But Now: The Power and Promise of Baptism

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, The Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 13, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

As we do each year, we celebrate the baptism of Christ on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. Why do we do that? What’s the big deal about our Lord’s baptism and by extension our own? This is what I want us to look at this morning as we prepare to welcome a new member into Christ’s family here at St. Augustine’s.

In our OT lesson this morning, we find God’s response to his people’s ongoing sin and rebellion. In the previous chapter of Isaiah, as is typical in prophetic oracles, God has warned his people about his coming judgment on their sins. He formed and created them to be his light to a world riddled with sin and darkness. God called his people Israel to be his true image-bearers whom God would use to help restore his good creation and its creatures to their right minds so that God’s goodness and justice and health would reign instead of evil and sickness and death. But God’s people Israel had been just like the nations God called them to help heal. They had worshiped false gods and become like them so that instead of bringing God’s light and justice to a sin-sick world, God’s people brought the darkness and evil of false gods and now they faced God’s terrible wrath and judgment (Isaiah 42.18-25). If you are like me (God forbid), you listen to these judgment oracles and give thanks that we’re not the rotten people God is condemning in them, just like we do when we watch Dr. Phil or any program that showcases the human condition at its worst. We do so because it distracts us and keeps us from looking at ourselves in the mirror, and more importantly it keeps us from looking at ourselves in the light of God’s perfect goodness and righteousness. And we do all this because we are terrified of God’s just judgment on us. We know in our heart of hearts that we are no better than God’s people Israel who suffered the ultimate rejection and disgrace of exile because of their sins. We are no better than they were because the entire human race is held tightly in bondage to the tyranny of that outside and hostile force the Bible calls Sin. Try as we might to make ourselves better (itself a symptom of our sin-sickness), we fail because none of us is stronger than the power of Sin. Don’t believe me? How are those new year’s resolutions coming along? I’m willing to bet that even at this point many of them have already bit the dust or are well on their way to the dustbin. 

Returning now to our OT lesson, we see that God has taken his rebellious people to the cosmic woodshed and warned them where their sins will lead, mainly exile and separation from God, the Source of all life. If that’s not enough to make us afraid, I don’t know what will, especially as we contemplate the fire of God’s just judgment that will ultimately make all things right again. This is not exactly Good News, my beloved. In fact, it’s just the opposite because we are all sin-stained. But just when we begin to have feelings of despair without hope, we hear these beautiful and comforting words from God himself, something that is massively important for us as we will see: “But now…” Hear God as he speaks to us: I’ve seen your sins, your folly, and your rebellion, this despite my constant love and faithfulness toward you. I’ve seen it all but I know you are powerless to rescue yourselves from your slavery to Sin and so I am coming to rescue and heal you of your sin-sickness. I formed you as a people and created you to be mine forever. So don’t be afraid because I have redeemed you. I call you by name; you are mine. Imagine that. I, the Creator God of this incomprehensibly vast universe, know you by name and love you, despite your insignificance in the grand scheme of things, despite your sins and rebellion against me. So don’t be afraid because I have the power to break your slavery to Sin, just as I rescued my people Israel from their slavery in Egypt. When you walk through the deep waters of life’s darkness and troubles, you will not be overwhelmed. You will not be afflicted by the fire of my judgment because I am the one who redeems you and will spare you from that judgment. Notice I did not say you won’t have to walk through deep waters or the fire of judgment. I am not promising to remove you from all the darkness of this world and yourselves that afflict you. But I do promise to rescue and redeem you, even if the darkness claims your mortal life. So don’t be afraid. I know you by name. I am with you, you are mine (Isaiah 43.1-2, 5a). 

Were there ever more tender words in all Scripture than these? Were there ever more despair-shattering promises than these? There’s more. The Lord goes on to tell his people, us included, that they are precious in his sight, so precious and loved and honored that he will give nations in exchange for their lives, which God did, e.g., when he brought his people Israel out of Egypt and Babylon. But that is so OT. In Jesus Christ, God upped the ante. God demonstrated that he loves us so much that he gave his own dear Son, Jesus Christ, God become human, in exchange for our lives. And now we are ready to look at why Christ’s baptism is so important to us because in it we see the “But now…” God the Father commissions God the Son to begin his costly and life-giving work to rescue us from our slavery to the power of Sin and break its hold over us forever. Not only that, in Christ’s resurrection, God the Father promises to destroy our last and greatest enemy, Death, so that we can live in the hope of eternal life in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. God did all this, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5, even while we were still God’s enemies, alienated and hostile toward God. Because of our union with Christ through baptism and faith, we no longer fear God’s condemnation because God himself has borne it in and through his Son’s body (cf. Romans 8.1-4). The “But now…” has arrived.

And let’s be clear about what did and didn’t happen at Christ’s baptism. Our Lord didn’t get adopted at his baptism as good heretics throughout the years have proclaimed. We only need to read St. John’s wondrous prologue (John 1.1-18) to see that that dog don’t hunt. Neither was our Lord baptized to have his own sins forgiven as other geniuses have claimed. Christ was sinless and in his baptism he was commissioned to set us free from our sins by going to the cross and dying a terrible and utterly humiliating death so that we would not have to suffer the ultimate death of God’s final condemnation of our sins, thanks be to God! 

Of course the dark powers, whose grip over us our Lord came to destroy, are not going down without a fight. We see it immediately in John the Baptist’s imprisonment that the Lectionary conveniently and unfortunately omits from today’s gospel lesson, and we see it in the continued attack on us as God’s people. This, combined with our own proclivity to sin, is what makes living the Christian life such a challenge at times. And it can also make us afraid. But the Lord himself tells us to fear not because he is with us and in his Son he has destroyed Sin’s power over us as well as the death it causes. This is more than just lip service, my beloved, because only the Lord has the power to overcome Sin and Death, and in Christ’s death and resurrection God has made good on his promise to us, a promise that we see beginning to unfold in Christ’s baptism. We don’t deserve any of these wondrous promises nor can we ever hope to earn God’s favor on our own. God did this for us out of sheer love, mercy, and grace so that he could restore his creation and creatures to life and health without destroying us. For you see, God created us for life and relationship with him, not destruction.That’s why today is a big deal for us who belong to Christ, and that’s why we celebrate Christ’s baptism every year.

As John the Baptist prophesied, our Lord Jesus has indeed baptized us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and this separates believers and unbelievers as a winnowing fork separates the chaff from the grain. We have already seen the necessity of God’s good and perfect justice and Christ will execute that justice when he returns in great power and glory. In the meantime, as his baptism signals, Jesus has given his life in exchange for ours so that we no longer need fear God’s judgment, and he blesses us with the Holy Spirit to help us live the fully human image-bearing lives that God calls us to live so that we can reflect God’s goodness and glory to the world according to God’s original creative intention for us. As we’ve also seen, the world will largely reject us (along with the One who has rescued us) when we give our lives to Christ because sadly many people and systems love the darkness more than God’s light—humanity’s slavery to the power of Sin is universal— and this is the awful part of the winnowing process. No Christian should ever take joy or glee in this fact because we are here only by the grace of God, not our own merits. We remember that the darkness runs through each of us. But this opposition should never stop or deter us from proclaiming the saving power of our Lord Jesus and inviting others into a relationship with him that we enjoy. If we really do claim to love others, especially in light of what we know about the coming fire of God’s judgment, how can we do anything but proclaim Christ to them? Neither should it stop or deter us from living as our Lord Jesus lived and lives, hard as that is at times. If you want an example of what that looks like, look no further than how this parish has rallied around Ken and his family as they walked through the deep waters of Tanya’s untimely and tragic death. The powers did their best to destroy her but the promise of resurrection means that the powers ultimately will fail and will be destroyed forever one day as death is swallowed up in life. God’s perfect justice will prevail. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ because it announces God has seen our distress and despite our folly, God has acted decisively on our behalf so that we can live. There is no longer any need to despair once we have turned to the light of Christ in faith, despite the fact that our faith journey is often quite messy and convoluted. Take heart, my beloved. God is greater than our messiness.

This is why our own baptism is so important because it announces our birthright and inheritance in Christ, an inheritance of eternal life despite our mortal death, of health, of healing and wholeness, of reconciliation, of freedom, of redemption, of forgiveness. Those who are baptized are baptized into a death like Christ’s so that we can share in a resurrection like his as well. Our baptism proclaims God’s great love for us and fulfills God’s promise to give us his Holy Spirit so that we can live as truly human beings, free from our slavery to Sin and Death, free from the fear that can so badly oppress us. Our baptism doesn’t promise us a sin-free life. We all know better. What it does promise is that God is good to his word and has acted decisively in Jesus his Son to make us part of the family of the redeemed, and to help us overcome the darkness of this world and life in the power of his Spirit so that we have a real future and hope, a hope based on the love and power of God, who alone has the power to accomplish the impossible, thanks be to God! This is the promise young Eli will enter in a few minutes as he enters the waters of baptism, and it is reason for us to rejoice because we remember our own baptism and celebrate our rescue from the deep waters of Sin and Death and the fire of God’s perfect judgment, along with Eli’s. And that, my beloved, is Good News, the best news of all, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Fr. Philip Sang: Epiphany Sermon

Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Due to technical difficulties and the fact that one has to be smarter than the recorder one uses, there is no audio podcast of today’s sermon available.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.

Merry Christmas St. Augustine’s. Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, and the Feast of the Epiphany – that great festival on which Christians, for at least fifteen hundred years, have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God made flesh.

Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then, the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus’ miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.

Many different things – a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the “Epiphany” of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle – the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel, God in our flesh, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming by the grace and truth he brings.

Coming to today’s gospel reading I wonder what the wise men as referred to by Matthew saw in the sky that first night. What was it that got them thinking? What was it that motivated them to pack and begin a journey to who knew where? Something had been revealed to them. But what was it? Was it in the sky, in their mind, in their heart?

We don’t have much historical information about these wise men and their journey. St. Matthew says they came from the East. Some have speculated they were from Persia. We like to think that there were three of them but St. Matthew doesn’t say that. And what about “the star?” It has been viewed as a supernatural phenomenon, just a regular star, a comet, or sometimes as a conjunction or grouping of planets.

This anonymity and lack of historical information is a reminder that this story, this Epiphany journey, is not just the wise men’s journey; it is everyone’s journey. The truth of sacred scripture is never limited to or contained only in the past.

I don’t know what was in the sky, what they saw, that first night. I don’t know what was in their minds; what they thought, asked, or talked about. I don’t know what was in their hearts; what they felt, dreamed, or longed for. But I know that there have been times when we each have experienced Epiphany; times when our night sky has been lit brightly, times when our minds have been illumined, times when our hearts have been enlightened. Those times have revealed to us a life and world larger than before. They have been moments that gave us the courage to travel beyond the borders and boundaries that usually circumscribe our lives. Epiphanies are those times when something calls us, moves us, to a new place and we see the face of God in a new way; so human that it almost seems ordinary, maybe too ordinary to believe.

That’s what happened to the wise men. They began to see and hear the stories of their lives. Something stirred within them and they began to wonder, to imagine, that their lives were part of a much larger story. Could it be that the one who created life, who hung the stars in the sky, noticed them, knew them, lived within them, and was calling them? Could it be that the light they saw in the sky was a reflection of the divine light that burned within them, that burns within each one of us?

To seriously consider these questions is to begin the journey. That journey took the wise men to the house where they found the answer to their questions in the arms of his mother, Mary. We may travel a different route than the wise men did but the answer is the same.

Yes God notices us, knows us, lives within us, and calls us. God is continually revealing himself in and through humanity, in the flesh.

Maybe it was the day you bathed your first grandchild and saw the beauty of creation and the love of the Creator. Or that day you said, “I love you” and knew that it was about more than just romance or physical attraction. Perhaps it was the moment you really believed your life was sacred, holy, and acceptable to God. Maybe it was the time you kept vigil at the bedside of one who was dying and you experienced the joy that death is not the end.

These are the stories of our lives, epiphanies that forever change who we are, how we live, and the road we travel. They are moments of ordinary everyday life in which divinity is revealed in humanity and we see God’s glory face to face.

Epiphany is about the manifestation of Christ; namely, that Christ has revealed himself, shown himself to not just be some sort of teacher or philosopher, not just be a miracle worker, not as one who has a piece of truth where everyone else also has a piece of truth, but the manifestation of Christ is about Christ making himself known, showing himself visibly to be God in the flesh, second person of the Trinity, who descended to dwell among his creation to bring about our salvation for the glory of God. So when we celebrate Epiphany, we’re celebrating light invading the darkness. You and I, as Christians, are rejoicing in this season that Christ has come into the world to push back the darkness. That’s what Epiphany is all about.

Paul had his epiphany and writing to the church in Ephesus tells them about his experience

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

So Paul reminds the readers of this letter what he learned by revelation from God. He has been chosen by God to pass on the secrets, the plans of God. He does not claim to be the sole carrier of the message; he says that God is revealing this news by way of the Holy Spirit to apostles and prophets. Paul understands that it is God’s grace that gives him the qualification needed to tell the good news. This is in spite of his past, and in addition to his personal qualifications.

He understands that it is his mission and his assignment to “make plain to everyone” the who, what, why and how of Jesus Christ.

Friends, church, this morning I am not here to ask you to copy what God asked Paul to do.

However as the children of God, we take on responsibilities within his kingdom. As we grow up in the church we are to take on more and more responsibility. Because of our family connection and the grace that covers us we also take on the mission of plainly speaking for God. bringing Epiphany to others. We do that by relying solely on the leading of the spirit that we receive as we grow up in the family of God.

Let’s look at the big picture.

A church is not a church if it only does things for itself and for its members.

A church that lives like that is only doing half of its designed mission.

Paul points out how the understanding of God is to be passed on to the community where the church sits.

He says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known …”

The church has a mission to share the wisdom of God, the good news.

The message is about grace and love and a relationship with our creator.

The qualifications to speak for God come by Grace to the individual believers to share what we know.

I have heard in the past and present Christians describing that they come to church to be fed. My question for you is how you are going to use that energy, that knowledge to share with those outside of God’s family?

How is God asking you to share what you know about Him?

In the name of God the Father the son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2019 (3)

Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh-endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery for ever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became one of us? Faith alone grasps these mysteries.

—Maximus the Confessor, Five Hundred Chapters 1, 8-13

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2019 (2)

Matthew 2:1-12

Let us now observe how glorious was the dignity that attended the King after his birth, after the magi in their journey remained obedient to the star. For immediately the magi fell to their knees and adored the one born as Lord. There in his very cradle they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the body he assumed was discerned, but the glory of his divinity was now made manifest. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of this divine honor! The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of the flesh on our behalf. The Son of God, who is God of the universe, is born a human being in the flesh. He permits himself to be placed in a manger, and the heavens are within the manger. He is kept in a cradle, a cradle the world cannot hold. He is heard in the voice of a crying infant. This is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion. Thus he is the One, the God of glory and the Lord of majesty, whom as a tiny infant the magi would recognize. It is he who while a child was truly God and King eternal. To him Isaiah pointed, saying, “For a boy has been born to you; a son has been given to you, a son whose empire has been forged on his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).

—Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 5.1

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2019

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

—Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

In this way marvel was linked to marvel: the magi were worshiping, the star was going before them. All this is enough to captivate a heart made of stone. If it had been only the wise men or only the prophets or only the angels who had said these things, they might have been disbelieved. But now with all this confluence of varied evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped.

Moreover, the star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled. He who was born was divine. They recognized this in their worship.

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7.4

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018-19—Day 12

Today concludes the series of Christmas reflections from the Church Fathers. I hope you have enjoyed them and trust that God will use them to enrich you and bring you closer to him. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Christmas is the day on which the Creator of the universe came into this world. This is the day on which the one who is always present through his power became present in the flesh. He came in the flesh with the intention of curing human blindness so that once we were healed we might be enlightened in the Lord. Then God’s light would no longer be shining in darkness but would appear plainly to people who wanted to see it.

—Augustine, Sermon 195, 2

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018-19—Day 11 (3)

In the very act in which we are reverencing the birth of our Savior, we are also celebrating our own new birth. For the birth of Christ is the origin of the Christian people; and the birthday of the head is also the birthday of the body [the Church]. As the whole community of the faithful, once begotten in the baptismal font, was crucified with Christ in the passion, raised up with him in the resurrection, and at the ascension placed at the right hand of the Father, so too it is born with him in this nativity.

For all believers regenerated in Christ, no matter in what part of the whole world they may be, break with that ancient way of life that derives from original sin, and by rebirth are transformed into new persons. Henceforth they are reckoned to be of the stock, not of their earthly father, but of Christ, who became Son of Man precisely so that they could become children of God; for unless in humility he had come down to us, none of us by our own merits could ever go up to him.

—Leo the Great, Sermon 6 for the Nativity

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018-19—Day 11 (2)

Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became human like us so that we might become God.

We sinned and became guilty; God is born as one of us to free us from our guilt. We fell, but God descended; we fell miserably, but God descended mercifully; we fell through pride, God descended with his grace.

—Augustine, Sermon 13 on the Time

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018-19—Day 10 (3)

Our Savior truly became human, and from this has followed the salvation of humanity as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole person, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

Our body has acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has beome a spiritual one; through it was made from the earth it has passed through the gates of heaven.

—Athanasius, To Epictetus 5-9

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018-19—Day 10 (2)

God on earth, God among us! No longer the God who gives his law amid flashes of lightning, to the sound of the trumpet on the smoking mountain, within the darkness of a terrifying storm, but the God who speaks gently and with kindness in a human body to his kindred. God in the flesh! It is no longer the God who acts only at particular instants, as in the prophets, but one who completely  assumes our human nature and through his flesh, which is that of our race, lifts all humanity up to him.

God comes in the flesh in order to destroy the death concealed in the flesh. Death reigned till the coming of Christ; but when the saving grace of God appeared…death was swallowed up in this [resurrection] victory, being unable to endure the sojourn of the true Life among us. O, the depth of the goodness of God and of his love for all of us! He is the Lord who has appeared to us, not in his divine form, in order not to terrify us in our weakness, but in the form of a servant, that he might set free what had been reduced to servitude.

Today Adam’s condemnation has bee lifted. We shall no longer say: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” but, “United to him who is in heaven, you shall be lifted up to heaven.”

—Basil the Great, Homily for the Birth of Christ