The First Sunday in Lent, 2018

On February 18th, I spoke from the pulpit at all the services at my parish. The text I prepared for the occasion is reproduced below.

Lectionary: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Good morning,

It is a privilege to stand before you today on the First Sunday of Lent. I would like to begin by first saying that although I have been listed as the preacher for today’s services, I am neither a clergyman nor a licensed lay reader. I do not have the authority to preach. Neither do I claim to be a teacher. So, although I stand before you this morning, I ask that you do not take my words as a sermon but simply as an “upbuilding discourse” that I share as someone without spiritual or teaching authority. Wherever I err the error is mine alone, and wherever I speak truly it comes not from me but from above, for every good and perfect gift is from above.[1]

Today’s readings were centred around the theme of baptism. But before we examine the scriptures we have just heard, I want to turn to a saying of St. John the Baptist: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”[2] I would like us to keep these words of John the Baptist in our hearts today, as his words reveal to us what the fulfillment of our baptism truly means.

John the Baptist says this after his baptismal ministry is fulfilled and concluded with the beginning of Christ’s ministry. John the Baptist, who is regarded as the last of the Old Testament prophets in the East, not only accepts his diminishment, but accepts it with joy. He happily paved the way for the coming of Christ and humbly set himself aside for the work of Christ. The humility of the baptist was grounded on his understanding that “no one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven”.[3] For although John was a prophet, he was of the earth and spoke in an earthly way. But Christ, who comes from heaven, is above all, and whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.[4] For John the Baptist the fulfillment of his mission and his diminishment was one and the same, and so he was able to truly say that his “joy ha[d] been fulfilled. [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease”.

There is much talk today about the importance of fulfilling the promises we make at our baptism, particularly our vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being” as it says in our newer baptismal rite. The fulfillment of this promise is certainly a noble goal, but there is an important aspect of our baptism, and our existence as Christians more broadly, that is often neglected and obscured in our conversations.

Let us recall the reading from the Gospel of Mark we heard earlier. The Gospel reading began with an account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, where Jesus is first revealed as the Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the form of a dove. Between Christ’s baptism, where the Sonship of Jesus is revealed publicly, and the beginnings of Christ’s public ministry are the 40 days in the wilderness where Christ is tempted by Satan. St. Mark says that the Holy Spirit immediately drove Christ into the wilderness after his baptism. Why might this have happened, and what do we make of this?

Christ was not baptized and revealed as the Son for his own sake. Christ did not need to be washed by the water of John the Baptist or cleansed of sin by the Holy Spirit. The collect for The Baptism of Our Lord in the Prayer Book states that Christ was baptized for our sakes that we may be made the children of God by adoption and grace, and that we may also be partakers of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Christ was revealed to us as the Son so that we may know that it is in him that we can put our trust, that it is through him, with him, and in him that we participate in eternal life and everlasting glory.

If our baptism derives its meaning and reality from the baptism of Christ, what comes between our baptism and the fulfillment of our baptismal vows must also be understood to be prefigured by the acts of Christ. The temptation of Christ requires our attention here. Like his baptism, Christ did not fast for his own sake, for he was pure and without sin. As the sinless one Christ did not require penitence. And yet it is this sinless Christ who condescended and allowed himself to be temped by Satan, not to glorify himself but to rebuke the devil in our stead. It is for this reason that in the baptismal rite of the Prayer Book the priest demands the candidates to “renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh, so that [we] will not follow nor be led by them”. What the priest demands from the candidates at their baptism is what was done by Christ in the wilderness.

Christ’s example shows us that before we act out the mission that we have received at our baptism, we must first humble ourselves in order that we may defeat the temptations the world presents to us. If we do not first reject the prince of this world we cannot even begin to fulfill our baptismal promises. If we do not first cleanse the devices and desires of our own hearts, if we do not first confess our manifold sins and wickedness, if we do not acquire a penitent soul, then all that we do, no matter how noble it may appear to the world, amounts to vanity. Not only is it vanity, but it is an evil that can be committed only by Christians because the corruption of the best is the worse of all.

The proper disposition of a Christian is penitence. Not because our faith demands self-loathing, but because our participation in the love and mercy of God make us aware of the constant and inevitable failures of our own love and mercy. If we ever examine ourselves and see no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.[5] To say that we have no sin is not only a personal, internal failure, but a gratuitous self-exaltation by which we become incapable of loving our neighbours. How can we possibly pretend to act for the sake of others if we excuse our own sins? While it is true that we must engage with and critique the world that we live in, if we issue our criticisms without first examining and confessing our own sins we amount to little more than busybody hypocrites, moralizers that speak empty platitudes. What does it matter if our actions appear respectable to the world? Are we here to seek the approval of the world or of God?[6] If we do not earnestly and sincerely acknowledge that by our own efforts we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table of our Lord, we are not disciples of Christ but wolves in sheepskin, puffed up with ungodly pride.

It is impossible for us to ever live up to our baptism by our own means. However, our Lord is a merciful and loving God who desires the salvation of all human beings. As St. Paul says, when we are baptized into Christ we are baptized into his death and burial. But just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we can also walk in the new life in Christ.[7] To be baptized into the death of Christ is to be baptized into the glory of Christ’s defeat of death, by which death no longer has power over us. God’s covenant with Noah promised that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh”. The waters of baptism do not destroy our flesh but cleanse it, and by the blessing of the Holy Spirit we are spiritually regenerated. And just like how Noah’s dove flew to dry land, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the form of a dove to show us that Christ is our refuge and our salvation. Christ descended to hell to preach the good news to the reprobate souls of the ages. Such a saviour will not abandon us even when we fall into the blackest pits of despair.

We stumble daily. We will stumble until the day we die, never outrunning our sins. I can never justify myself. But our Lord promises forgiveness to the penitent, and we can trust his promise because Christ demonstrated his fidelity with his own life. I cannot attain my own salvation, nor can I attain the salvation of others for them. But in Christ I find my salvation, not by my power but by the grace of God. And so, he must increase, and I must decrease because it is by Christ increasing in me by which I am sanctified and brought into loving communion with my neighbour, and in this my joy is fulfilled.

On a final note, let us recall the final sentence of the Gospel reading today. How did Christ begin his ministry after returning from the wilderness? Mark recounts to us: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

May we decrease and Christ increase, for the fulfillment of our joy.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us sinners!

[1] James 1:17

[2] John 3:30

[3] John 3:17

[4] John 3:31-36

[5] 1 John 1:8

[6] Galatians 1:10

[7] Romans 6:3-4

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