Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | December 4, 2011

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

Nothing changes

  • Order of Service: Word and Sacrament, CW p26
  • Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-14, Mark 1:1-8
  • Hymns: 16, 20, 11, 13

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

You know what they say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  For all the advances science and technology have worked in the last century, even in my lifetime, life remains for the most part the same.  We’re born.  We live.  We work.  We marry.  We bury.  We die.  Oh, and pay taxes.  And it’s the same everywhere.  Always has been, always will be.  The same humans share the same joys and troubles, celebrations and heartaches, victories and defeats.  Only the size and duration of these things are relative.

So too in the Church.  People like to claim that the Church must change, must accommodate itself to the passage of time, to the changing of cultures, to the advance of the modern age.  Some of that lies behind the push for new Bible translations.  “We must make sure that God’s Word is relevant to a different people and a different culture, a different world!”  This most certainly lies behind the various liturgical trends, especially the emergence of so-called “contemporary” worship that seeks to ditch all things ancient, traditional, and ritual for the sake of “clarity” and “outreach friendliness” and “relevance.”  People always think that there’s something wrong with the Church, otherwise it would be growing faster and accepted by more people.

Those guys – and maybe that’s us more often than we’d care to admit – should meet John.  Talk about a guy who didn’t change or accommodate.  He just preached.  And preached.  And preached.  And preached.  Oh, and baptized.  But he didn’t preach all kinds of pluckily pragmatic self-help tips.  He preached about sin:  “Repent!  The ax is at the base of the tree!”  He didn’t schmaltz it up.  “You brood of vipers!”  He didn’t pull the punches, “You – straighten up!”  And only when his listeners confessed their sins, repented in sorrow, and clung in faith to the coming Savior, would he give them the water of life – Baptism.  Note those words in Mark, They were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5, HCSB).

And John held them to their repentance.  “Produce fruit in keeping with what you just said today!  Workers, don’t cheat your bosses!  Government employees, don’t cheat your citizens!  Parents, be good parents!  Kids, be obedient kids!  Because if you don’t, you’ll have to deal with someone more powerful than I (Mark 1:7, HCSB), someone who will burn up the garbage with an unquenchable fire.”

And nothing changes.  Are all men still like grass that withers and blows away?  Yep.  Someone died yesterday.  Someone’s dying today.  Is the day of the Lord still coming like a thief?  Yep.  It could be today.  It could be tomorrow.  And in between those two things God still says, Prepare the way for the Lord.  Make His paths straight (Mark 1:3, HCSB).

And so, despite all the clamoring for change and all the insisting that the modern world has no room for all this old fashioned nostalgia, the Church still does what John did, who was only doing what the prophets of old did.  Because the people John dealt with were exactly like the people the prophets of old death with.  And so he did what they did.  And because the people the Church deals with today are exactly like the people John dealt with, we do what John did:  we lead people to confession and Baptism, to Baptism and confession.

These two things go hand in hand.  That’s why we do both and don’t stop doing either.  That’s why our Divine Service contains these elements throughout, from beginning to end.  We must confess what we are always – sinful from birth – otherwise there can be no forgiveness.  Because if I have nothing to confess, there’s nothing to forgive.  If there’s nothing to forgive, then I’m not forgiven.  Is it because I’m perfect?

You know the answer.  Even though many of you, unlike John’s listeners, were baptized as babies, you do not come here sinless.  Like the psalmist you come here and acknowledge your sin, confess your transgressions, uncover your iniquities.  As the Proverb says, The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them will find mercy (Prov. 28:13, HCSB).  And because, If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him out to be a liar, and His word is not in us (1 Jn. 1:8-10, HCSB).

And so our lives are continual confession, because we continually rack up things that need confessing.  That brings to mind the words of the Church father Ambrose, Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine (Augsburg Confession XXIV:33). To withhold confession is to announce that we have no sins and to make of our Baptism something that it was not – a good luck charm:  “I’m no longer sick!  Baptism made me perfect!  There’s nothing left for me but to live however I’d like!”  Which is to say up is down and down is up and earth has become heaven.  But that makes God  a liar and John – and every pastor and teacher – useless.

Why did John come preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?  Because that’s what these people needed.  To be shown the error of their ways.  To hear, “Turn from your evil ways!”  To know that there is forgiveness and life.  And John’s preaching and Baptism offered those things.  They gave those things to those who confessed.

Why does this church and all faithful churches stand in this same tradition?  Why do we put in second place or farther down the list anything that’s not preaching repentance, that’s not eliciting confession, that’s not baptizing and forgiving?  Because no matter what people think, feel, or desire, they need nothing else than this:  baptism and confession, confession and baptism.

There’s a reason our Lutheran fathers said, “Don’t give up the practice of private confession and absolution!”  Because they knew our souls.  They knew how much like Paul we are.  I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do (Romans 7:19, HCSB).  Who here can say any different than Paul?  No one?  I thought not.  And you’re all – to my knowledge – baptized.  So, despite that Baptism, despite that very real application of God’s grace and forgiveness, still today you need to confess.  Because you’re still sick.  You still sin.  You still need the doctor.  Because the fires of hell are still very real.  And you get what John’s hearers got, a repetition of what happened on the day you were baptized.  You hear the words of God’s grace.  You receive the body given and the blood shed for you.  As you confess, those waters run over your head once more:  regeneration, renewal, grace, hope, life!  Forgiveness!

Because the last part of John’s sermon still remains true:  Someone more powerful than I will come (Mark 1:7, HCSB).  John and I, we’re nothing.  The coming LORD whose way God calls us to prepare, He is everything.  That’s why Mark started his gospel: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1, HCSB).  That’s what Mark’s about, what the Bible’s about.  Jesus. And His good news.  The good news that confessing to Him your sins isn’t a pointless exercise.  Because He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The good news that Baptism isn’t an empty, ritual gesture.  Because it’s for the forgiveness of sins.  Because there’s power there, real power.  Because He’s the LORD, the coming God who comes not to judge the world, but the save the world.  Unless you refuse to confess, in which case you stand condemned already as faithless.  And He will say that when He comes at the end of all things.

Nothing changes.  I need saving.  Jesus saves.  I need constant reassurance and constant forgiveness.  John and every pastor after him offers it on behalf of a gracious and merciful God who says, Comfort, comfort my people….Your iniquity has been pardoned….  The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever (Isaiah 40:1-2, 8, HCSB).  In the font the Lord spoke to you and said, “You are washed clean in the blood of Christ.”  And as often as you need to hear it, He repeats it when you confess:  “Forgiven.  Forgiven.  Forgiven.  Because of Jesus, the Most Powerful One.”  Amen.

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