Monday, January 10, 2022

Three Epiphanies at the River

[Below you'll find, first, the video of yesterday's 11:00 AM worship service from Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, and the text of the sermon. Have a good week!]

Luke 3:15-22

From the moment a child is born, speculation begins. Who does she look like? What will he become? In a way, we’re all born as mysteries and our whole lives unscramble and reveal who we are.

The Epiphany season of the Church Year, which began three days ago, is a time in which our Gospel lessons show us the unfolding of an even greater mystery than our personal identities and destinies. They focus on events in which Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem, is revealed as our Savior, God’s anointed King, God the Son.

Today’s Gospel lesson recounts one of those events, Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. At the beginning of our lesson, we’re told that some people thought that John might be the Messiah. But John says it’s not him, that they need to look for someone else. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17)

Shortly after that, people got their first glimpse of the Messiah. Luke says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

As we consider Jesus at the Jordan with John the Baptist, how is our picture of Jesus clarified? I can see Jesus being revealed to us in at least three ways.

First, we see Jesus revealed as the Messiah, the Christ. God was good for His ancient promises. God did send an Anointed One, as God had promised He would through the Old Testament prophets. And this Messiah, just as God had promised, would overcome our sin by suffering and dying for us and then rising to allow us to live forever with God.

That means, quite simply, that there is, as you’ve heard me say before, nothing we can do and nothing we must do to make ourselves right to be part of God’s kingdom. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ has already done it all! 

So, when we hear Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” we need not shudder in fear. It’s true that we are sinners who fall short of God’s intentions for us and it’s true that perfect righteousness is required for anyone to enter into God’s eternal kingdom. But it is equally true that Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, covers all who believe in Him with His perfection and righteousness

God’s Law, Scripture teaches us, only makes us aware that we are sinners worthy of eternal condemnation. (Romans 3:20) That's all the Law can do. So, if you set out to make yourself righteous by being a good person or doing good things, in the end, you’ll still be what you were at the moment of your conception, a sinner dead in your sinful nature. “But now apart from the law,” the Bible tells us, “ the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)

The first epiphany we see at Jesus’ baptism then is that, despite our sin, God has made good on His promise to rescue us. He has given His very own Son to make us right, reconciled with Him. Through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, Jesus, Who took His sin into His own body and bore our condemnation for it, gives us His righteousness.

In Jesus’ baptism, we also see that He is the Messiah Who will baptize believers with the Holy Spirit and fire. John had said that while he was offering the people of his day a preparatory baptism of repentance, the Messiah would give a greater baptism

John’s baptism was something that people did, deciding to be baptized as a sign of their own repentance while waiting for the Messiah to be revealed. 

But Jesus’ baptism is an action of God by which, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God claims us as His own, crucifies our old selves, and raises our new selves with Jesus. 

Heaven opens to the baptized and the Holy Spirit is unleashed in them to daily call them to faith in Jesus. 

Baptism is one more expression of God’s Word in which He reminds us that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and that no one is reconciled to the Father without faith in Jesus. (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) 

When God the Father said of Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” He was affirming that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring this greater baptism, Holy Baptism, one of the Sacraments of Christ’s Church. The Spirit is the tenacious Fire of God Who calls us to repentance and faith in Jesus and enlightens and purifies us as we trust in Him!

A third thing revealed in Jesus at His baptism is that in Him, heaven is opened to us. Heaven opened, Luke tells us, as Jesus was praying. 

This is why Jesus tells us to pray in His name. This means acknowledging that we only dare approach God the Father because of what Jesus has done for us through His crucifixion and resurrection. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God,” we’re told in 1 John 5:14, “that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” And if any of our praying reflects, as it inevitably will, our selfishness and sinful natures, praying in Jesus’ name will mean that God will forge our characters and reframe our prayers in light of His good will. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done.” 

By the sacrifice of His body and blood at Calvary, Jesus tears open heaven for us: we receive forgiveness and eternal life, the certainty of His eternal promises, and the privilege of being in communion with the God Who made and loves us.

The opening of heaven to believers in Jesus goes by way of the cross, of course, and it’s a two-way street. Not only do those baptized in Christ have access to heaven, heaven also has access to us. 

God will use that opening to reshape us in the image of Christ, crucifying our old sinful selves so that 

our new selves can rise with Jesus. But, no matter how hard any of this is–it’s tough to yield control of our lives over to God when we think we know what’s best, we know that God will be with us always. 

Listen, folks: Jesus tenaciously loved the unbelieving Thomas, the knuckleheaded Peter, the murderous Paul; Jesus won’t give up on anyone to whom He has opened up heaven! Not you. Not me. 

Our call is to simply turn to Him, day in and day out. With the apostle Paul, we know that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In Jesus, the promise of God to ancient Israel is true for all people: “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)

“Prayer is not about getting what we want,” says Brian Blount, a professor of New Testament at Princeton University, “or even what we oftentimes are sure is right for us and those around us; prayer is about unleashing the frightening, unstable, uncontrollable power of God.” That actually describes the entire life of the Christian to whom Jesus opens heaven! Heaven is opened to us so that the uncontrollable power of God that not even sin or death can stay is unleashed in our lives!

In the Epiphany season, we’re reminded again of how Jesus is, in the words of the Christmas hymn, “our Emmanuel,” the Child, the Savior, the King Who is “God with us.” And at this very moment, He is God with you. Amen