(The introduction to this sermon consists of some re-worked comments of Dr. Robert Kolb. His comments were published on the Concordia Theology website.)
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For two or three hundred years now Western Christians have been attempting to avoid the topic of Godís wrath. The more our cultures have tried to place human beings in charge of at least daily life and the more we have tried to hold God at armís lengthónice to have gotten us started, God!óthe less personal God has become in our thinking, the less Heís become an integral part of our daily lives. At the same time, our conception of what God is like has become weaker. God has turned from the medieval Father who is angry with us for sinning into a modern Father who is forgetful and neglectful, even permissive in His style of Fatherly love.
John the Baptist reminds us that God really isn't that way at all. The truth is, He doesnít like it when we sin and Heís angry as hellfire about our failure to fear, love, and trust in him above everything else. He abhors the mess we make of our lives precisely because he is our loving heavenly Father.
The sooner we come to recognize that God is a God of wrath, the sooner weíll come to appreciate the Gospel and the gifts of His grace in Christ, the treasures of Holy Baptism and the Lordís Supper and the promises of grace and forgiveness He makes us in His Word. Iíve said it before, but it bears repeating this morning. Our understanding of and appreciation of the Gospel of Godís forgiveness in Christ stands in direct opposition to our understanding of and appreciation of His wrath toward sin. In other words, if you believe your sin doesn't really anger God. If you see God as forgetful and permissive, then youíre likely to also see His forgiveness as a trivial matter. But, if His wrath is immense and all consuming, then the Gospel of His forgiveness and grace must be stronger still, literally, as it were, it too must be all consuming.
The Gospel reading for this morning contrasts the Law and the Gospel, and in doing so, it magnifies them both. Holy Baptism is the central point of focus. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness baptizing people. He reminds them that Godís wrath is going to come upon the world and it should be taken seriously. Godís ďwinnowing fork (he says) is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.Ē
Itís obviously an agricultural analogy. Wheat is saved, but chaff is discarded, itís thrown away and ultimately burned with fire! Applied to the human condition, the problem is, every single one of us is, by nature, chaff. We are, therefore, subject to destruction. So, we can pretend that God isnít really angry about our sin, as people once believed, you know, those mid-evil simpletons and people like them. Or, we can, by Godís grace, find rescue and salvation in Him.
John said to the expectant crowd that gathered around him, ďI baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.Ē
For many people baptism is quite simply a symbol of their faith in Christ. It's a voluntary submission of oneself to the "rules" of Christianity. It's offered only to those who have the mental capacity to understand and accept the "rules" and who have the purity of heart, or, at least the intention, to follow through on their promises to God.
Many years ago there was woman who never joined our church. She was never baptized either because in her mind she wasn't ready for baptism. Her heart, you see, was very conflicted. She wanted to live a holy and righteous life, but she recognized that she failed to do so in so many ways. In the end, she feared making a false testimony of faith. Being baptized would say she was a child of God, but her life, much like each of our lives, would say something else altogether. And so, she refused to be baptized.
Some people, it seems, do understand the wrath of God, but they canít let go of the notion that there has to be something they can do to appease that wrath. And so, life for them is an endless cycle of doís and doníts. Fighting against the flesh they fail daily, while their hope is that theyíve done enough for God to finally love them.
All the while God says, ďcease striving and know that I am God.Ē He gives a lifeline of salvation that only He can give. Holy Baptism, while it is, in fact, a symbol of faith, specifically a symbol of faith in Christ, isn't only a symbol of faith. Rather, it is a magnificent gift and work of God. The one coming after me, John said, "the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
In Holy Baptism, God literally gave you His Holy Spirit. In doing so, He made you a new creation. Whereas you were once a child of wrath, subject to unquenchable fire, you now share in the image and likeness of God. You are a child of the living God, an heir of the Kingdom.
Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. As such, itís also designated as the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord. In the Gospel reading for this morning we have this strong division between Law and Gospel, the section Iíve been preaching on thus far. But, at the end of the reading for this morning, we have the Baptism of Jesus. The apostle writes, ďwhen all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ďYou are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.ĒĒ
Perhaps over your lifeís years, be they considerable, or, few, youíve longed for the good pleasure of your heavenly Father. Perhaps youíve imagined God as a scowling Father, One who raises the bar just a bit each time you think youíve met His expectations. Maybe youíve seen Him as a Father who has never really been happy with anything youíve ever done in life.
If any of those things are true of you, know this, what God said of His Son in His baptism, He said, and continues to say of you in your Baptism. You are My beloved Son. You are my beloved daughter and in you I AM WELL PLEASED!
Godís wrath, my friends, is real. And because itís strong and because itís all consuming, the Gospel of His grace must be even more so. God has rescued you from the wrath and the condemnation of God through the offering and sacrifice of His Son. Jesus literally took the Fatherís wrath, judgment, and displeasure upon Himself. Therefore, everything the Father says of His Son, He now says of you who have been baptized into His holy name.
ďI am baptized,Ē wrote Martin Luther. Rightfully so he took great comfort from those words. When it seemed to him that the whole church had left the precepts of the Gospel, when he was under scrutiny from Church officials as to the truth of his beliefs, when his life was under threat and when he suffered self-doubt he would boldly claim, "I am baptized." Those words belong not only to the Martin Lutherís of this world, but to each and every baptized child of God. To each of us who have had water poured over us in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, let those words sink in this morning: "I am Baptized!" In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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