A gracious God who brings new life

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a Cantata Service at St John’s Lutheran Church Southgate, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ 2017:

Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott? – ‘How can I find a gracious God?’, is the question that led the Augustinian lecturer Martin Luther to make the theological breakthrough that started the Reformation 500 years ago. ‘While I was a monk’, Luther would later reflect, ‘I did my utmost by doing and striving, to gain God’s righteousness, but found that I moved further and further from my goal’. If that is true, and our own striving moves us further from God, how then can human beings be made just before God? How can we know ourselves loved and cared for by God? How can the world be made a more just and peaceable place; and how can we come to experience that same peace in our hearts? For Martin Luther, the answer to this existential human quest lay in the discovery of God’s grace: the free and self-giving love that brought the distant creator of the world close to us in the child of Bethlehem, who gave his life, so that all might have life.


Today, we celebrate that this profound theological insight that the monk Martin Luther was not contained to the cloisters of his monastic order or the lecture halls of Erfurt university. This year we give thanks that, five hundred years ago, Luther’s insight into the graciousness of God became a living movement that transformed our own striving for justice, peace, and righteousness. Today, we give thanks for the fruits of Luther’s reformation: for his gift of expressing his insight into God’s loving grace through poem and song, for his gift of shaping worship that seeks to enable us to hear God’s words of reassurance and peace to us in our own language, through spoken word and sermon, through hymn and chorale. Today, we especially give thanks that the fruits of Luther’s reformation, as translated by the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, have flourished for twenty years in this church, inviting others to share in this grace.


Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott – ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ By looking at the person of Jesus Christ. For it is there that the graciousness of God is most fully expressed. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace; love brought to life in a human child. In today’s gospel reading, we are far removed from the events of the manger, and the festival of the incarnation, our thanksgiving – our joyful exulting, jauchzet, frohlocket! – that God has stooped to share in our humanity by letting his own Son be born of Mary. Today the journey of sharing fully in our human experience continues: Jesus is coming to the river Jordan to seek baptism at the hands of his kinsman, John the Baptist. In Jesus Christ, God embraced our humanity fully. Jesus, who was without sin, let himself be made as one carrying sins. And so, the Sinless One came to be washed from sin in the waters of the river Jordan, so that, as he says to his kinsman, the Forerunner, all righteousness may be fulfilled.


God fulfils all righteousness by giving himself to us, so that we may be made righteous. As he comes to be baptised, the Baptist rightly seeks to prevent Jesus from being washed at his hands. ‘I need to be baptised by you’, says John who, yet unborn, had leapt in his mother’s womb when he perceived the nearness of the Son of the Most High. Only a few verses before our gospel reading commences, John had turned away those who came laden with their burdens of self-righteousness. Had called the teachers of God’s law a brood of vipers for seeking the washing of water for repentance. In asking his cousin to baptise him, John gives voice to his insight that here was indeed the One who is more powerful than he: the One who will baptise not with water but will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus asks to be baptised by John.


Jesus’ baptism will be a baptism of the Spirit to prepare for eternal life, not a baptism of washing away daily sins, John knew. Jesus is in every way as we are, but without sin, John knew. Why, then, did Jesus seek to be washed from sins, John told his cousin. And Jesus told him that he sought his baptism, his washing away of sins with water, so that, ‘all righteousness may be fulfilled’. Born of a woman, born under the Law, Jesus was sent to fulfil that law so that we might come to know the graciousness of God. He was named and circumcised, offered in the temple as a first-born, was baptised, so that the terms of the covenant of Moses might be fulfilled in him. He whose name is ‘God saves’, showed forth that salvation by fully entering into our human experience: knowing sin but not having sin, and therefore knowing and experiencing in his own body the remedy for human sin.


And so Jesus is baptised and enters into the waters of the river Jordan. And there he enters into the death to sinfulness for all those who will enter into the waters of baptism to follow him. For the waters of baptism, as the apostle Paul will explain to the Romans, foreshadow the death of Christ. The waters of the Jordan foreshadow the grave. In seeking baptism, Jesus submits not to his cousin John to receive forgiveness for sins he had never committed. Rather, he submits to God’s Law as expressed in the Covenant of Sinai. In accepting the baptism of John, Jesus accepts the fullness of the Law with all its demands and takes it into himself, to drown it in the waters of the Jordan. Just as he later will nail that same Law to the wood of the cross. ‘Let it be so; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’, he tells his cousin, just as later, in Gethsemane, he will pray to his Father, ‘your will be done’. Jesus receives the baptism of John to fulfil God’s Law. He fulfils all righteousness himself, so that we might know the righteousness of God.


When Jesus came out of the Jordan the heavens opened. Heaven opened as assurance of the promise of grace, when he came up from the waves that symbolise the death and burial of sin. Just as when he breathes his last, the curtain in the Temple that symbolised the barrier of the Law, is torn in two, opening the sanctuary of God to the world. At the beginning and the end of his public ministry stand the assurance that Jesus is removing the barrier between God and humankind in his own body. And God’s voice speaks into the world: confesses that here is the One who has fulfilled all righteousness already – has taken upon him the Law with all its censures so that we might know God’s grace. ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, God says, and reveals himself as ‘Father’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who will make all those who follow him, sons and daughters of God’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who will die to human sin, will die a human death, so that humanity will be raised to life’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who was baptised, so that ‘all of is who were baptised into him are baptised into his death, so that, just as he was raised from the dead, they too may walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6.4).


And as a second sign of God’s promise of grace, God’s Spirit descended on the earth and alighted on Christ: marking him as the One who will baptise with the Spirit; the who will send the Spirit in his last breaths from the cross; the One who died so that the waters of baptism will be the only grave his followers ever need to fear. And because Jesus was baptised, we baptise in his name. We baptise, not to fulfil the righteousness of God. No human, save Jesus, who was without sin, would ever be able, by their actions, gain God’s righteousness. We baptise to remind ourselves that our God is a gracious God. We baptise to assure one another that God not only washes away our sins, but washes away our deaths. We who have no merit of our own, baptise to share in the merit of Christ, to share in the fruits of his righteousness: the fruits of the heavens opened, and our adoption as beloved sons and daughters of God. Children of God, our heavenly Father. Children in whom he is well pleased. Not because of our own righteousness, nor because of what we do, but because we share in the baptism of Christ.


Wie kriege ich einen gerechten Gott? – How can I find a gracious God? By seeking baptism. As Martin Luther put it: ‘the power of Baptism is such that it makes us holy, and righteous Christians, through the righteousness and merits of Christ, whenever we are clothed in baptism’. We are not saved through any works of our own. Nor are we saved through any of our actions undertaken to gain God’s favour. But by seeking to be baptised we take upon us the graciousness of Christ. By being baptised, we take on ourselves the One who let himself be made sin though he who was without sin, so that we might receive forgiveness and grace. How can I find a gracious God – by receiving the baptism of Christ, so that we might share in the new life for which Christ gave his own life. How can I find a gracious God – by becoming a member of Christ’s body in baptism, and so coming to know the righteousness of God.


And once we have received baptism, once we have received this precious gift, we are set free to share the gift of grace through our grace-filled living: by works of thankfulness, by works of justice, works of peace. None of these works will make us righteous or good before God, but all of them will be symbols of God’s righteousness, are signs that we belong to him, as members of Christ’s body, as beloved daughters and sons of God. By our sharing in the life of God, by our sharing in his righteousness, we are made signs of his grace and love in this world. As members of Christ’s body we point not to ourselves and our own holiness, goodness or just deeds, but our works and actions, our prayer and praise, our singing and our sharing the Scriptures: all our lives point to God and the goodness and grace that comes from God.


Wie kriege ich einen gerechten Gott? – How can I find a gracious God? By coming to God and asking for his grace. We all can share in God’s grace. We only need to ask for it, Martin Luther affirmed half a millennium ago. As we give thanks for the insights of Martin Luther in rediscovering for his own generation the gift of God’s graciousness, I invite you to be witnesses to the message of hope to our own generation. Be ambassadors of the reconciling love of God where you live, work and worship. Share the gift of God’s graciousness with those among you are, so that they too might be invited to become followers of his Son Jesus Christ. Seek the gift of baptism, and share in the life of God which is forever and for all generations: his greatest gift of all, Jesus, the Son, the beloved, who calls us to be beloved children of God.


© Andreas Loewe, 2017