Epiphany 2A St. John, Galveston 1/19/20
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One might wonder if we, the sons and daughters of the Lutheran Reformation, are left with a message that no one is listening to because no one is asking the question that we are so intent on answering. Rev. Harold Seinkbeil, of the LCMS, once suggested that each generation is asking a particular question regarding their understanding of God and of how God relates to them and to the world around them. In Luther’s day, the question was something akin to, “how can I be saved from God’s burning wrath over my sin on the day of judgment?” People were attentive to the church and it’s message because they were fearful of death and judgment. As you know, Luther wrestled with these issues mightily. In fact, at one point, it drove him into the Augustinian monastery, one of the most rigorous of all the monasteries, where he sought, by his own effort, to work his way into God’s good grace and favor.
Luther’s struggle to earn God’s favor was, of course, all for naught. The story of the Lutheran Reformation is the story of Luther’s quest for forgiveness and grace. Ultimately, it is the story of the restoration of the Gospel of salvation, by grace, through faith in Christ, to the Church and to the world. By God’s grace, Luther found in the Scriptures an objective and reliable answer to his question. Righteousness doesn’t come through human effort. Rather, it comes through the gracious declaration of God! In holy baptism, God imparts the blessings of Jesus’ cross to the sinner and, having done so, He declares the sinner righteous and holy! Thus, Luther, by God’s grace, found a way to live outside of himself, which is to say, he found a way to live in the objective declaration of God, that He loved him and that, by His grace, He would receive him into the kingdom of glory on the last day.
As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, we, of course, continue to preach that message of salvation by grace, through faith, to this very day. After all, St. Paul too once declared that “we preach Christ and Him crucified!” The cross was central Paul’s preaching as well. But, the question remains, are we answering the question people are asking? Pastor Seinkbeil suggests that we may not be, that our preaching might be falling on deaf ears because people are no longer convicted of the seriousness of their sin.
The primary question people asking today, at least religiously speaking, doesn’t involve things like sin and grace. Rather, it seems to be something along the lines of “where in the world is God?” In other words, people these days don’t seem as concerned about their sin as they do about God’s lack of action in a world that suffers under the curse of sin. Perhaps out of frustration and even anger, the question arises. Where in the world is God? More specifically, why didn’t God intervene on that infamous day we call 9/11? Or, why doesn’t God stop the prosperity and the growth of religions around the world that are clearly demonic in the message they preach? Or, why do Christians suffer persecution, even martyrdom around the world? And, perhaps most to the point, why hasn’t Jesus returned to judge the world? In short, where in the world is God?
Our questions can, of course, be driven by a number of things. What our eyes see in the world is often in conflict with what we believe in our hearts. Our emotions become involved, fear, anger, resentment, guilt, even frustration. We end up asking questions that aren’t actually the most pertinent and relevant of questions. All the while, there are questions we should be asking that go unasked and even if they’re being answered by today’s preachers, the answers that are being given don’t really hit home because the question they’re answering isn’t being asked.
John the Baptist answers two timeless and crucial questions in this morning’s Gospel reading, even though neither question had been asked by the people. Seeing Jesus coming toward him at the Jordan River, John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) The first question John answers I think is somewhat obvious. It is the same question Jesus asked of Simon Peter later in His ministry. Who do you say I am?
Later, in this very same Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Jesus is the only way to the Father. He is the only hope of salvation. So, the first question is vitally important. Who do you say Jesus is? What do you believe and confess about Jesus? John answered the question very succinctly, but in a powerfully graphic way. “Behold (he said), the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
The whole Old Testament narrative, particularly as it related to the Temple and to the sacrifices offered there, was focusing the faith of God’s people on His Lamb who had come into the world. Jesus is the Lamb that Abraham had spoken of when he told his son Isaac that God would provide the Lamb. He is the long-awaited spotless sacrifice, the One sacrifice that would finally take away the sin of the world. No other religion in the world speaks of such a Lamb, such a sacrifice of God for the sake of those whom He created.
Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, if you will. John also says that He “takes away the sin of the world.” Once again, there is no question asked here, but there is an implication that could be put in the form of a question. If Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, what does that imply? It implies that there is sin in the world that needs to be taken away and that sin is so significant, so damning, that God sent His own Son to die, to atone for it.
So, whether you recognize your sin, whether you feel it or not, whether you suffer under the weight of it or not, whether you even acknowledge that it exists, doesn’t change the fact that it is real. So real that God gave His only begotten Son to take it away. As it turns out, the question that Luther and others were asking in the Reformation is the one question we should all be asking today. “How can I be saved from God’s burning wrath over my sin on the day of judgment?”
In September of 1511, Luther left the Augustinian monastery. He left because he found the that monasticism’s answer to life’s most important question to be empty. In fact, the way of work’s righteousness brought him nothing but sadness and despair. At the heart of his despair was the simple realization that no matter how much he did to please God and to earn His favor, there was always something more he could have done. Thus, in terms of his relationship to God, he always found himself falling short and wanting.
John the Baptist cried out “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Christian preaching must always call the sinner back to Christ and to His forgiveness and grace. That forgiveness and grace, of course, are to be found in God’s Word and in His Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Where these are, water and the word, bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus and the word, there is God’s Lamb, still taking away our sins today.
Through the council of his father confessor, a priest by the name of Johann von Staupitz, Luther also found help in a simple pious practice that brought him peace and comfort. As was the custom of the day, Luther wore a cross, a crucifix actually, around his neck. One day Father Staupitz looked at the cross that hung around Luther’s neck and he noted a contradiction between what that cross expressed, what it meant, and Luther’s demeanor, which was troubled and downcast. He told Luther to grab hold of the cross that hung around his neck and to learn to say, “Lord, I am yours. Save me.” “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” “Lord, I am yours. Save me.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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