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HOLY BAPTISM: A GOOD WORK BEGUN

The Second Sunday in Advent, 5 December 2021

A Sermon on Philippians 1:3-11 by Samuel Zumwalt

Philippians 1:3-11 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

HOLY BAPTISM: A GOOD WORK BEGUN

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

All of the most gut-wrenching experiences I have had as a pastor for more than 40 years now have involved children. One of these was the stillbirth of a child whom older parents had prayed for, longed for, and gone through the tortures of infertility treatments for several years in order to have a child. As the nine months after conception passed, the parents relaxed more each month and finally began to hope after so many miscarriages and failed infertility procedures. They began to prepare the nursery, and generic clothing was purchased. They would rejoice whether it was a girl or a boy. Two days before the due date, the mother began to have labor pains, and her husband took her to the hospital. After a cursory examination, the obstetrician sent them home.

In the night, the mother suddenly could not feel the baby moving. They rushed to the hospital, and the doctor did an emergency C-section. When the baby was lifted out of his mother, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The very lifeline that had provided nourishment, oxygen, and all that was needed for his growth had killed him. By the time I got to the hospital, the mother was holding her little boy with discolored face and rocking him. It was like the famous sculpture from Michelangelo, the “Pietà,” the mother holding her dead son. I wept.

The Truth About Us

The truth about us is that we are all born dead in our sins. Yes, the most beautiful, the healthiest baby is born dead. Yes, the child of the saintliest parents is born dead. We don’t want to believe that, because we love our babies and treasure them as the gifts they are. Yes, even the most devout, pious Christians think of original sin as a pious fiction when it comes to their sweet babies. But the Word of God is clear. We are born dead in our sins. We are sinners from our mother’s wombs. We are sons and daughters of rebellious Adam and rebellious Eve. It’s in our DNA. The so-called age of accountability if understood properly is about recognition of our own sinful acts. But where do they come from? We are all born dead in our sins, by nature, sinners.

So, why was John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? The Greek noun “baptisma” in Luke 3:3 refers to washing with water. John’s baptism was more than a purifying bath for Jews, those already circumcised into the old covenant. John’s call to this one-time washing of repentance was a call to turn back to the Lord God and to prepare for the Coming One, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. We will say more next week.

The Good Work

So, then, what is the good work that was begun in Paul’s beloved Church at Philippi? The good work is Christ’s saving death and glorious resurrection. He is the firstborn from the dead. Those Philippian Christians, who like us and all people who had been born dead in our sins, had been joined to the saving death and glorious resurrection of God’s beloved Son Jesus in the washing of Holy Baptism. Baptized into God’s Son Jesus, the Church at Philippi, individually and together, had His good work now at work in them. Those dead in their sins had died with Christ. They had been raised to new life in Him, yes, to the life and love the Holy Trinity has always shared. And though they remained, as we remain, a work in progress while the old Adam and Eve are dying, Christ’s brothers and sisters have been given His right relationship with the Father by grace. The Spirit will bring it to completion when the Lord returns in glory. Yes, the Holy Spirit will make us pure and blameless for the day of Christ. He will show us salvation.

Last week’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 3 was early Paul writing to new Christians; perhaps, it was even his first letter recorded in the New Testament. This week’s reading is later Paul, writing from prison to his most beloved congregation in Philippi. Paul may have no more earthly journeys to go other than that final journey which every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve must take. If this is the end of Paul’s life in this world, yes, if this is the end of the old inner man who must finally and completely die, that death that was already declared in Holy Baptism, then Paul is ready to go. He speaks lovingly to those with whom he has spiritual friendships. They are Paul’s brothers and sisters, even his spiritual children, but all of that is God’s good work begun in them when they were joined to God’s beloved Son Jesus, their Savior and Redeemer!

Abounding More and More in Agape

There is a battle going on inside every child of God and in every congregation between the old Adam and Eve and the new children of God created in Holy Baptism. We will either abound more and more in agapē, or we will grow and abound in indifference or outright hostility to the good and gracious will of God. Paul writes of this struggle in Romans 7:7-25. See 1 John 1 also.

Blessed Martin Luther also writes of this in the Smalcald Articles, his theological last will and testament: “… When holy people, aside from the fact that they still possess and feel original sin and daily repent and strive against it, fall into open sin (as David fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), faith and the Spirit have departed from them. This is so because the Holy Spirit does not permit sin to rule and gain the upper hand in such a way that sin is committed, but the Holy Spirit represses and restrains it so that it does not do what it wishes. If sin does what it wishes, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present” (The Book of Concord, Tappert edition, 310:43-44).

Baptized into Christ’s saving death and glorious resurrection, we practice the Christian faith as the Body of Christ in the world by praying daily, worshiping weekly, reading the Bible, serving at and beyond St. Matthew’s, being in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others, and giving of our time, talents, and resources. Through the good work begun in us by our Baptism into Christ’s saving death and glorious resurrection, we abound more and more in agapē, which is not about what or how we feel. Agapē is deciding to prefer the neighbor’s need over our own.

When we give time to serve Christ’s sisters and brothers and our unbaptized neighbors, that is agapē. When we give talent to serve Christ’s sisters and brothers and our unbaptized neighbors, that is agapē. When we give sacrificially of our financial resources to serve Christ’s sisters and brothers and our unbaptized neighbors, that is agapē. To abound more and more in love is to do these things, because Christ, who has given everything for us, is alive and at work in us!

So, then, Christ’s love can abound in us more and more in these ways, and the Holy Spirit can give us the knowledge and discernment to grow up as the beloved brothers and sisters of Christ.

When we find ourselves finding excuses not to give time and talent and especially excuses not to grow in the giving of financial resources, the Holy Spirit can help us to know and to discern that these inclinations are the old Adam and the old Eve clinging desperately to this world. For our old enemy always aims to build up the old rebellious sinner in us that does not want to die. The irony is that he or she will die despite the greatest last gasp efforts to hang on. The Holy Spirit calls us out of the unbelieving world, day by day and week by week, to the Source of our life, of faith, hope, and love. As the old saying goes: seven days without Christ makes one W-E-A-K!

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther famously wrote of those who do not feel their need for the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar: “… I know no better advice than to suggest that they put their hands to their bosom and ask whether they are made of flesh and blood… As we have said, even if you are so utterly dead in sin, at least believe the Scriptures which pronounce this judgment upon you. In short, the less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason you have to go to the sacrament and seek a remedy” (Tappert, 455:75, 78).

For agapē to abound more and more in us, we need Jesus, whose way John the Baptist has prepared. He is here in this cup and in this host by His word of promise. Yes, we need Jesus, Crucified, Risen, and Ascended, to come to us today as we gladly respond to His invitation to come to His table of grace. God the Holy Spirit has begun a good work in us by our Baptism into the Lord Jesus’ saving death and glorious resurrection. So… may we be kept pure and blameless, yes, found clothed in His righteousness when that same Lord Jesus Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

szumwalt@bellsouth.net

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin insert

Holy Baptism: A Good Work Begun

Praying

Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son, so that by his advent we may be enabled to serve you with purified minds; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 92).

Listening

Philippians 1:5 “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”

St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “It is as though you are with me everywhere as my coworkers and companions in preaching. Not once, twice or three times but on all occasions, from the time when you believed until now, you have shown the zeal of apostles” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Philippians, 219).

Philippians 1:6 “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”

St. John Chrysostom: “See how he teaches them to be modest. Having just given them a superb testimonial, in order that they should not feel down and out as human beings are so apt to feel, he immediately teaches them to refer both the past and the future – everything – to Christ, who will bring to completion what he has begun in them… It was primarily God’s work in them.” (219-220).

Philippians 1:7 “… I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace….”

St. John Chrysostom: “Within the very walls of his prison cell he affectionately remembers the Philippians. This is no small form of praise. The love of this saint springs not from personal preferences but from good judgment and upright thinking.” (220)

Philippians 1:9 “… that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment”

St. John Chrysostom: “There is no end to such love. Anyone who is loved so deeply, loved in this way, wishes to be loved all the more. There is no measure to love. One who loves and is loved in return does not wish that love to stop but to increase” (221).

Philippians 1:11 “… filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ….”

St. John Chrysostom: “Along with good teaching he prays that they might have an upright life, and not simply upright but truly filled with the fruits of righteousness. He is not speaking here of a kind of uprightness or virtue that tries despairingly to grow without Christ” (222).

Reflecting

  1. Do I understand that by my Baptism into Christ the Holy Spirit has begun His good work in me?

Learning

THE CREED (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

The Third Article

Sanctification

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day, he will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.

Doing

  1. Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
  2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
  3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how the Third Article of the Creed helps you to understand the means by which God the Holy Spirit gives you faith and sustains you.
  4. Consult Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 186, for the daily lessons for the Week of Advent 2 (Year Two) and read them daily before offering your prayers on behalf of your family, the world, our nation, our state, and our local communities.
  5. Reflect on the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the Word and Sacraments. If I am indeed born dead in my trespasses, what part do I really play in my coming to faith in Christ Jesus?”
  6. Worship every Wednesday and weekend at St. Matthew’s during this Advent season.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”