Epiphany 2 January 14, 2024
1 Peter 3:18-22
301, 245, 298, 141
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) (TLH) unless otherwise noted
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, heavenly Father, who manifested Yourself, with the Holy Spirit, in the fullness of grace at the baptism of Your dear Son, and with Your voice directed us to Him who has borne our sins, that we might receive grace and the remission of sins: Keep us in the true faith; and since we have been baptized in accordance with Your command, and the example of Your dear Son, we pray strengthen our faith by Your Holy Spirit, and lead us to everlasting life and salvation, through Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Grace and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our meditation is based on Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees concerning spiritual warfare. You will see that the Gospel works a victory in the human heart which no effort of man can achieve. Again, Jesus describes the spiritual overthrow of repentance and faith in Him:
When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armor wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.
O Lamb of God, bless Thy Word that we may trust in Thee. Amen.
I once met a woman who had been baptized seven times. I met her sitting at her kitchen table, because she had invited me over to talk about the fact that she wanted me to baptize her for an eighth time. In her estimation, her first seven baptisms “hadn’t took.”
When I hesitated—beginning to explain how we do not re-baptize—she tossed out at me onto the table a heap of baptismal certificates demanding, “Well then, why don’t you tell me which of these is the real one!”
Over the years, she had attended a variety of churches—mostly Baptist and Nazarene by name—which confuse salvation with outward behavior modification, demanding that God’s grace couldn’t be yours without some noticeable change of life on your part. As if the Law, God’s standard of right and wrong, were the standard by which one could determine whether you were truly converted or not.
Although she had struggled with a variety of worldly addictions across the rough road of her life, by God’s grace, she did know where to turn for her broken heart to find healing, Jesus, but in each instance she had turned to foolish stewards of Jesus’ means of grace, who told her that the only way she could have so miserably fallen back into a life of sin was if she had never truly been converted in the first place, meaning that her previous baptism had clearly not worked, and that she needed to begin her approach on up to Jesus and His forgiveness all over again. Thus, after each of her personal relapses, they would re-baptize her with the guilt-trip blessing: “This time better work.”
It’s the same false religion, the same empty promise of spiritual change by means of the Law, which Jesus encounters in our gospel lesson today.
The Pharisees had misconstrued Moses’ laws into a drawn out process of attaining a right standing with God, by maintaining an outwardly successful life. The Pharisees had redefined the word “sinner” to mean those souls for whom their rules and rituals seemed to get no results to their liking. That way they could mentally dismiss the problem, those impossible cases, to be the kind of people who are clearly incapable of helping themselves.
Thus, when Jesus goes about healing simply by speaking a word, and goes about accomplishing amazing results with such ease, they accuse Him of using supernatural means: “He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils.” (Luke 11:15) They did not know what else to make of Jesus: a man who gets results apart from the Law. Jesus’ approach so very foreign to their thinking, and ours.
The Law is a tempting yardstick of spiritual growth, because the Law does seem to produce results you can see. A surprise visit from the pastor might get a delinquent member to show up… for a Sunday or two. A bleak financial report can turn the church budget around… until the next quarter. Every drunk encounters a good enough scare to give up the bottle… for the afternoon.
Thus, the sinner likes to dredge up old hurts to gain the upper hand in an argument, go through mere motions of obedience to maintain an outward peace, and withhold or revoke forgiveness until you show you’re really sorry for what you’ve done.
Scripture reveals that all our attempts to spruce up the soul and cast out each other’s vices are a song and dance performed to the devil’s delight. As Jesus describes, you can only fool yourself so long that you’ve conquered an ‘unclean spirit’ before, ever eager to “return unto my house whence I came out,” that spirit returns to the soul supposedly “swept and garnished” with “seven other spirits more wicked than himself… the last state of that man… worse than the first.”
This was the sad pattern of that poor woman deceived into the song and dance of being baptized seven times. It’s the same sad pattern with each of us. For though you might not have turned to drinking, drugs, or manifest adultery, those sins you do return to time and again, to which you turn as the alternative to another you supposedly quit, or the self-righteousness that makes you the expert at what you have conquered, all go to prove what Jesus teaches, that no reform of outward behavior can change the depth of the heart: “For a good tree bringeth forth no corrupt fruit…” not even one bad apple.
No, John the Baptist declared the only option you have is to chop it out altogether: “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees.” (Luke 3:9) Meaning since the Law itself can produce no God-pleasing fruit from this rotten core, what God requires is not the quitting of vice nor the doing of good works but a new heart, a new spirit, a new mindset altogether.
This is what Jesus came to give.
When John proclaimed in the wilderness that what you need is for your heart to be cut to the root, he then pointed out Jesus as the One come to get to the root of the problem: “Behold, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.“ (John 1:29) Because in His baptism, Jesus was openly revealed to be the only man who was truly good to the core: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
Not long after His baptism, one of those Pharisees, who would get so riled up at what the Son of God could make happen with one life-giving word, approached Jesus in secret: “Rabbi… no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him.” (John 3:2) In other words, “You have a power no other man does. Perhaps I could learn a few tips and tricks from you.”
But Jesus rebukes Nicodemus that there’s no way to enter a right standing before God with that old mindset. No, “ye must be born again.”
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” (John 3:6) Turning to the Law as the answer will just get you more of the same. No, God must come to you and make you clean Himself: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
And as He would describe to Nicodemus’ friends in our gospel lesson today, Jesus accomplishes this by entering your heart Himself to overthrow your every misconception of self-righteousness and rout the devil by putting an end to every song and dance: “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he shall come… and overcome him, he taketh from him all [that] armor wherein he trusted, and divideth [the] spoils.”
You see, refusing to wait around for any behavior modification on your part, Jesus entered this fallen world to conquer sin, death, and hell once and for all: “But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Because the riches of heaven could only be yours by Jesus inviting into the house of His body and soul every demon and temptation to which you and I turn. He bore every failed attempt at living a better life. Every time you’ve dangled forgiveness and love just out of another poor soul’s reach on account of their inability to live a better life.
He is the stronger man you need, who rose above the death all these our sins took Him to, that by His victory over the grave He might raise you up with Him.
For in this great exchange, of the righteous dying for the ungodly, Jesus’ greatest desire is to divide the spoils of forgiveness, life, and salvation, by making that righteousness of His yours.
This Gospel accomplishes a victory in the heart no human effort could ever hope to achieve, a spiritual overthrow of the soul, accomplished in one fowl swoop, the stronger man Christ Jesus makes His home in your heart, by working repentance and faith deep within. Seizing, conquering, and establishing His reign in you through Word and Sacrament.
As Peter explains the saving power of baptism, that it is only the cleansing flood of Jesus’ blood that can set the sinner’s heart at ease: “Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21) Which means it is through faith in Christ’s merit alone that you receive a right standing with your God, because the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name shatters every delusion of man by replacing the Law as the standard of success with an innocence and blessedness in Him, a new life yours by grace, as the fount of any true spiritual growth.
Yes, you’ll encounter your share of rough patches, relapses, and failures, but for any change of mind you need, count on His Word to get to “the root of the tree,” to dig down to the very depths of your heart. The Law calling you to relent of every effort to climb your own way out, and the Gospel calling you to believe in a Savior who claimed you as His own well before you could do anything to come to Him. Keep in this Word, taught in truth and purity, and have your mind set straight concerning any matter of life.
All of which brings us back to that woman who had been baptized seven times: “Why don’t you tell me which of these is the real one!” Well, as I looked through that scattered heap of baptismal certificates she’d tossed out at me, I noticed there were only six of them, not seven. “There’s one missing,” I said. “Well, I don’t have the first one. That was when I was a baby, baptized by a Roman Catholic priest. That can’t be it!”
Oh, yes it was.
So, instead of performing an eighth baptism for a woman who felt she had let her God down once again, I put an end to the devil’s song and dance as a whole, by following Jesus’ example and speaking one simple word: offering that she change her mindset about the matter entirely, by pointing her repentant soul back to her first—and only— baptism as the divine declaration that her God would never let her down.
That goes for your baptism too, your first and only, the spiritual overthrow of your heart by the stronger man Christ Jesus the Lord, the Savior committed to hold you captive by grace unto eternal life.
Now the peace that passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.