Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:1-17; Romans 6:1-4; and Ephesians 4:22-24. Delivered 4 January 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church on the occasion of Epiphany Sunday and New Year's Communion.
Although we're still technically in Christmastide, this Sunday we look forward a couple of days to a feast-day called Epiphany. What's Epiphany? In Eastern Christianity, it mainly celebrates the day that Jesus was visibly 'manifested' as God's Son by the Father and the Holy Spirit confirming it at his baptism. Throughout history, many believers chose to be baptized on Epiphany – it fits, to be baptized to celebrate Jesus' baptism. So what is baptism all about? What on earth is this strange prophet, John the Baptist, doing out in no-man's land, passionately preaching with his locust-and-honey breath and his rough camel-hair outfit (Matthew 3:4-5)?
For John, baptism was all about cleansing and repentance. In those days, Gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith would go through a baptism ritual as a once-and-for-all act of turning from everything in their old way of life and turning instead to God. John treats even native-born Jews as needing the same thing just as much – not a little scrub here and there, but a wholesale spiritual overhaul from the ground up. Already for John, baptism meant turning over a new leaf – no, not just a new leaf, a new tree! Epiphany is perfectly placed so near to the start of our year, the switching of an ink-filled calendar for a new one fresh from its wrappings. At the start of the year, our thoughts are so often turned to new leaves and new starts. Over a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton remarked:
The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year's resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Show of hands: Who made any New Year's resolutions this year? Who made a New Year's resolution sometime in the past five years? Okay, now another show of hands: Who here has both made some resolutions and also kept every single resolution you've made? A couple days ago, I went back and looked at the resolutions I jotted down at the end of 2013. I made five resolutions for 2014. I'll be honest: I flunked pretty miserably on four of the five – all but a pledge to read at least 65 books. I don't think I'm alone in saying that the first few weeks of January are a yearly reminder of how often the flesh is weak, even on those rare occasions where the spirit really was willing (cf. Mark 14:38). Turning from old ways is hard. Flipping over a new leaf is hard, to say nothing of growing a new tree. Repentance is hard, and our repentance is so often imperfect. It can be easy to give up in despair.
On Epiphany, we remember that strange day long ago when John's cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, made his way out to the banks of the River Jordan. John knew that Jesus was the Coming One, the Messiah, the one mightier than he himself, whose sandals John humbly admitted he was unworthy to untie (Matthew 3:11). John was perplexed: “Jesus, I don't understand. You're the Messiah! I'm just a messenger, the voice crying in the wilderness. I'm just a man with a call. I have my own burden of sins to carry. You're the Fount of All Purity! I only baptize with water; you baptize with the Spirit and fire! What are you doing here? How can I baptize you? I need to be baptized by you!” (cf. Matthew 3:12-14).
In a lot of that, John was spot-on. But Jesus still came – why? “It is proper for us to do this” – why? “To fulfill all righteousness”, he says (Matthew 3:15). He had no need, in himself. But we have great need. He alone had no sins to repent – but we do. He alone had no need to turn over a new leaf – but we do. He went to the river just like he went to the cross: to fulfill God's plan. He went to walk perfectly in the steps that Israel walked so clumsily. Just as old-covenant Israel was “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”, as Paul says (1 Corinthians 10:2), Jesus made his way through the waters and into the wilderness to withstand the temptations that Israel failed (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).
Jesus went to fulfill God's plan; he went to do right all that Israel did wrong, so that a new Israel could be raised out of the water with him to walk wisely in the Spirit. And so Jesus went down to the water, down to be baptized – for us. He had no sin of his own to repent, just as he had no sin of his own to die for. No, the sinless one died for our sin – and the sinless one, to fulfill all righteousness, was baptized in repentance of our sin.
Year after year, we start with the best of intentions – and then find the messiness of our lives building up anyway, like a Tower of Babel we just can't topple. Year after year, we crash face-first into the depressing reality of our own weakness. Our repentance is imperfect and incomplete. Do we need to stress? Do we need to despair? No – because Jesus made a perfect repentance of our sin in his baptism – for us. And his holiness – a holiness he graciously showers onto us – was approved by the Father, who sent the Spirit to appear visibly upon the Son like a dove: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest upon him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). And to silence all doubt, let the matter “be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15) – the certain voice of Scripture, and then the voice of a prophet crying out in the wilderness, and finally a fresh voice like thunder out of the wild blue yonder:
Here is my Servant, whom I uphold; my Chosen One, in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, nor raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching, the islands will put their hope. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
Or, as Matthew writes it: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God was well-pleased with him in his baptism. God was well-pleased with him as he fed the five thousand. God was well-pleased with him as he stood on a mountainside and said, “Blessed are the meek”. God was well-pleased with him when he caused a holy ruckus in the temple courts. And yes, God was well-pleased with him as, battered and brusied, he dragged a heavy wooden cross up the hill to Calvary.
For us, baptism means cleansing, and baptism means repentance – because baptism means death. We don't often think about it, but to be baptized is to drown and die and pass away. What drowns is the spiritual parasite of sin infesting our hearts; we kill it in Christ's death and bury it beneath the water in Christ's tomb (Romans6:2-3). For we “put off the old self” (Ephesians 4:22) that was “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).
Putting off the old self that drowns, what comes up? The God-given new self: the presence of Christ being conceived and gestating and maturing within us (Galatians 4:19). Putting on this new self, we're right to start on that “strange assumption” that we've never existed before. And we walk freely into new life in the Spirit. What kind of new self? One “created to be like God”, a restored bearer of his image, cut and stamped back into that image – not in the innocent immaturity of Eden, but meant to live in the maturity of the kingdom of God. “Created to be like God” how? “Like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
But here's the problem. We accumulate so much clutter throughout the year. We're made, redeemed, and reborn for a holy purpose. But when we stumble and stumble again down into the mud, we can't always see that holy purpose through all the junk and muck. We're freed from sin's slavery, but maybe it seems like we just can't let sin rest in the tomb where Jesus locked it. If you belong to Christ, then your old self of sin with all its bad habits is dead and buried! ...But sometimes, from the looks of it, we have a bit of a zombie problem.
What do we do? Do we just give up? Do we run back to our chains? “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? … We should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:2, 6b-7)! “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12). What do we do? We go back to our baptism. I don't mean physically getting into the water again; I don't mean a second baptism. The seal of God is indelible; it can't be repeated – but it can be remembered. No, go back to baptism in your heart. Return to the delivering hands of Jesus Christ, who perfects our feeble repentance and gives us new life. If our trust were in ourselves, we'd be right to despair. We cannot carry the weight of all our sins. But we can be carried. If our trust is in Jesus Christ, then despair is the most unrealistic thing we can do.
We can go back to our baptism. We can go back to that precious new start. We know we aren't without sin – but seeing that is no excuse for “walking in the darkness” (1 John 1:6). What can we do? “If we confess our sins” – admit we've fallen and trust in Christ's help – then “he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins” – there, we're freed from the leash held by our dead sin, which Christ trampled down in his own death – and he will “purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That's our return to new life, to “walk in the light as he is in the light”, so that “we have fellowship with one another”, because “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Our repentance may be imperfect. But it doesn't depend on us. It depends on Jesus. And if it depends on Jesus, then we have a sure hope. Leave sin in its watery grave. When it reaches for you, turn to Jesus. When your repentance isn't enough, rely on Jesus even still – and bid shame and despair goodbye. And so “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
But Epiphany doesn't just remember the baptism of Jesus. In Western Christianity, it also memorializes the visit of the Magi, the wise men from the east (Matthew 2:1). Just as baptism gives us the clean new slate of newborns, so we remember on Epiphany a little child, living under threat from Herod because this little child was the true king – and yet his kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36). Herod and his court didn't even know the Scriptures well enough to know where Jesus would be; the scribes knew, but they didn't follow; only these outsiders, these foreign migrants, acted on what they knew (Matthew 2:2-10).
These wise men brought their gifts to Christ – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all gifts that made perfect sense to bring to a king (Matthew2:11). Gold goes without saying, and frankincense and myrrh both cost a pretty penny at the market. But to bring them, not just to a king, but to God the Son? They all fall short. Any and every human offering to God falls short, especially when they're invariably tainted by our sin. Can we perfect our gifts by repenting? Our repentance is incomplete and imperfect. So our gifts – all our works, all our worship, all our prayers, all our charity – are unworthy of God, on their own. They remain pale tokens – if left on their own.
That's the point of the Incarnation. That's the point of Christmas. The Word of God “became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14). And that sojourn in our midst led him to the cross as “king and God and sacrifice”. He offered himself up to God a sinless sacrifice of infinite worth: the presentation of God's life to God, given as the supreme and defining act of human worship. And by his blood, Jesus purifies every faith-marked life and wraps it up in his own life, presenting the whole package forever before the Father's face. Our gifts are pale tokens – on their own. But they aren't on their own. Christ glorifies them all in a package and presents them to the Father. If you ever feel like you've got nothing to contribute, like anything you can do would be too small – remember that even your smallest deed comes before God transfigured in the light of Jesus.
That's the Grand Gift-Giving that we remember every time we celebrate our perfect thanksgiving meal: the Eucharist, our holy communion, the other beautiful sacrament of our faith alongside baptism. To purify us, Jesus sacrificed his body and blood for us. To sanctify us, Jesus offers his body and blood to us, so that we can share in him, so that we can be fused to him, so that his life-blood can flow through our souls and vivify us with his life, so that “we, through them, may be his true body, redeemed by his blood”. And isn't that just like Jesus? As we remember a day when men came to honor him with gifts, his glory is in giving gifts. His gifts are on the table: the “medicine of immortality”, pointing us forward to when, freed not just from the guilt and power of sin but even from its being, we'll sit down in the kingdom at the wedding supper of the Lamb (Matthew 8:11; Revelation 19:9). In the new year, come back to your new life. Return to your baptism; return to the body and the blood by which he redeemed you; return to God in Jesus Christ. Let us prepare our hearts.