Monday, January 11, 2010

The Christ Revealed, First Sunday in Epiphany

First Sunday in Epiphany
Luke 3:15-22
Bror Erickson

[15] As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, [16] John answered them all, saying, "I 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 with fire. [17] His winnowing fork 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."
[18] So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. [19] But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, [20] added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
[21] Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, [22] and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Luke 3:15-22 (ESV)

Epiphany Sunday, the baptism of Jesus, the revealing of the Christ. There is so much here. What is it all about? It is about transition from the old to the new, from the law to the gospel. Not that the gospel hadn’t always been there, but now it is Incarnate in front of them. You see the gospel was there all the time as John preaches good news the gospel to the people with many other exhortations. And you almost miss what this good news might be. I mean some might class what went before this little summarization of John as a hellfire and brimstone sermon. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” You left in fear of the one to come. Your left hoping you’re the wheat and not the chaff. You might be wondering how you become the wheat, just to make sure. Where is the good news?
The good news was what everyone was expecting. They were in expectation the text starts out saying. They were questioning. Is John the Christ. They were expecting the Christ, the Anointed One. That is what Christ means in Greek, anointed. Priests were anointed, Kings were anointed, Prophets were anointed. But the people in the course of history, in hearing the prophets had come to realize that these anointings were pointing towards something to come, when the Anointed One would take these offices upon Himself. The Anointed One, the Christ, would fill all these, and fulfill all the prophecies of the prophets. That was John’s good news, that was the gospel the People heard: the Christ is coming, I’m not worthy to untie the man’s sandal, not worthy enough to wash the man’s feet. Don’t look at me, the man is coming.
What is peculiar here, though, is that Luke jumps ahead here in the story. He starts talking about when Herod locked up John the Baptizer. Luke says that Herod added this to them all, and you are left kind of wondering, does look mean added this to all the evil deeds that Herod had done, or to the many exhortations with which John preached good news. It works both ways really. It pulled the attention off of John, lets the attention turn to Jesus, the subject of John‘s exhortations of good news, even as it adds to the evil deeds of Herod.
John, the story wasn’t about him. But everyone was focused on him. He was what they expected in the Christ. He was what they knew, the law. Oh you could hear echoes of the gospel in him, but when it came to the Coming One, the one that was to come, John talked about judgment day the wheat and the chaff the unquenchable fire. He preached repentance, and he did so well. And this is what people expected of the Messiah. They expected law. Of course no one preaches law as well as Christ did, not even John the Baptizer. But the law wasn’t what Jesus was about. To this day, though, it is John epitomizes what many people think when they think of Christianity, law. Even his baptism it seems becomes for some reason is what people think of when they think of Christian baptism. They think it is nothing more that what John did in the Jordan, baptize with water for repentance, a pledge of obedience. And John not Jesus becomes the spokesman for Christianity. People know the law, they are comfortable with it. They shouldn’t be but they are. Having begun by the spirit, they want to be perfected in the flesh. (Galatians 3:3) It is rather a sickening proposal. Like dogs returning to their vomit, they fall back on the law.
No, I tell you it makes my stomach turn at times the doctrinal torture people are subjected to. And as if suffering the Stockholm syndrome, they can’t see the gospel for the law. The Gospel becomes a one time proposition. Then salvation becomes dependent on your walk, your maintenance of faith with your works. You have to be improving from day to day. You start to look to your works to see if you are maturing. Make sure you are living the righteous life. You look to your works as some sort of assurance that you still have faith, faith that justifies. And this is the temptation for all of us. We want to go to heaven for being good. More than that though, we just can’t find it to trust the gospel. It can’t be as simple as that. It can’t be as simple as your sins are forgiven. We don’t want to trust it. We think there just has to be more to it. But then we don’t get Christ. It takes drastic actions to get the attention off the law, and on to Christ, on to the Gospel. John is locked up, and then murdered. That is where the law gets you. Live by it, die by it. It is an indiscriminate sword. It kills everyone. The law wouldn’t cut it. John couldn’t be the Christ. Repentance wouldn’t do it. Not on its own. Not the kind of repentance man can drum up.
Don’t get me wrong. There needs to be repentance. We don’t turn the gospel into a license to live in stupid sin, or buben leben as one German theologian (Andreas Osiander) I was reading called it. It has a ring to it. You know the life of a boob, a life of fornication, violence, wanton drunkenness and debauchery. The forgiveness of sins, our Lord’s death and resurrection gives us more self respect for life than to live like that. If he could love us so much that he would take upon his back our sins and die for them to be raised from the dead. We can love ourselves and others enough not to be stupid with our lives or theirs, not to use and abuse ourselves and others with buben leben. Thing is we can also find that despite Christ’s love for us we are stupid with our lives, carried away with jealousy, anger, lust, led astray by our emotions. And that is a reality. And we never will get over it. Looking at the law we will always find sin in our lives. Which is why we can’t afford to look to the law for salvation. We have to leave John where he is, prison. Because when Luke finishes with that flash forward we see the answer to the problem, we see the Christ. We see Jesus as He is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends from the heavens as a dove to anoint Jesus. And so as to leave the people with no doubt as to who the Christ is the Father rips open the heavens with his thundering voice to declare, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”
And here in Jesus the Christ is revealed, Here he starts his journey, is consecrated for his baptism, his death and resurrection, the baptism into which he now baptizes us, so that just as he was risen from the dead we to might walk in the newness of life, the newness of life that comes only after the forgiveness of sins splashing your face like a morning shower, remembering that you have been baptized, and there Christ forgave you your sins, gave you new life eternal life, life that the law can’t touch with the death of its sting.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord Amen.

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