Luther: Awakening to Faith
First in a series of six 1/7
Genesis 1:1-5 // Romans 6:1-11 // Mark 1:4-11
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We’ve reached the season of Epiphany, which means “Revealing, or “Light.” We lit candles in Advent in order to remember the coming of the Light of the World. We celebrate Christmas Eve in candlelit darkness to remember that on that Silent and Holy Night, “glory streamed from thy Holy Face, in the Dawn of redeeming Grace.” And in this week, as we move from the dawn of Christmas to the season of Epiphany, we remember that Epiphany means light. It means the revealing. It means the dawn -- it means, if we want to extend the metaphor, that we longed for the light in Advent. We saw the dawn of redeeming grace in the Christmas manger, and now in the six weeks of Epiphany, we see the awakening of God’s people.
In these six weeks, we see the God of Israel, the God of the universe and how he awakened His church of all times and all places through his servants in every age. This Epiphany, we trace the awakening of our Father in the Faith, Martin Luther. We dive into the great events that shaped his life as we see the Word of God work on him, and today we see him Awakening to Faith. For the description of Luther’s life and world, we draw from Eric Metaxas and James Kittelson’s biographies of Luther.
Awakening little by little. The Muther household wakes up pretty early these days, and some days are earlier than others. But these days most mornings start with a certain sequence of events. First, at about 5am, Amos will wake up. Then, Laura will wake up and start feeding Amos. Then, I’ll start to wake up because Laura is awake and Amos is awake, and then, Benjamin, I’m convinced, from the next room over senses that everyone is awake – they just seem to pick all kinds of things up, and then, and here’s the point, then before he’s really awake, he opens his door, he shambles his way to the edge of our bed. He gets in, and for the only minutes of the day that Benjamin sits still, we have 10 minutes of quiet snuggles. The point is, there’s a time when he’s awake, but he’s not really awake, when he’s waking up little by little.
That’s the moment we trace in Martin Luther’s life today, his baptism into the Christian faith. When all the assurances of and promises of baptism were his, yet he was not awakened to their full significance.
There is a richness and a busy-ness to the years around Luther’s life. The 15th and 16th centuries were days of innovation and opportunity. Michelangelo, Raphael, Thomas More, Copernicus, Machiavelli are only some of the giants that lived and published in Luther’s lifetime. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The new world was being discovered; whole continents were being found. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and for the first time, copies of books didn’t have to be handwritten, up to that point, if you wanted a copy of the Bible, you had to commission someone to write it for you. The world of Luther’s day was getting to be a lot bigger and a lot smaller.
But it was also a difficult time. In Florence, six out of ten infants did not live past 6 months old. In the city of Strasbourg, 16,000 people died to the Plague in one year. And people were hardened by this hardship and violence. One of Luther’s relatives was struck down in the street by a wandering soldier, for no apparent reason, and he was never brought to justice. Life, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it a century later, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Can you imagine life in that world?
Into this world Martin Luther was born. We don’t know which year Martin Luther was born – he thought 1484, but it could have been 82 or 83, but what we do know is that he was born on November 10th, because he tells that on the next day, just one day old, his father and mother, Hans and Margaretta, wrapped their little baby up, took him to the church and had him baptized and named for the saint of that feast day, St. Martin.
On that November 11th, Martin Luther participated in the sacrament that turned the disposition of his soul to receive the forgiveness of his sins, turned the disposition of his soul to the proclaimed grace and assurance that he would awaken to years after. And he participated in it before he understood what was happening.
That’s the Lutheran distinctive. In a way that no other denomination has done so well, we speak of the physical intermingling with the spiritual in the water and the Word. We speak of Baptism not so much as the declaration of our faith, but as the washing of rebirth and renewal instituted by Jesus, that makes us sons of the Father, with a water full of the Holy Spirit.
As Christians and as Lutherans, we believe that we enter into a story whose main point is Jesus. We find the promises of God center on him, on the man who did everything that was needed to be done. He was baptized, not for any sin that he had done, but to fulfill all that we are to do. He did teach. He resisted temptation. He depended on the Holy Spirit. He talked to his Father in heaven. He was man so that he could die for our sins, and he was God so that his sacrifice could be good for all, and he did all on our behalf.
You see, the Gospel – God’s work among us – began before we knew what was happening, before we even existed; it began at creation. The God who existed before the universe began is the same God who loved you before you opened your eyes, is the same God who came down into human history is the same God who delivered the goods of his grace to Martin Luther is the same God who delivered the goods of his grace to you in your baptism, is the same God who will call you on as your days draw to a close, and even as the universe draws to a close. We enter in by Holy Baptism, as St. Paul says, into the very center of the story, because we are united with Christ in his death so that we can be united with Christ in his resurrection.
C.S. Lewis writes of his conversion from atheism to Christianity as an adult rather than as an infant, but he writes in no less passive terms. In his book, Surprised by Hope Lewis recounts the very moments when he received in faith all the benefits that he had been guaranteed at his baptism: in the sidecar of his brother Warnie’s motorbike, which took place on September 22, 1931. And I quote, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.”
The story of our humanity began at birth, from a place too deep and too marvelous for words. This is the Lutheran distinctive. The story of our Christianity begins in a place too deep and too marvelous for any word besides the name of our God, in and with the water, the name of YHWH, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
And Paul goes further… You see, he isn’t answering questions about baptism out of a vacuum; he isn’t defining it for its own sake. He’s answering the question, the first question in our text, and he’s answering by reference to the very nature of baptism. He asks, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound?” Since we have the guarantee of God’s grace and favor, can we sin because we know we’ll be forgiven? His answer? “Certainly not! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” And here he comes with the answer we repeat in every funeral liturgy, the promises of our birth from above that follow us past the point of death: “We were therefore buried with him by baptism into death [into CHRIST’S death], in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Or as Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits, that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new. For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians.”
The point is that the Christian life began in the promises of baptism, continues as we awaken little by little to the implications of that walk of faith in every avenue of our lives, every back alley of our being, every corridor, every nook and cranny of what it means to be a human surrounded by other humans, in a world awaiting Christ’s return.
To ask, in essence, how does this chapter of my life draw my eyes to see my savior? Or, in other words, to remind you of what I preached two weeks ago, that I’m a terrible softball player. I won’t go into the two sad little memories I had in fifth grade softball, but I want you to know: I will never have to seriously ask myself, “How do I play softball to the glory of God?” because my abilities do not lie in that arena of life. I will have to ask other questions: how do I play basketball in a God-pleasing way, how do I run races in a way that gives God glory? Because wherever my abilities lie, there my faith should expanding, looking, and asking questions.
And I tell you that to tell you this: this is the question, for the Christian, which we ask all the time. From the time that we teach our children to walk, we are asking and answering for them “How can you use your legs to the glory of God?” You might not have said it that way, but the answer is the same: We use our legs for walking to mom and dad, not for kicking or for running away. And as our abilities grow, so do our questions grow. These days I wonder more about my vocation as father, how to pass down my faith to my children, as pastor, how to draw others’ eyes from me to look instead at our savior, as neighbor, how to live my faith among all kinds of people. And every new place that we go, every new chapter of life, every new joy and sorrow, they beckon us to ask, “How does this chapter of my life draw my eyes to see my savior?”
For Luther, his baptism was a touchstone for his entire life. After his Gospel moment breakthrough of 1517, he looked back with great comfort on the day of his baptism. “[W]hat a great, excellent thing Baptism is, which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man, and is and remains ever efficacious until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.”
Baptism is the awakening to faith, and it begins a life of opening little by little, to all that God is preparing for us. It connects us to the center of the story of how God is bringing salvation to all of creation. Baptism is the beginning of a journey to the end of all time.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town where brothers and sisters in Christ journey through every chapter of life drawing their eyes to their Savior. The troubles and joys change regularly but their children and their neighbors can sense that the question they ask and the answer they remember never changes. And so, as they continue to see their faith awaken in every chapter of life, they take the greatest delight in seeing that faith awaken from generation to generation.
Amen and Amen.
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