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.