Baptism: The Way to Heaven

Sermon for the Festival of the Holy Trinity based on John 3:1-15

Dear people born again by water and the Spirit: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Nicodemus went to Jesus at night and they had a conversation about how one gets into heaven. Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus is so simple and easy that he struggled to grasp it or understand it. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Yes, the water of Baptism which gives you the Holy Spirit brings you into the kingdom of God. That’s it. That’s how you get into heaven – through Baptism.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks. Surely it must be more difficult than that. Surely I must do something. There must be rules for me to follow to distinguish myself from others. Surely I must make some grand confession before witnesses, study the Scriptures, and go to church. Jesus says, no. The way to heaven is by being reborn of water and the Spirit.

How can these things be? Because Jesus says so. Because Jesus gives you the forgiveness of sins through Baptism. He puts His name on you and claims you for Himself in Baptism.

Heretical spirits will say that Baptism is not important; that it is a useless ceremony. We are saved by faith alone, they say, so we don’t need Baptism.

We have God’s Word and command that have instituted, established, and confirmed Baptism. What God institutes and commands cannot be useless (LC IV.8). Thus, God promises, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16)

What is faith without Baptism? Faith in what? Faith must have an object – faith must have something to believe – something to which it can cling and upon which it may stand (LC IV.29). Faith clings to God’s promises. God promises, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Faith clings to God’s promise that we are baptized into the death of Christ, and we therefore get all the benefits of Jesus’ death through our Baptism into Him (Rom. 6).

Of what use is Jesus’ death on the cross if you do not receive the benefits of His death? If you do not personally receive the forgiveness of sins Jesus earned by His suffering and death, His death is of no advantage to you.

How important is Baptism? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” If you’re not baptized, you’re not getting into heaven. That’s how important Baptism is.

If Baptism is so powerful and gives the forgiveness of sins and saves from sin, death, and the devil, and brings us into Christ’s kingdom to live with Him forever, why do we need anything else? Why do we seek to follow God’s commandments? Why do we need God’s Word, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper? Why do we go to church?

We seek to follow God’s commandments because they are for our good. They are God’s good and perfect will for our lives. There is no better way to love God and your neighbour than following the commandments of God. There is no better way to live than the way God created you to live.

We need to hear God’s Word so that we can hear His commandments and how He wants us to live. In His Word we also hear His promises, including the promises He connects to Baptism. God has given us Absolution and the Lord’s Supper to continually give us forgiveness because we fail to follow His commandments perfectly. He uses them to continually strengthen our faith to life everlasting. These things God gives to you in His Church on earth, and that’s why we go to church.

This is why parents and baptismal sponsors make promises to bring the child to church and eventually to the Lord’s Supper. The faith given in Baptism will die if it is never nurtured by God’s Word. Jesus didn’t give us His Word and institute the Sacrament of the Altar because we don’t need them and don’t benefit from them. He gave them to us because He knows we need them to bring us to everlasting life.

Do not neglect the means of grace that give you life. They are for your benefit. Baptism is what has brought you into the kingdom of God. God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper keep you in the kingdom of God. That’s why your salvation is sure. It is not up to you. It is up to God.

God has brought you into His kingdom here on earth and keeps you in His kingdom so that He will also bring you into His kingdom of heaven. His kingdom here on earth is His Church. Through His Church on earth, He brings you into His kingdom of heaven, because through His Church on earth He baptizes, feeds, and nourishes you with His Word and the body and blood of Jesus.

Jesus’ suffering and death for the sins of the whole world doesn’t benefit you if you are not actually receiving forgiveness. That is why Jesus instituted the church and the means of grace – the ways that He gives you forgiveness, which are His Word and sacraments. They are not useless ceremonies, but they are the miraculous way that Jesus gives you forgiveness and brings you to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

Branches in the Vine

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8

Dear branches in the true vine: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When it comes to bearing fruit, do not focus on the branch. There is nothing but despair as far as the branch is concerned. Jesus says that every branch of His that does not bear fruit is thrown away and withers, and is then gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

This makes sense. If you have dead branches on your fruit trees that produce no fruit, would you not cut them off and throw them away? Dead branches steal water and nutrients from living branches and yet produce no fruit. For the good of the whole plant, you cut off dead branches. A fruitless branch is useless.

But don’t focus on the branch. Focusing on the branch is focusing on yourself and what you produce. Are you producing enough fruit of the Spirit? How have you shown that you love your neighbour as yourself? Have you not rather loved yourself above all others? Where is your joy? Is your joy in the Word of God or in what this world has to offer? Where is your patience? Do you wait patiently for God’s good timing to save you from trials, temptations, and suffering, or do you complain and grumble against God as if He desires something that is harmful for you? The same could be said of peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Don’t focus on the branch, because a branch by itself can produce no fruit. Whatever love and care you give the branch, by itself it remains dead. Disconnected from the vine it is worthless. You can water it and fertilize it and prune it. You can give it just the right amount of sunshine and just the right about of shade. Yet, the branch that is disconnected from the vine can produce nothing. Thus, Christ says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

You cannot produce love, joy, patience, or any other fruit of the Spirit by yourself. It’s called the fruit of the Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the source of the fruit. Abiding in Christ, the vine, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in you.

What does it mean to abide in Christ? There is no way to abide in Christ apart from Baptism, the Word, and the Sacrament of the Altar. These are the only connection Christ has with us. Apart from these Means of Grace, we are disconnected from the vine and fit only for the fire.

Through these Means of Grace, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us. Baptism joins us to Christ, the vine. God’s Word and Holy Communion feed us and nourish us keeping us in Christ. Whoever abides in Christ bears much fruit.

We sometimes wonder why we’re having so much trouble being loving towards our neighbour or being joyful no matter our situation. We wonder why we are impatient or discontent. Yet it is because we have neglected our Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper. We haven’t been nourished as we should, so we have languished. We have mistakenly thought that God is working in our hearts apart from His Word, thus we have mistakenly thought we are self-sufficient branches with no need for the vine. Apart from Christ, the vine, we can do nothing. Apart from Christ we are dead branches destined for fire.

In Christ, however, we are alive. His forgiveness flows to us through His Means of Grace. Every sin we have ever committed is forgiven because we are in Christ. He died for our sins and rose again from the dead, so in Him, the devil and hell have no claim on us. Death is now our doorway to heaven. We will rise from the dead as surely as Christ is risen from the dead. Christ keeps strengthening our faith through His Word and His body and blood. He keeps forgiving us our sins so that we are blameless and righteous in His sight.

And God the Father prunes us. Pruning isn’t pleasant for us, but it is necessary. For plants, pruning is done to train a growing pattern, to improve plant health, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit. This is the same for us. God prunes us to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. God prunes things out of our lives to which we cling too closely; things that have become too important for us; things that have become idols for us.

This pruning isn’t for dead branches. Dead branches are thrown into the fire. This pruning is for branches that are in the vine and are producing fruit. This pruning is for you and me.

God the Father prunes us through sending sickness, suffering, and affliction into our lives. He doesn’t tell us why He sends particular trials our way. He doesn’t say, “You lost your farm because you spent too much time working.” He doesn’t say, “You got cancer because you don’t go to church enough.” He doesn’t say, “Your child was hurt because hockey became too important for your family.”

God doesn’t tell us why He prunes us the way He does, but we do know that all His pruning is to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. The pruning of our loving Father and vinedresser turns us away from ourselves and everything in this world. His pruning works repentance and faith in our hearts.

Pruning is painful, but do you know what? We should pray for it! We should pray, “Heavenly Father, prune from my heart every desire for riches and fame. Take away from me everything that is important to me in this world. Destroy everything and anything in my life that I hold dear until I realize that You are my priceless treasure and that when I have You, I lack nothing and have everything. Destroy and burn down everything in this congregation and in our synod that man has built, until all that remains is what You have built.”

We do not pray this way, but we should. We should pray that God cuts from us everything we try to produce on our own and that He would keep us in the true vine so that we will bear much fruit and so prove to be disciples of Jesus.

Fortunately for us, even though we fail to pray this way, the Father still prunes us and keeps us in Christ, the true vine.

In the true vine, we are continually nourished by what Christ gives to us – His body and blood, given and shed for us. Connected to Christ, the vine, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us.

Abiding in Christ, you will live forever. On the Last Day, you cannot be judged for your sins because you are in Christ. Christ was already judged for your sins in His death on the cross. In Christ, your sins have been taken away from you and drowned into the depths of the sea. In Christ, your sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

So, do not be weary or angry with God when He prunes you. It is not pleasant, but it is for your eternal good. And don’t focus on yourself as the branch or what you can produce. Focus on Christ, the true vine, who feeds you and nourishes you, and produces much fruit in you to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sin is Serious

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 18:1-20

Dear recipients of forgiveness: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The world laughs at sin. To them, sin is just a big joke. Everyone does whatever he wants, and any suggestions that God has given us His Commandments to follow with threats of punishment for not following them is laughable to the world.

This is reflected in today’s media. What sin is not laughed at? It is thought to be hilarious when children are defiant to their parents and even curse at them. It’s funny that someone keeps stealing from his neighbour or keeps doing stupid things when he’s drunk. It’s a joke that someone keeps cheating on his wife. Movies and shows often are based entirely on such “humour” to the point that we get immune to even thinking about how disgusting and sinful such actions are. We get immune to the point that when we see such things in our own families, we don’t even think of them as sins. We are in danger of sin becoming as big of a joke to us as it is to the godless world.

Sin has certainly become a joke to some churches already. The “bishop” of the other Lutheran church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, just declared this past week that God does not condemn sin. She said if there is such a thing as hell, it is empty. Sin is just a big joke to that church body. That is one of many reasons we are not in fellowship with them.

To God, however, sin is no joke. You heard what Jesus tells you to do, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Go confront your brother if he sins and rebuke him. Jesus doesn’t tell you to laugh at your brother’s sin. He doesn’t tell you to ignore your brother’s sin. He doesn’t tell you to go tell your pastor about your brother’s sin or to gossip to anyone else about the sin either. Jesus tells you to go confront him. Rebuke him. Correct him.

Why? Because sin is not a joke. Sin is a breaking of God’s Commandments. Sin is rebellion against our creator. Sin is turning away from God’s good and perfect will to the devil’s evil and wicked will. Sin breaks communion with God and separates the sinner from God. Sin most certainly can damn a sinner to eternity in hell, that place of torment and gnashing of teeth which God’s Word tells us is not empty. That is why Jesus tells you to go confront your brother who sins. Jesus does not want to be separated from communion with your brother. Jesus does not want your brother condemned to hell.

Don’t tell me you’re too timid or shy to correct your brother who sins. If someone tells you that it is good that our Prime Minister pays out $10 million of our tax dollars to a terrorist murderer, you will voice your disagreement. If someone tells you that your favourite television show is a waste of time, you will speak up and defend it. If someone mocks the Roughriders, I hardly think you’d keep quiet. So why keep quiet when your brother sins?

We can only conclude that politics, television shows, and sports are more important to us than God’s Word; that they are more important to us than our brother’s salvation. We’ve bought into the devil’s lies about what is important to stand up for and defend and what is not.

We need to repent. We need to repent because neither our sin nor the sin of our brother is a light matter or a joke. That’s why Jesus says if your brother doesn’t listen to you, take one or two others with you to call your brother to repentance. If he doesn’t listen to you still, tell it to the church. If he refuses even to listen to the church, then he is to be treated as someone outside the church, outside the kingdom of God. He is to be treated as someone on the way to hell.

So many steps. So much hard, stressful, difficult work. That’s how much God loves our brother who sins. God wants to give him every opportunity to repent. That’s how much God loves us. He wants to give us every opportunity to repent.

Repentance has two parts. First, that we are sorry for our sins, fear God’s wrath, and grieve that we have sinned when God’s Word condemns our sin. And second, that in the midst of grieving over sin, we believe and trust that our sin is forgiven freely on account of Christ.

Our sin is forgiven freely because God takes sin so seriously that He gave His only Son to die for sin. Sin is so serious that God punished all sin in Jesus. Sin is so serious that Jesus was mocked, beaten, tortured, and killed because of it. Sin is the reason God the Father forsook His Son and would not listen to His cries, moans, or prayers as He suffered and died.

You have been bought with a price – the holy, precious blood of Christ, and His innocent suffering and death. You have been redeemed – God has bought you back for Himself and rescued you from all the weight of your sins.

Sin is not a light matter or joke, but forgiveness is an even greater matter. Forgiveness of sins brings sinners from darkness to light, from death to life, from hell to heaven. Forgiveness of sins snatches us out of the grasp of the evil foe and into the hand of our heavenly Father, from whose hand no one can snatch us.

It doesn’t matter how many people take sin lightly and laugh it off. Great numbers do not sway the truth, and they don’t sway God. Jesus promises to be present where two or three are gathered in His name.

Where one baptizer baptizes one person, there is Christ among them. Where one penitent is absolved by one who pronounces absolution, there is Christ among them. Where just one shut-in or hospitalized member celebrates the Sacrament of the Altar with one celebrant, there Christ has promised to be.

Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar are no light matter either. They are the means by which God gives you the forgiveness of sins.

If I told you that there is a bank account with a million dollars in it, it would do you no good if you cannot access it. The money is sitting there, but if you cannot receive it, it is useless to you. But if I gave you a cheque book, a bank card, and an online banking password, all of a sudden you can benefit from the money in the bank account. You can receive what is there for you to receive.

Just so, there is forgiveness of sins and eternal life which has been bought for you by Jesus’ death. It does no good to you if you cannot access it. If you do not receive it, it is useless to you. Thus, Christ instituted Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. These are the means Christ instituted so that you can have access to His forgiveness and receive it. There’s not even a limit on the account! You can keep receiving forgiveness over and over. You can keep accessing and receiving forgiveness, given and shed for you. God gives it to you in unlimited supply.

Sin is such a serious matter, that God will continue to forgive you so that you will not end up in hell. Sin is so grave a matter, that God will continually forgive your sins all the way to the grave so that you will enter eternal life. Sin is such a big deal, that God gave His only Son to die for sin, so that you can receive unlimited and unending forgiveness over and over, day after day, to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.