Sunday, January 27, 2013

Septuagesima - By Grace Alone

St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Septuagesima Sunday, January 27th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Septuagesima - Grace Alone            Matthew 20:1-16

     Septuagesima.  Sep-tu-a- ges-ima.  What is that? 

     Septuagesima means seventy, in late Latin, I think, and it is the name given in the historic one year lectionary to the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  Septuagesima, seventy, Sexagesima, sixty, and Quinquagesima, fifty, these are the names given centuries ago by the Church to the three Sundays of the pre-Lent time, a kind of bridge from Epiphany, which closes the Christmas season, to Lent, which opens the Easter season.  The idea is that these Gesima Sundays are fifty, sixty and seventy days before Easter.  Of course, since each Sunday is only 7 days apart, a difference of ten in the counting for each week doesn’t quite make sense.  But hey, the Church is full of theologians, not mathematicians. 

     We’ve switched to the one year, old-school lectionary, with its old-school names like Septuagesima, switching for a number of reasons, not least interesting perhaps being that it matches well with the old-school look of our vicar.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Vicar Toombs has a very old-school beard.  Wild and wooly.  Old school, as in the early days of the LCMS, when church men wore mighty beards.  Indeed Vicar’s beard is very CFW Waltheresque, very much reminiscent of the facial hair of the 19th century founder of our Synod.  You might even think Vicar’s facial hair is like an Old Testament prophet.  It also happens to be very hip these days, to let your beard grow where it wills, gnarly and free.  So celebrating an old timey sounding Sunday like Septuagesima this year when we are enjoying the service of Vicar Toombs just seems to fit, doesn’t it?    

     Well, anyway, we have the readings of Septuagesima before us today.  The three traditional Pre-Lenten Gospel readings for these Gesima Sundays were set centuries and centuries ago, long before the Reformation, and yet they serve very well to highlight three great “Solas” of the Reformation:  Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, and Faith Alone,– demonstrating once again that the Lutherans weren’t changing anything essential in the Reformation of the Church, just clearing up the clutter that had accrued onto, the clutter that was obscuring the Gospel. 

     Luther and his fellow reformers were scraping off the barnacles from the ship of salvation, barnacles like purgatory and indulgences, the sacrifice of the mass, and the forced celibacy of priests.  All of these false teachings grow from the granddaddy of all barnacles, works righteousness, the anti-Biblical idea, indeed the Satanic idea that Christ’s way of salvation includes a requirement for works by us sinners, the unbiblical teaching that we sinners can and must in some measure earn our own salvation.  By the year 1517 these works-righteous barnacles seemed to be nearly running the ship of the Church aground.  Christ was presented as an angry judge, and salvation as a long, difficult climb up a ladder of good works, a ladder that stretched beyond your physical death, many rungs remaining for you to climb in purgatory.  There was precious little teaching of Christ for sinners, of forgiveness, or of our utter inability to earn salvation.  This last, desperate news, that there isn’t any work we sinners can do that can earn God’s favor, this frightening truth makes us ready to hear about God’s free gift of salvation, by the Cross of Christ.  But these things were rarely being preached in 1517; such was the state of the Church, 500 years ago. 

     So thanks be to God for raising up Luther and thousands of others who proclaimed the Truth of Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone.  Still, today, Churches and pastors and Christians still try to attach barnacles to the hull of free salvation in Christ, but this Truth is certainly much more available today than it was before Luther.  Available, but still, somehow, not always believed.  But I digress.  Suffice it to say, as we approach Ash Wednesday and another Lenten journey to the cross, nothing could be better for our faith and life together than a review of the basics, how it is that God saves us, so that we will be resting in this good news, as we come to Ash Wednesday, to face the trials and bitter repentance of Lent.  And so, regardless of what Vicar Toombs may choose to do with his beard, we are blessed today to focus on Grace alone, next week on Scripture alone, and the following on Faith alone. 

     Grace alone.  God saves sinners because He wants to, it is pure gift, springing from His heart, which overflows with love and gifts.  This teaching is all over the Bible.  Nothing in Adam and Eve, no good work by them, was the cause of the LORD’s promise to the Serpent.  The man and woman had just turned their backs on God, and the next thing you know, the Lord makes His promise, that the Seed of the Woman would come and crush the serpent’s evil head, breaking his sin-based power over mankind, by removing our sins from us. 

     In the same way, nothing about Abram’s character and holiness caused the LORD to choose him to be the Father of God’s special people, to be the original ancestor of the human family of the Christ.  Indeed, if you read the Scriptures through, you will discover again and again that these chosen instruments of God, like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul, were in truth miserable sinners, saved and used by God by grace, totally apart from any merit in them.  Abraham tried to give his wife away, multiple times.  Moses was a killer, and was prone to losing his temper.  David was an adulterer and murdered his friend.  Peter denied Christ, and then later denied fellowship with Gentile Christians, in order to impress his Jewish friends.  Paul persecuted the Church of God, holding the coats of the mob as they stoned St. Stephen.  Such are the human heroes of the Bible. 

     We are all thoroughly sinful sinners, with nothing worthy to offer to God for our redemption.  But God is gracious, and so God saves us, by grace alone, that is as a free, undeserved gift.  God saves us, solely because God is love, and in love He wills to save.  Which He does, in the way that He knows is best. 

     Which brings us to our parable this morning, the parable of the workers in the vineyard.  The Master of the house, the owner of the Vineyard, is God.  The laborers are you and me, individual sinners called to enter and join in the work of the vineyard, which is to say to be a part of the Church Militant, the Church on earth.  Notice that the focus is not on the actual work that each laborer does in the vineyard – no, the key element in the parable is the call of the Master, who continually seeks out and brings the idle into His vineyard, all day long, guaranteeing each a reward, regardless of the amount or quality of their work.  The Master’s “hiring” is by grace, it’s free gift, unrelated to the value any laborer can or cannot offer in return.  This “hiring” is God’s converting call, perhaps best seen in our lives in our Baptism, a gracious selection by God of sinners, by which He brings them into His vineyard, His household, making them His very own, without any reference to their goodness, with no relationship to their merit, simply because God desires to make disciples of Jesus, by baptizing them. 

     But, while God is naturally gracious, we are naturally ungracious.  To coin a term, we are sinfulnaturally ungracious, from our sinful nature we resist sharing, and we also tend toward ungratefulness, unthankfulness.  From the newborn selfishly trying to monopolize the time and attention of Mom, to the toddler, refusing to share her toys, to the American public, which in survey after survey wants the government to shrink and spend less money, except don’t take away the programs that benefit me!  Don’t ask me to do without for the good of the whole.  Indeed, the most prosperous system yet discovered for living together on this planet, the free-market capitalist system, is a just-barely-held-in-check system of every man for himself, struggling to get all he can, more or less within a rule of law.  The free-market system is to many a thing of beauty, and it has done more for the material wealth and prosperity of more people than any other system.  But still, at its core it depends on our desire for more and more stuff, and on the government’s ability to keep our desires and selfishness operating within certain boundaries. 

     It’s how we are.  When we receive, we may be thankful for a moment, but how quickly we want more, how quickly we grow bored and dissatisfied with what yesterday fulfilled all our needs and wants.  This is clearly seen in God’s people, already back with Moses in the desert.  Consider their situation.  A few months earlier, they were a nation of slaves, laboring painfully under the whip in Egypt.  But the LORD through Moses had delivered them to freedom, God even causing the Egyptians to shower them with gifts on their way out of town.  When Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his chariots after them, the LORD led Israel on dry ground through the Red Sea.  Then the Lord re-purposed the walls of water He had held up for Israel, changing them into a weapon, which crashed down on Pharaoh’s army, destroying horse and rider.  Soon after that, when Israel could only find bitter waters, God told Moses to sweeten the waters at Marah with a stick.  When they were hungry, God sent manna and quail on the camp, day by day. 
      God had done all these things for Israel, in a matter of weeks.  But still, in today’s reading from Exodus, the Israelites are grumbling again, unhappy with the LORD’s provision, ungrateful and impatient for more and better gifts.  God’s people showed no patience, no trust, no thankfulness, even though the LORD had been blessing them so richly.  All this from a people who were living as slaves, seemingly forgotten by God just months earlier.  Ungracious, and ungrateful.

     As with Israel in the desert, so also with the workers in Jesus’ parable today.  None of them deserve to be brought into the Master’s household, none of them earned a spot in the vineyard.  And yet this is the call and promise of the Master, a promise He chooses to make, all day long, calling out again and again, “Come into my vineyard, join in my prosperity.”  The Master was full of grace.  How did the workers react?  The laborers hired first expected special, better treatment than those hired last, because that is how sinners naturally are, ungracious toward others, and ungrateful towards the Master.      

     I’m sure glad that you and I have at long last gotten over this ungracious, ungrateful problem.  I’m glad we are so naturally thankful and gracious, happy to share what we have with others, happy to see others praised and blessed, never jealous of the good fortune the LORD showers on another.  I’m so glad we never get possessive with the gifts God has given us.  We’re never upset that someone has parked in “our” parking spot, on that public street in front of work, never miffed that someone else is recognized for a kind act that we do all the time, never grumpy because someone else got the best seat in the student section at the basketball game, you know, the seat between the coolest guy and the prettiest girl, that seat that certainly I deserve, don’t I?  We’re never jealous that God is blessing someone else, maybe with an oil right and royalties that they didn’t do anything to earn it.  We never grumble that we’ve worked harder, that we’re just as deserving.    

     Unfortunately, ungratefulness and ungraciousness are still in our nature.  And while it can be funny, it’s really no laughing matter.  For the many and various ways we despise God’s gifts from yesterday and want new and better today, for the way we insist God should serve us in the way we think is best, for our ungrateful, ungracious, prideful hearts, we deserve to be cut off, kicked out of the vineyard, rejected by God.  Watch out. 

     It seems our gracious God has a problem:  how to give a free, priceless gift to people who claim a right to everything, people whose thankfulness passes away like the mist, whose gracious desire to share lasts but a moment?  Well, part of God’s solution is to warn us, with the example of the Israelites who despised God and died in the desert, with the example of all the Jews who saw the Savior, but rejected Him, and with the example of all the people we know who have heard and received and even confessed the Good News of salvation by Grace alone, but then despise God’s gift by living without Him, outside the fellowship of His Church.  Don’t be fooled, God is not mocked. 

     Part of God’s solution is to warn us, but then He does the continually unexpected.  When we are put in charge of unruly people, we warn, and then we punish, and then we warn, and give partial rewards as we get partial responses, the carrot and the stick.  This is not God’s way.  God does warn, but He  overcomes our ungratefulness… with more giving, even the supreme act of grace – Jesus doing all our works for us, and then also becoming sin for us.  It is as Jesus said, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. 

     You see, Jesus was the very first, the greatest Man ever, and yet He, to overcome our ungratefulness, our sin, our pride, became the very last.  Hanging on a Cross, suffering in our place, utterly abandoned, Jesus became the lastest of all, so that we don’t have to be cast out.  And then, completing God’s grace, Jesus the Lastest, the crucified, despised one, became the very first, the firstest of all, the first-born of the dead, the ultimate gift of our loving God.  Jesus, crucified and resurrected, is the gift that makes new the ungrateful hearts of the very people who by their nature reject Him.  That is, Jesus creates new hearts, in you and me.  Jesus, dead in our place, and raised for our new life, uses the Word of His Grace to create new hearts in us, truly thankful hearts, by the forgiveness of our sins.  Jesus, by His Word of Grace helps us to rejoice in all our gifts, because in Him we realize that all our blessings come from the same God has saved us by His Cross.   

     Our old, ungrateful, ungracious, sinful natures still war against the thought of the complete free-giftedness of God’s salvation.  But God’s giving is greater than our selfishness, and His giving continues, day by day throughout our lives, for we are His chosen, baptized, free-gifted people.  By grace you have been saved, and nothing, not even your old sinful nature, will stop God from giving you the gift Jesus’ has won for you.  Go forth, in the grace, and joy, and peace of Christ, Amen. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Of Mountain Tops and Valleys

The Transfiguration of Our + Lord, January 20, 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, MT
Of Mountain Tops and Valleys - Matthew 17:1-9
Vicar Jason Toombs

Which is sadder: a mountain top or a valley experience? 

There’s nothing like a mountain top experience.  You’ve reached the peak, as high as you can go, and nothing can stop you from reveling in the moment.  Views that take your breath away not just because of the view but because the air is thinner and crisper.  The brightness of the sun is kicked up a notch.  You can peer off in the distance and see all of God’s creation.  But when you come down you are often disappointed because life will never be that good again.  Sure, you can relive the moment in your mind but there’s nothing like a mountain top experience.  When life returns to normal it bogs you down.  Normal life isn’t exciting or thrilling.  It can’t match that feeling when you’ve been on top of the world.  Normal life, or as normal as it can be, is about the highs and the lows.  Sometimes you need to view things from a different perspective.

Valley experiences cause pain and sadness.  You’re at a low point.  The stress of the holidays gets to you.  The sun isn’t shining and the darkness starts to creep in.  You’ve spent so much time away from family and friends that you turn to something to take the pain away: sex, drugs, alcohol, or gambling.  You’ve been going it alone for so long that you don’t know when somebody wants to help you.  They’ve reached out to you but you turn away from them, “They don’t know the pain of an abortion.  They don’t know the pain of an addiction. They can’t help me.”  Pride or maybe shame rules your heart; you can’t let other people know your pain and agony.  You’ve made it this far on your own.  You need to push a little harder and you can make it.  Like Thomas the Tank Engine, you say, “I think I can, I think I can” not realizing that maybe some things in life are too big to overcome on your own.  Valleys are surrounded by hills or mountains; when you leave a mountain top the valley isn’t always far away.  But sometimes you need to view things from a different perspective.

We have all had those mountain top experiences.  When he got down on bended knee to ask for your hand in marriage.  When she said yes.  When the pastor announced to the congregation, “I now present to you Mr. and Mrs. ...”  When your favorite team won the big game against their rival.  When your team won the championship.  When the judge awarded you first place in the contest.  The agony and practice were all worth it when you stand on top of the world.  But what if things went a little differently?

We’ve all had those valleys in our lives.  Husband and wife, parent and child arguing with each other.  Neighbors arguing over pets and property lines.  Your team loses in a close battle or, worse, in a blowout.  You’re the favored team; you’re expected to win, but you fall short of winning the championship.  Life drags on and you think, what if?  What if we went left instead of going right?  What if I looked to the left once more and saw that car?  What if we got the message a little sooner about a loved one going to the hospital?  What if?

So I ask again, which is sadder: a mountain top or a valley experience?  Don’t answer too quickly because sometimes you need to view things from a different perspective.

Peter, James, and John his brother, went up a high mountain with Jesus.  They were going to have a mountain top experience, on a high mountain no less.  They had been with Jesus and knew that He went up on mountains to pray (Matt. 14:23).  They knew that going up mountains was not out of character for Jesus.  But this mountain was different.  They wouldn’t forget what happened on this mountain.  They had followed Jesus up the mountain when, what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Jesus transfigured, and boy did they peer.  They looked intently at His appearance, it was changed.  He was transfigured, He was transformed before them. 

His appearance was altered from how they normally saw Him.  His face shone like the sun, shining with His full radiance which He hid from their eyes.  His clothes became white as light.  White, pure, holy, radiating with the truth and light that Jesus is.  As St. John writes in the opening words of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Jesus came into this sin darkened world to bring light and life to you.  God’s word, this same Jesus, is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).  He is your light and shines upon you every day.  Last week we had the Paschal Candle, the Christ Candle, beside the baptismal font as we celebrated Jesus’ baptism.  We celebrated the light of the world being in our midst.  This celebration continues every Lord’s Day as the candles are lit to show Christ’s continued presence with us radiating from the cross.  But even when the candles are not lit at church He is still there with you because of His promise to you, “Lo, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20).

And when Jesus was transfigured there were two other people talking with Him.  Moses and Elijah were having a conversation with Jesus about His exodus, His leaving the disciples and returning to His Father.  Moses had handed over what he received, the Law of God.  Elijah, one of the prophets standing in place for all of them, was God’s spokesman to Israel and the nations.  God had spoken by these two men, as well as many others.  “In many and various ways, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets. But now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son” (Evening Prayer Heb. 1:1-2a).  The Law and the Prophets were speaking with Jesus about Him.  The Law and the Prophets testify about Jesus and how He will save His people.  All people are His people; He came to rescue all people from the hand of the devil and bring them back to God.  He came for those who are having a mountain top experience and those who are in the valleys of life.

When Peter saw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talking, he had a brilliant idea, “we should build tents, one for each of them.”  He wanted to stay on the mountain, to maintain the mountain top experience for as long as he could.  He went up to Jesus with this idea, “‘Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here” but while he was speaking a bright cloud overshadowed them. 

And a voice came from the cloud saying what we heard last week at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”  The beloved Son of God came down from heaven to die on the cross for everyone’s sin.  And Peter would have prevented Him by staying on the mountain rather than going down through the Kidron Valley.  Jesus walked through the Kidron Valley before He was crucified outside of Jerusalem on a hill.  Peter wanted to keep his mountain top experience with Jesus rather than going through the valley of death that was waiting for Jesus outside of Jerusalem. 

Peter’s mountain top experience would have prevented Jesus’ dying and rising for his sins.  Viewing Peter’s mountain top experience from the perspective of preventing the death and resurrection of Jesus would have been far sadder than losing his beloved friend and master.  As sad as the valley of death that awaited Jesus on the cross was, it is nothing compared to His not dying for our sins.  If He had not died for you, you would still be in your sins, you would still be in bondage to the devil, and there would be no hope for you. 

But thanks be to God because He has rescued you from your sins and the devil.  Jesus is your hope and sure foundation for your faith.  Jesus left the mountain top and travelled through the valley to the cross.  On the cross Jesus paid the ultimate price, giving His very blood to cover you, covering your sins.  Going further into the valley of sorrow He was placed into a tomb where He rested until He rose again on the third day.  He fulfilled all righteousness in His death and resurrection.  And He ascended higher than any mountain top, ascending back to the Father from whence He came. 

Jesus makes the mountain top experience that Peter wanted to maintain a valley experience as it would have prevented Him from going to the cross.  He also helps by making your valley experiences, the struggles that you are going through in your day to day life, better.  He lifts you up with a Word of promise when you are brought low by pain and agony.  He is there with you through your struggles of addiction helping you day by day and moment by moment.  He is there forgiving you when you can’t seem to forgive yourself for you past actions, your what ifs, and your pride and shame.  He is with you to remind you, “Lo, I am with you always,” even now shining His light to illumine the path of salvation that is found only in Him.  Jesus, your light, is there to shine on you in all of your dark days.  He gives you life and comforts you in your sadness and agony over your past actions: abortion, addiction, giving in to temptation wherever it is found.  Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, can only point you to Jesus, they can’t get you into heaven on their own.  There is no one but Jesus only for that.  And in Jesus you rise and have no fear because He is there to protect you.

Mountain top experiences are fun every now and then but they are nothing compared to the joys and experiences that you will have in heaven.  Throughout your life you will have mountains and valleys but these you shouldn’t focus upon. Instead, focus upon Jesus as He is your life and light.  Your trust and faith resides in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The beloved Son of the Father is there for you throughout the mountains and valleys of your life.  Listen to His words calling you to Him, “Rise, and have no fear.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Church Is Dying

The Baptism of Our Lord
January 13th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches
Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Church Is Dying, Matthew 17:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

The Church is dying. 
     Oh, come on now Pastor, what kind of thing is that to say?  Who’s going to want to be a part of our congregation, if you go around saying “the Church is dying?”  And how can you say that, especially today, when we get to celebrate the baptism of this young lady?  And our congregations aren’t dying, we’re in the Bakken.  Everything’s o.k., right now, we’re gaining some members, we’re doing fine financially.  The Church is dying?  You can’t say that.
     The Church is dying.  The Church is dying, and there are plenty of things to which I could point to convince you I’m right. 

I could point to the Church’s standing in the World, which isn’t good.  Christians are increasingly told, and forced in some places, to be embarrassed, quiet, apologetic.  You can pray publicly to any god you like, as long as your prayer doesn’t claim that Jesus Christ is the one true God, as long as your prayer doesn’t mention a cross.  The Church’s reputation and standing in the world, and especially in America, is in serious visible decline.
     The Church in America is made up mostly of old people, and attendance is shrinking; we’re losing the young, and the parents of the young, once the kids are out of confirmation.  Americans are turning their backs on the Church, and most of them seem to be doing just fine without her.   Well, not everyone, since over the last 40 years in this supposedly Christian nation, 54 million babies haven’t been allowed to see the light of day.  How can the Church be living, how can the Church serve the next generation, if we tolerate a culture that kills so many babies?  Yes, I could point to the Church’s standing in and influence on the world to convince you she’s dying. 
But I won’t, because that’s not why the Church is dying. 

I could point to the emptiness of the Church’s voice, to the sad fact that far too many preachers and Christians and church bodies and congregations claim to be “Christian,” but in truth have given up the substance of the faith.  Congregation after congregation and preacher after preacher have given up the authority of Scripture, because the World laughs at us for thinking this Book matters.  Or perhaps the Church gives up Scripture because too many things the Bible says rub us the wrong way, all that talk about God’s rules, and our sin, and the punishment we are earning.  Whatever the reason, it’s easy to demonstrate that doctrine, that is, the teaching of Jesus, has been abandoned.  Far too often, the Church’s worship is not Biblical and serious and content-rich.  Instead, we reduce worship to entertainment, or a pep rally for getting people to be decent citizens.  Instead of reflecting the reality of the Almighty and Holy God serving us through Word and Sacrament, worship is too often us serving ourselves, stroking our own egos, catering to our short attention spans, and our latest fads.                               But that’s not why the Church is dying. 

I could point to the fact that while God intends the Church to be His family, the Church today has abandoned family.  Some Christians claim that homosexuality is completely fine, a God-pleasing way of life, despite what the Bible says.  The rest of us usually don’t say too much, for while we may not like homosexuality, we don’t want anyone examining our walk too closely.  While you and I may reject homosexuality, we are all too often still enemies of family, refusing to follow God’s way as we live out our lives as men and women. 
     Sex is a gift which God has reserved for a man and woman to share, exclusively with each other, after they have been married, after they have declared to the world their commitment to each other, after they have asked for and received God’s blessing.  God wants to give men and women true joy, and to give loving parents to children.  In our fallen world this will never happen perfectly, but it happens best when we follow the Lord’s good design for marriage and sex and families. 

But that’s not what Christians do today.  “Have sex when you feel like it, it’s your right.”  “Use birth control as cover for your sexual sin.”  “Live together.  Maybe you’ll need to hide it a little, but go ahead, everyone does it.”  These lies are the standards Christians all too often hold themselves to.  And even if you manage to avoid sexual sin in your body, you can hardly avoid filling your eyes and your mind with a never-ending parade of images and words that cause you to commit adultery in your heart.  Today’s fashion is yesterday’s pornography.  Today’s Christians are hardly discernible from pagans in their sexual sins.  It’s a sad and heartbreaking mess.                          But that’s not why the Church is dying. 

I could convince you by focusing the lens more specifically on you.  Maybe you think I’ve been specific enough already.  Or maybe, by some miracle, the sins so far mentioned don’t particularly apply to you.  I could still point to you, to your sin, whether that is your worship of money and material goods, your worship of tearing other people down, or your worship of your own self-righteousness.  I could point to your failures to confess Christ in your life, to your doubts about whether you really want to be a Christian, to the times you have despised or ignored God’s Word.  It’s never hard to show that you, and I, are truly sinners, never hard to prove how badly we fail at living the life we’re called to.           
But that’s not why the Church is dying. 

Jesus.  Jesus is what I will point to today, to convince you that the Church is dying.  And that, as strange as it seems, is the Good News.  Jesus is dying.  Today, even as we celebrate the Baptism of Shyan Phend, the public beginning of her life as a member of Christ’s Church, so also we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which was the beginning of His life of public ministry.  There was a lot going on at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.  The Holy Trinity makes a public appearance, the Spirit descending like a dove, the Son standing in the water, the Father, speaking from the cloud.  The Man Jesus is anointed, christened, that is, marked as the promised Messiah of God, the Christ, the eternal heir to King David’s throne.  He is also declared to be God’s beloved Son.  These claims would get Jesus killed. 

Jesus is also dying, because, as He explains to John the Baptist, He is baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness.  So Jesus has to be dying, because fulfilling all righteousness requires a death.  Jesus had been and would continue to be perfectly righteous, that is, perfectly sinless, perfectly good and loving and faithful to God and neighbor.  For this, the world was bound to hate Him.  But to fulfill all righteousness, for all people, Jesus had to do more than just be sinless.  He had to die, in our place, for death is the just punishment for human sin.  Jesus, to fulfill all righteousness, had to die.  So, at His Baptism, Jesus was already dying, beginning His long road to the Cross.

That’s also why the Church is dying, always dying, throughout our time on this earth, because Jesus is the Church.  He is the Head of His Church, and the Church is His Body.  Being faithful to the message that Jesus is the Sinless Son of God and the only Savior from sin automatically means the Church is dying, hated and opposed and sometimes persecuted by the World.  We don’t have to like it, but this dying is good news, because such dying means we are the Church, we are with Jesus. 

Jesus came to die, so that you can live.  Jesus came, to fulfill all righteousness, for all humanity.  So from that moment in the Jordan until His last Word on the Cross, from John’s baptism to “It is finished,” Jesus was drawing  into His own body all the sins of the whole world, like dirty water sucked up into a sponge. 

The failure of parents to raise their children in His Church?  Sucked up into Jesus’ Body.  The mocking of children who hate Church and Catechism and only go because they have to?  Sucked up into Jesus’ Body.  The folly of pastors who make up their own worship, who abandon God’s Word and teach people Jesus is all about you feeling happy, now?  This sin too, sucked up into Jesus’ Body.  All the sexual sin, all the perversion, all the lust, all the pornography and dirty jokes and abandonment of spouses and children, even all the abortions, these sins too, Jesus took onto Himself, all of these stains taken into His Holy Body. 

How could He do this?  Because Jesus is God Almighty.  As we will be reminded next week when we celebrate the Transfiguration, the glory of heaven is contained in the flesh of Jesus.  He can, and did, take all our sins upon Himself, and carried them to His Cross, precisely so He could suffer for them.  It’s not fair.  It’s ugly, frightening to consider, that Jesus had to suffer, for you and me.  But Jesus did it willingly, for the joy of having you for His very own.  Jesus suffered for you, so that you can die, and live, in Him.  All the punishment you and I deserve, is completely paid for, by Jesus.  It isn’t fair;  Jesus didn’t deserve it.  You do.  I do.  It isn’t fair.  But, it is love.  And it is life, for you, and all who trust in Him. 

Jesus came to die, and rise.  Death could not hold God, the Author of Life.  Death is an unavoidable reality for us sinners.  Death was a choice of love for Jesus.  But since Jesus died and rose, so also His Body the Church is always dying, and rising, with Him.  Dying and rising in daily repentance.  Don’t just sit in your sins, don’t live as a hypocrite, don’t think that is really living.  Confess your sins to God, and pray that the He will help you leave them behind.  God will forgive.  The Holy Spirit will help you.  The Spirit will help you confess your faith to others, and choose not to live in sin.  The Spirit of Christ will help you do good, instead of evil, because you want to.  You can even work to improve the Church.  Just don’t ever think your life with God depends on it.  Jesus is your life with God.  And don’t ever think you will do these things perfectly.  Not perfectly, never in this life will we forgiven sinners outgrow the need for repentance.  But the Spirit will daily help you rise to the joy of life in Christ. 

Most joyfully today, we witnessed a young lady die and rise, in Baptism.  Or don’t you know what St. Paul teaches us in Romans 6, that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  That means we, by the power of God, have been buried with Jesus through baptism into death.  It also means that since Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we also can walk in newness of life.  As the Baptized, we are free to live as God has called us, free to ignore the temptations and threats of the world.  We are free, because, in the end, we have nothing to worry about.  Through Baptism we have become united with Christ in His death.  And certainly we who have died with Christ shall also be united with Him in His resurrection.  Bad things and good things will happen in our lives on this earth.  But since we have died and risen with Christ through Baptism, we believe that we shall also live with Him, both today, and forever. 

This is the Promise of Baptism, the very promise of salvation.  And we just saw it happen, for Shyan.  This miracle was hidden, of course, hidden just like our life in Christ.  Christ’s rescue of Shyan was hidden, under simple water and a few words, spoken through the lips of a sinner.  Hidden, but true, for God chooses to use what seems foolish and weak, to teach us that true power and wisdom come only from Him.  Dying and rising in Baptism, where God uses what appears weak to deliver His power of salvation to Shyan, and to you.  Are you not baptized?  Jesus would love to drown you and bring you back to life, giving you forgiveness and eternal cleansing.  Are you baptized, but you have been neglecting this great gift?  Repent, die to your sin by confessing it to your Father in heaven.  He will forgive, for He is the One who, in your Baptism, publicly said, “This one is mine.” 

Dying and rising.  This side of glory, Christian living is always dying and rising.  The World doesn’t get it, our sinful nature doesn’t like it, but Jesus is in this dying and rising, in it and with it, empowering it by His Spirit, the Father sealing it with His blessing.  You have been set free to die to sin and live to Christ, knowing that God has your present and your future safe and secure in His nail-scarred hands. 

The Church is dying, dying, and rising, the life of Christian freedom and joy, through the One who died and rose, for you, and all people, Amen.