The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2019
Text: Matt. 2:1-12
Happy Epiphany! Which is just another way of saying, Merry Christmas! Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas,” as the Magi were the first Gentiles to behold and worship the Savior of the Nations. In fact, Epiphany has been the historic celebration of Christmas among the Christians of the East. Christmas is all about the joyous mystery that God has become flesh in Jesus Christ. Epiphany is all about the joyous mystery that this man, Jesus, is God. Same blessed gift considered from another perspective. The word “epiphany” means revelation or manifestation. It is when something comes to light. When you suddenly have a bright idea, you say that you’ve had an “epiphany”… a new thought has been revealed. Epiphany is the Season of Light. God has revealed to us a new thought in the Gospel, which is really a very old thought, the will of God from all eternity, that we would not be condemned but have eternal life in the salvation brought about by Jesus. The Light that is Jesus Christ shines in all the dark corners of the world and of our hearts, and the darkness cannot overcome it. What we could never have known or imagined has been revealed in the flesh of Jesus: God has come down. God has become one with us. This man, susceptible to all the weaknesses and temptations and difficulties of the flesh, is God come to save us who have fallen to all the weaknesses and temptations and difficulties of the flesh.
We sang on Christmas Day that Jesus “comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found” (LSB 387:3). That is an Epiphany thought. The blessings of salvation wrapped up in the flesh of Jesus Christ are to flow, to be made known in preaching and confession and the presence of Christian people “far as the curse is found.” And that is to say, the whole world which groans under the curse of sin and death and fallen creation. That is to say the far reaches of the earth. That is to say your own homes and families and the deepest recesses of your heart. The preaching goes forth from the Baby in the manger: God has come to deliver you. God has come as a flesh and blood Child to grow up and die for you, to rise for you, to live and reign for you. To forgive your sins. To give you new and eternal life. To take you to Himself in heaven. To raise you bodily on the Last Day. He reverses the curse by suffering it for you on the cross, in His flesh, shedding His blood. He imparts to you all His righteousness and life in His holy Word, by baptizing you into Himself, and by feeding you with His body and blood, the body and blood of God! Far as the curse is found, the Word goes out, deep into you and from you to the whole world. It is an Epiphany, a revelation. God is gracious to sinners. God is gracious to you. He loves you. He gave His only-begotten Son for you.
Epiphany is a missionary season. The concept is often lost on us, just how revolutionary this is that Gentiles are given to behold and worship the newborn King, and come into His Kingdom. Israel often forgot that their God is the God of all the nations. Israel was, after all, God’s covenant people. St. Paul reminds us, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 9:4-5; ESV). Even after our Lord’s appearing and saving work, the blessed Apostles had to wrestle with what it meant for the Gospel to preached in all the world. Peter had his vision of the sheet with unclean animals. “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” was the Lord’s command (Acts 10:13), and Peter objected: He had never eaten anything unclean. Three times he had to have the rooftop vision, so that Jesus could teach him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (v. 15). And what was the impetus for the lesson? Go, Peter, and preach to the Gentile Cornelius and his household. And when Peter did so, wouldn’t you know, Cornelius and his household believed and received the Holy Spirit, so that Peter was compelled to baptize them and include them as full members of the New Israel, the holy Christian Church. It was revolutionary. Unclean Gentiles, not even circumcised, included in God’s covenant people? But this is all written in the prophets, and typified by the visit of the Magi.
Then, what to do with Paul? Of course, he began his ministry in each new place by first visiting the Synagogue and reasoning with the Jews on the basis of the Scriptures, proving that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But when this Jew of Jews, Pharisee of Pharisees, of the Tribe of Benjamin, former persecutor of the Church, converted by Jesus Himself on the Damascus road… when he encountered the objections of the Jews, as he inevitably did, he would go to the Gentiles. It took a whole Synod convention in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, to solve the problem of what to do with all these Gentile converts. Should they be circumcised? Should they observe the Sabbath? What about bacon and shellfish? (Well, I guess Peter’s vision solved that problem!) James, the brother of the Lord, and St. Peter himself had to speak up in defense of Paul’s ministry. The old ceremonial laws are unnecessary for the Gentiles to keep. Clearly it is the Lord’s will to save them as He has saved us all, Jew and Gentile alike, by grace through faith on account of Christ, apart from works. Therefore let us simply bid them to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and so as not to give offense to the Jewish brethren, not to eat what is strangled or blood (Acts 15:19-20). The Gentiles do not need to become Jews, as the Judaizers had maintained. They could still be Gentiles, but now Christian Gentiles, for the grace of God is for Gentiles also.
So the Magi come to worship Jesus. They are not kings, by the way, and we don’t know how many of them there are. Probably more than three. They represent the best of human wisdom. We get the word “magician” from Magi. They are actually pagans. But they are given, by grace, to know that a new King and Savior has been born. And this King is not only King of the Jews, but of the whole world. It is revealed to them by a star that appeared, epiphanied, in the East. How did they know to follow that star? These are the Magi undoubtedly in the tradition of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, wise men of Persia. They had received the Scriptures. They knew Scriptures like Numbers 24 and Balaam’s final oracle: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (v. 17). Or our Old Testament reading this morning from the Prophet Isaiah: “those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praise of the LORD” (60:6).
Now, this may not strike you as such amazingly good news for you personally, that the Gentiles are included in the covenant. But then again, are you Jewish? If not, you ought to fall on your knees in thanksgiving for this morning’s Holy Gospel, that this Savior, Jesus, the man who is God, is for you, your God, and your Savior. And if you do happen to be Jewish, you also ought to fall on your knees in thanksgiving, for this salvation of the Gentiles does not displace you and your place in the Kingdom. It vindicates you! Your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, longed to see this day. God preserved the nation of Israel for this very purpose, to bring about the salvation of the world. And we all, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved by this man, this God who died for us, and who lives and reigns. So we preach, because that is the continuation of the Epiphany. The blessings continue to flow far as the curse is found.
The Magi come and the star leads them to the very house where Jesus is with the Holy Family. As they enter, St. Matthew tells us, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10). May it ever be so for you when you enter the House where Jesus is with His Holy Family, the holy Christian Church. And they present to Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. We often think of worship as our coming to bring gifts to Jesus, our time spent in holy obligation, our praises, our offerings in the plate. But learn here from the Magi. Their gifts actually reveal, epiphany, the Lord’s gifts to them and to us. Gold, befitting a King. Jesus is our King. He reigns over all things for our sake, and we are beloved citizens of His Kingdom and children of His heavenly Father. Frankincense: That is the incense of sacrifice. Jesus is the God who receives the incense of our sacrificial offerings and prayers. Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins. The Frankincense is a prophecy of His crucifixion for our sakes. And along with that, myrrh, the burial spice. Jesus will be dead and buried for us and for our salvation. The very Gospel in all its fullness is prophesied in the gifts of the wise men. As much as it is their gift to Jesus, even more it is Jesus’ gift to them. And so our gifts. We do not come to Church to fulfill a holy obligation, but to be filled with Jesus and all of His gifts to us: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation; strength for daily life and our various vocations, the Holy Spirit, faith, love for God and our neighbor, prayer that calls upon God in every trouble, praises, and gives thanks in all circumstances. Our offerings in the plate? Do you really think God needs your money? This isn’t about giving to God, as if He has a lack or a need you can fill. No, your offerings are God’s gift to you. They are first of all an exercise of your faith, that you recognize that all good things are from God, that they belong to Him, that you are merely stewards of what is His, and that He will not forsake you when you give your money away. He will continue to provide for your needs. And then, too, they are God’s gift to you because they continue to provide for the preaching of His Gospel among you, and to send forth the preaching to the ends of the earth, far as the curse is found. Your offerings are actually and investment in God’s Gospel preaching, in the Epiphany! We do not come to worship primarily to serve God, but to be served by God: served up with Jesus and His salvation. Then, and only then, and for that reason alone, we sing our praises to Him, and His Name is glorified.
So happy Epiphany! And merry Christmas! Pray that this man, Jesus, who is our God, be revealed to all who do not know and believe in Him. Give your offerings, for the sake of the preaching. And rejoice. Especially you Gentiles, and also you Jews. This Savior is for you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Baptism of Our Lord (C)
January 13, 2019
Text: Luke 3:15-22
John’s Baptism is preparatory. He is not the Christ. He is not the Savior. He is the last and best Old Testament prophet, on the cusp of the New Testament brought about by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But John’s work is still preliminary. This is not in any way to diminish John’s Baptism. John’s Baptism is the forerunner of Christian Baptism, as John is the forerunner of Christ. And John’s Baptism comes with gifts. John’s is a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). The people came to John confessing their sins (Matt. 3:6). They knew God was justly angry over their transgressions. John preached not only the Law to the people, but as our text says, “with many other exhortations he preached the good news,” the Gospel, “to the people” (Luke 3:18; ESV). The people heard from John that God is gracious, that He is merciful, that He does not desire the death of a sinner, but that the sinner turn from His evil ways and live. And they heard that God would provide, and was in the very act of providing, a Savior, a sacrificial Lamb, to take away the sins of the world. So come and be baptized. Take a divine bath, that God may wash away your sins. Leave them here in the Jordan. Be forgiven. Be clean. And you better believe that such preaching and Baptism created faith in the one true God, as it always does.
But John’s Baptism only works this way because Jesus steps into the water. He’s in the lineup of the people being baptized. And when John baptizes the Lord, Holy Baptism is transformed forever. The preparation has come to an end. The fulfillment has arrived. Like a Divine Sponge, in His Baptism, Jesus soaks up all the sins of the people and of all the world. He takes all sin into Himself, bears it in His flesh, that He may put it to death, suffer its penalty, pay for it in full, in His flesh. And He leaves behind Him in the water all of His righteousness and life, all of His gifts. It is the beautiful image Luther pains in his Flood Prayer, part of the rite of Holy Baptism: “Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin” (LSB 269). Because Jesus stepped into the Jordan, Jesus is in the water for us.
Jesus is in the water, and He is praying, and all at once the heavens are opened. The Holy Spirit comes upon our Lord in the bodily form of a dove. A voice comes from heaven, the very voice of the Father, declaring “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). And that is now the reality of the font. When you are plunged into the watery grave of Baptism, Jesus is there in the water, giving you His resurrection life. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Newness of life now, eternal life in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. Jesus is in the water praying, for you, with you, and in you. Heaven is opened to you, to receive your prayers prayed in Christ, to receive you who have been baptized into Christ. You are now a citizen of the Kingdom, an heir with Christ of all that is the Father’s. The Spirit descends upon you, not in the bodily form of a dove, but into your body which is now a temple of the Holy Spirit. He possesses you, and gives you faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and restoration to the Father. And you are God’s own child. That is what the Father says of you who are baptized into Christ. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Your sins are forgiven. You are righteous in my sight. For you are covered with my Son, Christ. You are wrapped in His righteousness. When I look at you, I see only the righteousness and perfection of my Son, Jesus.
Of course, certainly not just water does these things. This is not magic. It is not superstition. Nor, by the way, is it your work for God. Your will, your obedience, these are not the operative ingredient in Baptism. Oh, no. It is the Word of God in the water that does these things. That makes Baptism God’s work, not yours. To say that “Baptism… now saves you,” as St. Peter does (1 Peter 3:21), is not to contradict the truth that we are saved by God’s gracious action alone. Quite the opposite. It is to say, this is how God does His saving work in us. By Jesus in the water, by virtue of His Word, as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit, creating saving faith and washing away sin. It’s all God. Not you. Not even the pastor. God does the baptizing. The Word of God in the water is our Lord’s command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), and of course, the command continues with our obligation to teach the baptized all things whatsoever our Lord has commanded (v. 20). It is also the beautiful Promise of our Lord from the longer ending of Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Faith grasps this Word of God. Faith is the receiving hands God gives us, by which we take hold of His saving gifts in Christ. And those gifts are the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. It is the daily drowning death of the Old Adam in us by contrition and repentance, that the new man daily emerge and arise in Christ to live before God in righteousness and purity. That is what repentance is, a daily return to Baptism.
And because this is God’s work, and not ours, this is why we baptize children and infants. It is true, the infant doesn’t decide to come to Baptism, or even rationally know what Baptism is. That’s exactly the kind of person God wants. Infants don’t present all sorts of objections to Baptism on the basis of the perverse human will or human reason. They simply undergo it. By grace. God does His work upon them and in them. We adults have all sorts of problems in this regard. We have our objections. How can water do this, even if you add a few words from the Bible? It just looks like water. How can I know it will work? How can I know if I believe enough? If I was sincere in my decision? I’m just not so sure. That is why Jesus tells us we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That is to say, helpless. And trusting. Everything must be done for us. God is the Doer. Infants don’t know much about anything. But they do know the voice of Mom. Already in the womb, they know her voice. And they trust Mom. They don’t even know the word “Mom,” but they know Mom. They know her touch. They know her heartbeat. They know that Mom is the source of all that is good. Food. Diaper changes. Comfort. Protection. Help. And the same trust an infant has in Mom, he is given to have in Jesus by means of Holy Baptism. The adult is no different. Even if an adult marches up to the font all by himself, having resolved to be baptized, it is really not his work in any way. He is carried there by His mother, the Church. The Holy Spirit calls him by the Gospel and gives him to answer by faith that he rejects the devil and all his works and all his ways, and believes in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The problem with adults is we think we came up with this ourselves and we’re doing something for God. Not at all. Baptism is the Triune saving action: Jesus is in the water with all of His gifts, the Spirit comes upon you to enlighten you, and the Father declares His love and pleasure in you, His child. It is all God’s work.
Now, this is important, because life in this world is dangerous. For one thing, there is a Judgment coming. Jesus is coming back, visibly, to judge the living and the dead. His winnowing fork will be in His hand to clear His threshing floor, to clear out the world. He will gather the wheat into His barn. That is to say, those believe and are baptized will be saved. They will be gathered to the Lord Jesus. But the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire. That is to say, the one who does not believe will be condemned. Eternity in the unquenchable fires of hell. So you need to be in Christ. And you come into Christ by Baptism.
The other thing is, Christians are promised great persecution in this world. You haven’t had to suffer much of it. But look at St. John the Baptizer. He gets a little too political in his sermons. He preaches against Herod’s adultery with Herodias. Sexual indiscretion in the halls of power, as well as all the other evil things Herod did. John is not politically correct. He preaches against this and it gets him locked up and eventually beheaded. Not only Christian preachers, but you can expect these things to happen for your steadfast confession of faith, the faith into which you have been baptized. If it doesn’t happen, great. The Lord has spared you. But don’t be surprised if it does, as if the Lord did not warn you. It’s great to know, though, going into persecution, that you belong to your heavenly Father. That you are precious to Him. That He has written His Name on you. That nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That take they your life, goods, fame, child or wife, the Kingdom yours remaineth. They can kill your body, but they cannot kill your soul, and really, they cannot kill your body ultimately, because you are baptized into Christ, who is risen from the dead, and who will raise you.
Beloved, live each day in your Baptism, which is to say, live in the holy faith of Jesus. Live in His death and resurrection. Live in His forgiveness and righteousness. It is not that you were baptized, but that you are baptized. This is your reality. Jesus has died on the cross for your sins. Daily die to sin. That is to say, repent. Jesus is risen from the dead. Daily live in the confidence of His resurrection. That is to say, believe. Each day make the sign of the holy cross and speak the reality anew: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.