1st Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17
Friends, this morning the Apostle Peter, in hist testimony in Acts 10, makes the Good News clear for us: Jesus Christ is Lord of all and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all
Not only Lord but a servant-Lord. A Lord who, when he met John the Baptist by the Jordan River, he refuted John when the Baptist said that Jesus should be the one to baptize him.
“Let it be for now…” he said with great love to his cousin John
Jesus, the servant Lord who received a baptism by John; a man, a prophet, a leader, an evangelist, but a man all the same, so that after Jesus had received his baptism, as he was coming up out of the water, the clouds themselves parted and a voice from heaven cried out: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Truly, Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
And, moving back to Peter and Acts, where we will spend most of our time in this morning’s lesson
because Jesus Christ is Lord of all…
because Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, the Word Made Flesh, the one in whom God is well pleased…
it is indeed true that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Friends, this morning, I would like to invite us into a few considerations as we explore Peter’s words from Acts 10. I want to invite us to take seriously these things that the Apostle has said, and to hear them not as slogans, not as old-familiar statements about God, but as the life-saving, and world-changing good news that they are. I would like to invite us to hear them as if we had never heard them before.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all, everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Just as Jesus (in the Jordan) invites us into the paradox of His Lordship; the paradox that He is Lord and yet he came to SERVE and to GIVE FREELY, we are also invited into the paradox of how we know these things.
We know these things, and we trust these things, and we believe in these things, because of the cross, because of Christ’s love poured out for us, because, as Peter puts it so in words so raw and so real, in his testimony in Acts 10:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree”
And for as visceral a description this is of the cross of salvation, for as raw and as rough as this language is, it is actually through this visceral and raw image that we come to the understanding of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. The Lord who has come to take away not only the sin of the world but our sin, my sin, your sin.
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree”
This is, as we know, how the life of Jesus of Nazareth came to an end. Years after his baptism by John in the Jordan River, after He had called together His disciples, after He had healed illness and cast out demons, after He had broken bread and shared the cup, after He had been arrested and humiliated, Jesus breathed his last word, his body nailed to a cross of rough wood.
How can this awful and heart-breaking image of a man tortured and nailed to a wooden cross, how can this image possibly prove God’s salvation to humanity?
That is the essential paradox of Christian faith:
How is it that God sent his Son to save us, to work miracles, to preach and prove to us the Kingdom of God – how could this all end in such a terrible and humiliating way?
But even though it is challenging, even though it is a deep paradox, the cross, as we know, is essential to our salvation.
It is essential to our salvation because in the same way that Jesus, the Son of God, when he arrived to receive a baptism from John in the Jordan, humiliated himself in love to receive this baptism from human hands; this same Son humiliated himself in love to receive the scorn and the ignorance and the violence of the world and to die on the cross in order to free us from the human sin that put him there.
That it was not despite his humiliating death but because of it, and through it, that we know Jesus is Lord of all and that we are indeed saved from sin by believing in Him.
Peter, when he told the crowd before him the truth that God’s only Son had been put to death by being hanged on a tree, Peter was not speaking out of his own knowledge but out of the knowledge of God in Scripture.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the book of Scripture that Jesus Himself quoted directly more than any other you will find in Chapter 21, verses 22 and 23 these words:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.
“A hanged man is cursed by God”
A man hanged on a tree, a man nailed to a cross, is cursed by God.
Why would Jesus Christ, who knew the law of Deuteronomy, who knew all the laws and the prophets, who came to fulfill the law and the prophets, why would this Lord humiliate himself by dying in a cursed way?
Friends, the true answer is that Christ took on this humiliation, Christ died in this way because of love for us – because of love for us.
It was infinite love that made “they” (that is humanity, that is all of us) kill Jesus in this way.
It was God’s infinite love and his willingness to die for us that They put him to death by hanging him on a tree as Peter says in words so raw and true.
…for as stark as these words are, for as rough and as impactful… this is not the only time that Peter used them…
In his first letter to the early churches, Peter again called to mind this humiliating and loving image of a man, a Lord, who possessed nothing but love and yet died for us:
At 1 Peter 2: 22-24:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
“That we might die to sin and live to righteousness”
Friends, we tell only half of the story, we tell only a half truth about God if we focus only on sin and the death of it in Christ’s sacrifice…
The clear Good News given to us by Peter this morning is this:
Jesus Christ is Lord of all and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name
Jesus Christ is Lord of all
Not only Lord of death
Not only Lord of sacrifice
Not only Lord of atonement or forgiveness or of that humiliating “tree” that Peter so likes to remind us of
Jesus Christ is Lord of ALL
He is Lord of life
He is Lord of freedom
He is Lord of love and mercy and grace and every good thing which is made possible by the forgiveness of sins…
How are we to think of this forgiveness of sins?
Earlier, I invited us to hear these words and these promises; the promises of Jesus’ Lordship and the promise of forgiveness of sins, to hear these things as if we had never heard them before.
When it comes to the forgiveness of sins, what does that mean?
Does that mean because of Christ’s death, we will never sin again?
Does it mean that because of Christ’s humiliation, we are made into a better class of person than those around us in the world?
Or, does it mean that because of Christ’s loving humiliation that we are free to sin as much as we want, because God will just keep removing the stain of sin from us?
Friends, God forgives us for putting our sin and forgiveness in terms such as these, if we have not done the work of prayer of inviting Jesus into our hearts.
Without the indwelling of Christ and His Holy Spirit in our hearts, transforming us, calling us to grow, transforming us into disciples, we will be forgiven for thinking Christ’s salvation is something like a magic spell or a “get out of jail free” card.
This is how the world supposes it must work:
Surely, Christians must think they are blameless and perfect.
Surely, Christians must think that they can do no wrong.
Surely, Christians must think that because they go to church and pray, they live an elevated and blameless life.
As a young man, before I received enough humility from God to stop supposing and to finally walk through the door of a church, I certainly thought these things.
I looked at Christians and churches and decided, without ever really checking for myself, that they must be judging me, that God must be judging me.
It wasn’t until God softened my heart and that I actually began to hear the Gospel for myself that I realized how wrong I was.
Faithful Christians do not exist to put down the world around them.
Faithful Christians do not go around thinking they are higher than others.
Faithful Christians do not believe they are blameless.
Rather, faithful Christians are free to live with an awareness of sin, while also knowing the name of the God who has humiliated Himself in love to save them from it.
Sin, as Scripture tells us time and again, is death.
Sin is that which separates us from God. Sin is separation from God.
Sin is the pervasive and ever-present dirt that clings to Christians and non-Christians alike – it is no less real to those in the church as those outside of it.
What we have in Christ is not a Teflon to sin; not something which makes sin not stick to us.
Rather, what Christ has offered to us in himself is the forgiveness of sins.
The great theologian Charles Spurgeon puts it this way:
Imagine a debt collector comes up to you with a wad of bills: heat bills, electricity bills, cable bills, phone bills, loan bills, mortgages, you name it.
This man comes up to you with this big, thick, nasty stack of paper with all of their red-stamped “past dues” and “final warnings” on them and he asks:
“Aren’t these yours?”
And you look at the papers, and you see your name dozens and dozens of times and you answer truthfully “Yes, they are my debts, I cannot deny it”
The debt collector, becoming bolder, demands “and can you pay them?! Can you pay ANY of them?”
“No, I cannot and I have not, but please, turn them over and look at the back of them”
And as the debt collector shuffles through the stack, he sees that each bill has noted a “receipt of payment”; every single bill, no matter how large, no matter how overdue, no matter how crushing, has been paid in full.
Confused, the debt collector looks up from the stack “I thought you said you haven’t paid them?”
“I have not. For I could not. Only He who bore my sins in His own body on the tree has paid them, all my debts; I am now dead to them and they to me, they no longer have any power over me”
This is the forgiveness of the cross.
That looking upon a humanity in love that was completely dead to sin; looking upon a humanity in love that was crushed under the weight of its sins, unable to free itself, Christ took on our death, Christ took on our sin, Christ paid what we could not by pouring out his blood on the cross, taking on everything, including the curse of the tree.
And as for that “tree”…
The Good News is that no tree, no curse, and no death could ever bind Jesus Christ our Lord.
When, out of love, Christ submitted himself to the humiliation of the cross, he did so to draw Himself lower to us but also to draw us higher to him.
Christ died in humiliation in order to save us from sin.
Christ died in humiliation so that we would not have to.
Christ died in humiliation so that he could take the sins of the world upon himself and die, as God crucified, in order to show the barely-imaginable love of God in Christ.
God was humiliated, God was mortified, God was made low so that humanity would have a chance of being raised high.
And not just a chance, but a loving and free opportunity. The opportunity to simply say “yes” to the Lord who died in our place, for the forgiveness of sins He has already bought for us.
Let us say “yes” to Christ. Let us accept Him as Lord and Saviour, let us say “yes” to the forgiveness of our sins. And let us take that love that was so willingly poured out on the cross for our sake, to take it into ourselves, to believe the Good News, and to share it freely with others, in the freedom it has been given.