on His Word.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  Rest in His peace.  And the God of peace, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, will give you faith and strength to carry on.  The Peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.    God is faithful, He will do it.  Amen. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why are we Baptized?

The Baptism of Our + Lord, January 8th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Mark 1:4-11
Why are we Baptized?

(Note:  The Saturday before this sermon, one of our members disappeared, apparently abducted.  Her disappearance, briefly referenced in the sermon, was a powerful reminder of why we rejoice in each Baptism.  No resolution of the situation has yet arrived as of this posting.  Please join your prayers to ours)
     Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, when Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, entered into the Jordan River to take on the cause of sinners.  And, happily and appropriately, today we celebrate the Baptism of Eleanor Iversen.  I thought celebrating two Baptisms on Christmas morning was great fun, tremendously appropriate to share new birth with Emma and Tristan Bieber on the day of Jesus’ birth.  Then last Sunday, as we remembered and celebrated the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, I thought, hey, this would be a great Sunday for a Baptism too, since Paul calls Baptism the Circumcision made without human hands, the Circumcision of the heart, done by Christ, the entry rite which replaces and surpasses the Old Testament covenant of circumcision.  But now today, I’m thinking maybe this is the best Sunday on which to be Baptized, as we celebrate the day Jesus Himself was washed in the waters of the Jordan. 

     I guess every Sunday is a good Sunday to be Baptized, even if it doesn’t line up with a particularly watery set of readings from Scripture.  But certainly it is good that today, as we are blessed to observe a Baptism, we are also blessed to hear again about the Baptism of Jesus, and to hear Paul talk about Baptism in his letter to the Romans, and even to hear how the Spirit hovered over the waters, in the beginning.  God seems  to be very much attached to the notion of giving life through water. 

     So Baptism is good, and this is a good day, but do we remember why?  Do we understand what has happened here today?  And what does today mean for the rest of Eleanor’s life?  What does your Baptism mean for you, for your daily life?  Well, no better day than today to tackle these questions. 

     But how to explain it?  Baptism is tough, people really struggle to understand it.  Baptism is the source of much debate, much disagreement, amongst Christians.  The Church has been baptizing people, adults, children and little babies, ever since Pentecost, ever since the beginning of the Christian Church.  To administer a Baptism is pretty straightforward, fairly easy.  But teaching the baptized to observe everything that Jesus has taught, which is what Jesus says immediately after His command to baptize, well, that is considerably more challenging.  We have at times fallen woefully short, as has the performance of the Baptized in actually living out their calling as God’s children. 

     Baptism is, from God’s perspective, the beginning of an eternal Father-Child relationship between the Almighty and a forgiven sinner, a close, daily, most-important-thing-there-is kind of relationship, between the Baptized, and Christ, who has given Baptism it’s power and meaning.  Baptism should never be considered a check in the box, or like some magic pill, taken, but never to be considered again, until death draws near.  And yet, all too often, that is how we treat it. 

     For Christians to abuse Baptism is a terrible and sad thing.  But all too common.   Throughout Christian history and still today, sometimes we Christians act as though after Baptism nothing matters, that the Baptized go to heaven, regardless of whether they stay within the faith.   In reaction to this, some Christians have been so offended that they rejected Baptism, saying it is nothing more than an outward observance, with no real saving action going on, nothing really central to Christian life happening.  This is doubly tragic, because this false idea both rejects what God has said in the Bible about Baptism and salvation, and it also throws out the key to Christian living, which is to daily return to Baptism, ever being refreshed in the grace and mercy that first washed us there.   

     I thought of a way I might be able to explain Baptism when I was on the phone with Eleanor’s mother Amy on Thursday.  As I called Amy to make sure I had all the spellings of everyone’s names correct, I was greeted by a unhappy, painful cry followed by some sad whimpers and moans.  It was Eleanor, not Amy.  You see, as Amy explained, Eleanor had received some baby shots that day, leaving her a little crabby.  As I listened, it occurred to me that there are some comparisons to be drawn between being Baptized and receiving vaccinations against various diseases.  But we need to be careful here, because while some things are the same between Baptism and the shots we get to prevent diseases, there are also some big differences.  Indeed, it is the differences which, Lord willing, will help us better understand, appreciate, and live out our Baptisms. 

     For starters, Baptism and vaccinations are similar in that both are received.  I guess some people with strong stomachs learn to give themselves shots, but most of the time this is not the case.  People don’t normally vaccinate themselves; somebody takes a needle and gives you a shot.  Even more, Holy Baptism is always done by God.  One member of the body of Christ, that is one baptized believer, usually a pastor, takes water and God’s Word and baptizes another person, thereby bringing them into fellowship with Christ.  But the pastor isn’t doing the real work.  The real work of salvation is, as always, being done by God, through the words and actions of the pastor.  So, even more than a vaccination, Baptism can only be received, a merciful act of God on the sinner.   

     Both Baptism and vaccinations are to protect you.  But this comparison doesn’t hold up very long.  Because while each vaccination is to protect you in this life against some particular disease, with ninety-some percent reliability, Baptism always works, against every evil.  But Baptism’s protection is not so much for this life, but rather for the life to come.  As we are so painfully seeing in the disappearance of Sherry Arnold, in this life God often, but not always, protects His children from evil.  But through Baptism, God has absolutely guaranteed complete protection, freedom from every bad thing, in the life to come.  Believe it.  God has promised. 

     Christian Baptism is 100% effective, the only thing that can mess things up is if the baptized person rejects it.  Baptism always works, believe it, because Baptism is the promise of Christ.  To believe in your Baptism is to believe in the things Christ has promised, and delivered to you through the water and the Word.  While many vaccinations wear off, requiring booster shots, your Baptism is always valid, delivering all of God’s promises of mercy and forgiveness, because God is the authority behind it. 

     In our day to day lives, as Amy and Neil go about their calling to care for Eleanor, as any of us lives and loves and is concerned for our family and friends, the diseases that vaccinations try to protect us from often take center stage.  They seem more serious, because the symptoms and suffering of diphtheria, tetanus or the measles are obvious, right in front of our eyes.  In truth, however, the spiritual death that Baptism rescues us from is much more serious.  Sin and the spiritual death it causes are not only the root of all the struggles we face in this life, but unless we are rescued, they will result eternal misery and suffering, life apart from God, forever.  Christ through His Baptism rescues from spiritual death.     

     Because they are fighting very different problems, vaccinations and Baptism work in completely different ways.  Vaccinations take some essentially dead bugs, viruses or bacteria that have died, or at least have been stripped of their power to inflict illness.  These dead or neutered bugs are then shot into your living body, to spark the right reaction in your antibodies, your own body’s disease fighters, causing your own body to build up a defense against some disease, without actually giving you the disease.    Baptism is just the opposite.  In Baptism, God comes to a person who is spiritually dead, and gives new life. 

     You, me,  and every descendent of Adam and Eve, are born spiritually dead, sinners, naturally turned away from God and neighbor, naturally opposed to God.  We don’t have any spiritual antibodies that can rise up and fight off sin, we need to be resurrected.  In Baptism, a new life is created in a spiritually dead person.  That’s what Jesus means in John chapter three when He says you must be born again of water and the Spirit. 

     Since Baptism creates a new life, the baptized require feeding.  Jesus commissioned the Eleven Apostles to baptize, and to teach these new disciples to observe everything He commanded.  That is, Jesus told the Apostles that the baptized will need a steady diet of the same Word which empowers Baptism in the first place.  Those new born disciples of Christ, will, upon coming out of the water, need to be nursed on pure spiritual milk, the Word of Christ, in order to grow, indeed, in order to stay alive.  You gotta eat to live, and the baptized feed on the Word of God.  Indeed, God is so concerned for feeding His newborn children that He uses His Word to institute an actual meal, the Lord’s Supper, where He uses His Word to make bread and wine into a life giving and life sustaining and life strengthening meal of forgiveness. 

     What then, is the significance of Baptism for our day to day living?  What new life does God desire in the Baptized?  Baptism is our identity, we are the Baptized, which is the same thing as saying we are Christians.  And so new born children of God, set free from sin, clothed in Christ, given the Holy Spirit, we are set free to live as children of God, little Christs, even, since that is what Christian means.  As little Christs, free from anxiety for our own future because Jesus is our future, we are called to love God, and serve our neighbor.  Which, as new born children of God, we want to do.  The life of the Baptized is a joy filled life of serving our neighbors and rejoicing in the love of God, poured out on us through Jesus Christ.  This is God’s life for you.

     Except when we don’t allow it.  Except when we live as though the water and the Word had no effect on us.  Baptized into Christ, we have perfect freedom, but sin lingers.  God in the mystery of His wisdom does not completely destroy the sinner in us at our Baptism, and so living out our calling is a daily struggle.  Which is also why the Baptized need to be fed, taught, raised up in, even forced by demanding Catechism teachers to memorize the Word of Christ.  Because, just as at our Baptism, the Word of Christ is the only thing that can set us free sin, the forgiving Word of Jesus. 

      And so, in closing, let me give you that Word.  It is good to review the mechanics of the Christian life, what Baptism is, how Christian life is meant to be, what we need when we fail to live as we should.  But these are good things only because of the One who is behind and in and fulfilling all these things.  Baptism is only good because Christ is in Baptism.  That’s why He came to John, the only sinless man in all of human history, coming to be baptized like a sinner, because that’s what Jesus came to be.  God’s Son came to become the sinner, standing in our place, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. 

     The Word of God, through whom the heavens and the earth were created, came at His Father’s bidding, taking on human flesh, becoming a man, for the sake of all men, women and children.  He came to become sin for us, drawing the sins of the people out of the Jordan onto Himself.  Even as He dispensed foretastes of heaven to the people in His miracles, Jesus was bearing the sins of the world as His ministry led Him toward Calvary.  The source of life for all mankind, Jesus the Son of God was abandoned, completely alone on the earth, convicted of our crimes, punished for our sins, dying our death, so that He could share His new life with us.  For death could not hold Him; He is the Lord of Life.  On His Cross He paid for all our sins, and so the Father has given Him authority to forgive all our sins.  This Christ does, gladly, freely, sending His Holy Spirit to declare this Good News, to Eleanor, to Sherry, to you, to every sinner. 

     All who believe and are baptized shall be saved.  This promise is for you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.