Thursday, September 01, 2011

QOTD: Doubt What the World Exalts

Commenting on Matthew 4:3, the place where the tempter tempts Jesus with the words, "If you are the Son of God," Dale Bruner writes:
It is said we live in an age of doubt, in an age of the death of God. We must be careful how we say this. We ought not imply that human nature has normally liked the truth of God and that only recently, in modern times, have people found God doubtful. As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) ... reminds us, ever since the Fall, human nature has universally resisted the true God, hid from God, doubted, and distrusted God. Adam and Eve hid from God immediately after their rejection of God's command (Gen 3:8). And the apostle Paul taught us that we are not so much naturally seekers after God's truth as we are suppressors of it (Rom 1:18-3:20). Human nature lives in doubt of God's reality because it wants to. The last three centuries have simply succeeded in making this fact explicit and praiseworthy. Care needs to be taken lest we glorify doubt and make doubt seem more mature, advanced, and modern than faith. Doubt of God is not a virtue to preen. The praise of doubt is sometimes fulsome, especially in college settings, and is often boorish. Let us doubt a great deal, but not God. Let us especially doubt what the world exalts, "for what is exalted among human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). And one of the things secularism exalts is doubt of God. "Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth we cannot know it" (Pascal, Pensées).
Emphasis added. Excerpt from Matthew: A Commentary. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, page 123.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Matthew 06: Baptized in Water and Spirit

Baptism Of Christ - Fra Angelico 1437/46
Scripture Text: Matthew 3:13-17

Introductory Comments

Our focus last week was on the preaching of John the Baptizer and his call to the people to “[3:2] Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This message was preached to all the hordes of people coming to be baptized, including those who, believing that they already had all the salvation credentials necessary, probably thought they didn’t need such a baptism. The message for us, from that, is not just to assume the benefits of Christ without understanding the cost. Understanding the cost Jesus paid for your sin is what drives us to ongoing repentance in the church also. For the Christian who acknowledges Jesus as Lord, repentance shows forth our ongoing dependence upon the abundant grace of God for our very survival now. Seen in that way, repentance becomes for us not a shame inducing dread-laden duty, but an awe-inspiring, joy-filled experience of release, refreshment, and renewal in Christ. We grieve for our sin, and then shout with joy for our forgiveness. Over time, repentance brings us closer and closer to Jesus, sanctifying us in a way that makes us appear more like Him. This ongoing sanctification by God is empowered by the Holy Spirit, who is given at baptism.

This week, we will look at Jesus baptism. This story brings up a lot of questions for the Christian. For example: Why does Jesus need to be baptized if he was born and lived his entire life without sin? That is a very good question. Two other questions flow out of the first one. First, what does the baptism of Jesus have to do with us? Second, if Jesus’ baptism does have something to do with us, then do we have something we must do?

Why Does Jesus Need to Be Baptized?

Matthew has set the scene. John has already appeared in our gospel painting as a man in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who even dresses, grooms, and eats like the Elijah. He has told the people that the very kingdom of God has come near, and in his preaching calls upon all the people to repent, to get back in line with God’s ways, in light of the news that God has come near. He has also promised that another one would come, mightier than himself, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The stage is now set, then, for the appearance of this mighty person. And it is here, in Matthew 3, that Jesus re-enters the gospel painting as an adult. This is the one so mighty and great that John said he was unqualified even to tie the might one’s sandals.

At this point, we’re thinking something big is going to happen next. And something big will happen, but in a totally unexpected way. This mighty one, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, comes to John and submits to being baptized.
[13] Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. [14] John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [15] But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
Can you see the pattern Matthew has established so far? The fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham and David are found in a little baby born in a shed and sleeping in a feeding trough. And by the way, his family background is pretty sketchy, what with all the gentiles and sinners scattered in it. And he’s spend much of his life thus far in dirty backwater blip of a town called Nazareth in Galilee, a town of such inconsequence that the great Jewish historian Josephus, a very meticulous man, didn’t bother including Nazareth in his list of cities in that region. Everything about this Jesus points downward, to his humility.

And that includes even this part of the story, his baptism by John. John picks up on this apparent incongruity really fast. This is the mighty one of God, His anointed, and he’s coming here to be baptized with all the other sinners? He’s right here with them. John’s reluctance, given what he has been preaching, is understandable, isn’t it? And so he resists the notion that this Jesus should receive his baptism for repentance of sin. He says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John is asking the very question many Christians sometime wonder about. Why does this sinless Jesus need to be baptized in repentance of sin?

And Jesus graciously answers the question this way: “[15] Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He is being baptized for the sake of fulfilling all righteousness. That’s why he must be baptized.

How will Jesus’ baptism fulfill all righteousness? Here’s what I think this means. Like everyone else there by the riverside, Jesus is declaring publicly through baptism that he will live in total obedience to the will of his Heavenly Father. That’s part of repentance. But here is where Jesus’ baptism by John differed from everyone else’s: Jesus did not sin. Nevertheless, he pledged what every sinner would also have pledged at that time – that he would live a life in obedience to God no matter what. We will soon see why this is such tremendously good news for us in our baptisms. Here’s a hint: We fail constantly to be obedient to the will of God, but Jesus never fails to be obedient. And therein lies our hope, because Jesus’ obedience for us overflows and is given to us as a gift in our baptisms. Jesus’ baptism is, therefore, the root of our salvation from God’s just wrath. Jesus’ sacrificial death for us on the cross was only saving by virtue of the fact that he did keep his commitment to be 100% obedient to God’s law for us. His baptism by John was a public testimony that he would do this, and that public testimony was proclaimed, signed, and sealed by the fullness of the Triune God as described next in the story.

This also ties in with what we concluded last week: Our repentance proclaims our dependence to God, specifically, our repentance shows our dependence on the baptism, obedience, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The good news of the gospel for the faithful in Christ is that his baptism overcomes all of the failures we experience in our lives, even after we’re baptized.

The Baptism of Water and Spirit

Jesus steps into the water.
[16] And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; [17] and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Three things are revealed when Jesus is baptized.

First, the heavens were opened. He is granted unimpeded access to the glory of his heavenly Father. At his crucifixion, the curtain of the temple is torn into two and all have unimpeded view of the Holy of Holies. Jesus blazes ahead in front of us at the moment he was baptized. In baptism, then, we have access to the Father that not even the high priest in the Old Testament had.

Second, the Holy Spirit comes to rest upon him, signifying his anointing as the messiah, the long awaited king. He is, therefore, living out the fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-4
[42:1] Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. [2] He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; [3] a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. [4] He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
Note in that text from Isaiah that the beloved servant/son is not portrayed by the prophet as a mighty conqueror, but one who is gentle and meek. I think that is why the anointing of the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. This servant of God will serve with gentleness and grace. The people of God are called to share the gospel and love their neighbors in the same manner.

Third, a voice from heaven is heard, from the Heavenly Father, declaring his deep, abiding, eternal affection for the Son. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” He is beloved, precious to the Father, because, with the Holy Spirit, he is eternally begotten from the Father. The Son has always been the beloved of the Father, and here, in Jesus’ baptism, this infinite love is revealed and declared to the whole world, and to each one of you in your baptism.

This account shows us clearly that Jesus is the promised servant and Son of God. And in this reading, he is proclaimed to you as the promised One, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

I started this sermon with several questions. First, why was it necessary that Jesus be baptized? It was necessary for the fulfillment of all righteousness by the beloved Son of God. It was his declaration and commitment to fulfill his mission of living in perfect obedience to the Father.

The good news of the gospel is that the reason Jesus did this was to save lost people like you and me, out of an infinite love that we do not merit, for the sake of the glory of God and his praise and worship.

The second question was: What does the baptism of Jesus have to do with us? And the answer is, everything.

First, Jesus’ baptism transformed the baptism of repentance of John’s ministry into a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus commands his disciples to baptize, but this time in the name of the three persons who were present at his baptism, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, the reason Jesus commands this baptism is because of what this baptism signifies and accomplishes. Because Jesus did not need forgiveness of sins, our baptism, received at His command, grants to us that which he did not need, total, complete forgiveness of sins. If you are in Christ, you receive the benefits that overflow from His baptism. Similarly, because Jesus is fully God, he grants to those who receive baptism the gifts he already has. His righteousness and obedience are imputed to us not on the basis of any merit in and of ourselves, but by virtue of the fact that he was fully righteous and obedient for us. We are also granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, and retain that gift even into eternal life. If you have been baptized into Christ, the Holy Sprit of God dwells within you. Reflect on that for a moment. The very Holy Spirit dwells with you, if you are in Christ.

Third, because Jesus’ gifts are granted to us in baptism, we receive divine favor instead of divine wrath. When the heavenly Father looks upon those who are in Christ, he is able to say to that person, who lives in Christ, “You are my beloved! And I’m well pleased with you, too!”

These are all astonishing gifts, and we all ought to reflect on these gifts every day, with great joy and thanksgiving. If you are in Christ, you have received the very same gifts given to Jesus at his baptism. Through baptism, you are made co-heirs with the Son of God. That should be the source of awe and wonder in every Christian.

But we so often forget. We are so often bogged down by the burdens of life that we do not ever reflect on the nature of what we already have in Christ. I plead with you, reflect on those gifts. Relish in them. They are yours. They are powerful and empowering. Your heavenly Father has seen fit to grant them to you because you are in His Son. The Holy Spirit is at work in you, right now in the hearing of this Word.

The final question was this: If Jesus’ baptism is relevant to us, how are we to respond? We are to respond by obeying the Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 to baptize others in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Churches are all called upon to perform acts of righteousness for the glory of the Father, and one of the most glorious acts we can perform by the power of the Holy Spirit is the baptism of infants and adults in public worship. We are to share the gospel, the good news, infectiously with our friends and neighbors, so that in the hearing of this news Jesus might draw those who are his into himself. Just as John participated in the baptism of Jesus, Jesus commands us to participate in the announcement of his kingdom to the ends of the earth, baptizing as we go. Churches that do not obey this command will, naturally, cease to be, because they are not living in obedience of the command of their Lord. Beloved, we are called to be a baptizing people. Let’s get with it, for the glory of Christ.

We can do this by grace because in baptism, God declares to the recipient, “You are my beloved child! I am all for you! Now go live life like you believe Me.” Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
August 28, 2011
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

Matthew 05: Repent!

John the Baptist Preaching - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1732-1733
Scripture Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Introductory Comments

Last week’s reading had three parts. We focused on the middle part: The story of Herod’s killing of innocent boys in Bethlehem to protect his power and authority. It was the story of original sin, and we saw how all human beings, including everyone in this place, are born with the same sinful tendencies as Herod.

We concluded, based on an examination of ourselves and recent events in the world, that we need nothing less than total liberation from this sin if we are to be saved. And Matthew shoes us who that liberator will be. He will be one who, like Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Matthew shows us how Jesus will liberate his people from the massive, Herod-shaped sin-hole in which we all find ourselves.

So the broad stokes of Matthew’s gospel painting look like this: First, there is an decisive announcement in the genealogy of chapter 1 that the messiah has come, the liberator who is both the eternal heir to the throne of David and who embodies the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that Israel will be a beacon of hope for all the nations of the world.

Second, as evidence of this, Matthew shows us that how idolatrous, gentile pagan are drawn to and worship Christ, while the religiously Jewish “King” Herod stays home. The Magi showed us the power of grace, while Herod illustrated for us life under the power of sin and rebellion against God.

Third, we saw just how that sin and rebellion plays itself out. Sin is the power of death, and Herod, desperate to retain his control and power, takes out innocents in order to protect his own glory. Upon examination of some of the events of the world, and an honest examination of what goes on in our hearts, we also said that we are far more like Herod that we might prefer to imagine. Accordingly, we are need of a great Savior.

This week, we are introduced to the next character on the canvas of Matthew’s painting. It is John the Baptist. John’s ministry is one of calling people to repentance for sin through preaching.

John the Baptist – the Basic Message

Here’s how our text begins:
[3:1] In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, [2] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [3] For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

[4] Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. [5] Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, [6] and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
So who is John? John, we know from Luke, was Jesus’ cousin. And we also know from Luke that he spent a lot of time in the wilderness before his ministry of preaching and baptizing began. Matthew would have us know that John was a long-awaited forerunner of the Messiah. That’s why he quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah (the reference is 40:3). Many believed that the forerunner would resemble Elijah (see for example Malachi chapter 4), which is why John’s dress, grooming, and eating habits are mentioned here. “Here is the forerunner to the Messiah,” Matthew tells us, “Pay very close attention to what he says.”

What he says is what is required of God when we sin: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

What does it mean to repent? The Greek word translated as “repent” means to come back or turn around. It implies radically changing course from the route your on to on, one that leads to destruction, to one that leads to life.

John uses an imperative form of the word repent. His preaching is a plea to the people based on an urgent reality. His call is a warning. Why? Because of the second half of his message, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John knows that God has broken into the world, and that the kingdom of heaven has come near. And John, who stands as really the last of the great Old Testament prophets, knows what happens when repentance is lacking and God is near. There are tremendous consequences, and they are not good.

John’s call to repent is because the kingdom of heaven has come near. That means God has come. And that mean’s God’s judgment has come. This is not a plea to get people to repent so that the kingdom will come. Instead, the kingdom has come, and therefore we must repent.1

This has huge bearing on everyone hearing this message today. Why? Because repentance is not just for those who need forgiveness from God. We will see soon that repentance is also for those who are already in the church, and who by the power of the Holy Spirit know the saving work of God in Jesus Christ.

This Old Testament prophet in the New Testament draws a big crowd, and we should pay close attention to what happens next:
[5] Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, [6] and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
We see in verse 5 that many, many people were responding to John’s preaching. They would only do that if they were convicted that what he was saying was true. At this time in Israel’s history, Messianic expectations were on high alert. There was a longing for deliverance from the perceive exile of having to live under the hand of the Romans. And so the people came, in his expectation, that what John was saying was true.

And so they come to him to do two things. First, they came “confessing their sins.” Bruner translates this same phrase as “openly admitted their sins”2 and I think that’s a good translation. They came to John, and before him and everyone else declared their opposition to God, and their repentance was signified by a baptism. Sins need to be openly confessed. That terrifies most of us today, because we know what has been going on. But we need it. Confession of sins brings forgiveness. Second, they undergo a ritual bath as a public declaration of their repentance.

We now turn to the next part of our text, which shows us that those in the church needs repentance, too.

The Church Needs to Repent
[7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. [9] And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. [10] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
When the religious leaders come to see what’s up, John preaches a second message that is, shall we say, indelicate? He doesn’t flatter them at all, but instead calls them a “brood of vipers.” He expresses, it seems, surprise that they would even be there, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He directs them, the pious Pharisees and education Sadducees, to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, John is saying, you religious leaders need to repent just as much as everyone else you came here to see.

And then he explains to them why: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Don’t presume, pious religious laypeople and leaders, that you can simply say you are circumcised and keep the law and expect to be safe. As we will see, it is not membership in a covenant community that saves you. If you’re not genuinely repentant, God will go ahead and raise up others who will be faithful.

I think this text from Matthew is a warning to the church today: Don’t just presume the benefits of Christ. Don’t just say, “I’m baptized and therefore safe.” God isn’t safe! But he is merciful to those who are truly repentant and who bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The message is: Do not think, beloved Saint, that you’re perfect yet. There is still Holy Spirit work to be done to you, which means there is still sin that must be mortified, put to death, by confession and repentance, so that the sin will be banished from you life and you’re made more like Christ, your adopted brother. Don’t be complacent, church, don’t be lukewarm in attending to your ongoing, every single day need for the grace of Christ!

The church needs this same reminder today. We too often take our salvation for granted. We need the reminder from the law that we, too, must be bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. And the church, perhaps now more than ever, needs the reminder that we cannot simply lay hold to the claim that we’re Christian, have been baptized, and find ourselves on the membership roles of a local church (or, in my case, a presbytery), and participate in a lot of good “mission.” What counts most to God is not the externalities of our faith, but the internal condition of our hearts, the place from which all sin originates. We should be a very concerned if we meander through life and it never occurs to us to repent of our sin. Too many times, Christians neglect repentance and true confession of sin, and as a consequences are subject to temptation.

The other day I heard a story about a person who said, very plainly, that they never sinned. That’s a sign of living without any knowledge of our need for the grace of Christ.

Scotty Ward Smith, a great pastor, said this week, “A sign you’re growing in grace: Your humble cry for mercy is much louder than your angry cry for justice.” Why? Because our angry cries for justice are usually predicated on our own sense of pride in knowing what is right and wrong. In fact, however, our knowledge of our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness is what always leads us back to the one who can save us – Jesus. The self-righteous shouting for justice too often leads back to the self, while the plea for mercy takes us to the Cross and to Jesus.

Jesus will make this plain in his story about the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee stands in the temple and loudly proclaims his righteousness under the law before others, and thanks God that he’s not a sinner, especially one like the tax collector nearby. The tax collectors, as this is going on, is beating on his chest in mourning and pleading with God for mercy for his sin. Who went home justified, asks Jesus? Why, it was that tax collector whom the Pharisee referred to as a sinner. We must not be like the Pharisee in this story, and the best way to do this is to be sure that we’re well acquainted with repentance. Repentance shows our dependence upon Jesus.

John Summarizes His Ministry

John summarizes his ministry this way:
[11] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [12] His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
As great as John’s ministry was, of calling people to repentance for sin and preparation for the arrival of God’s kingdom, it was limited. But he knows something more magnificent is coming. There is a person who will come who will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, who will bring cleansing from sin, meaning, will bring righteousness.

That person is the subject of the gospel, Jesus. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. That’s so huge. If you’re in Christ, you’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit. You have received, in Christ, the very fullness of God. We’ll speak more about that next week. He’s gathering his wheat into the barn of the kingdom. How does he accomplish this? By calling people to himself, and to accept his sacrificial death on their behalf for their sin. John the Baptist calls us to repentance for our deep sin. Jesus gives the grace of God, forgiveness from sin, rescuing us what condemns us. Amen.

1Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol 1. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 87.
2Ibid. 89.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
August 21, 2001
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew