Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Rorate Coeli (Advent 4)


Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

A trap that sacramental Christians are at risk of falling into is that we tend to think of the Sacraments as an end in themselves. We are commanded to receive them, and we believe that they do what the Lord says they do, and so we receive them and we do them obediently. We bring our babies to be baptized. We commit ourselves to seeing them confirmed and to receiving their first communion. And then…, well? Let’s admit it, too often that’s where it simply ends. Each and every year we hear the sermon that “Confirmation is not graduation,” but then it too often becomes effectively that. And, too many babies that are baptized won’t be seen in church again until the next obligatory milestone comes around. Our Lutheran forefathers were aware of this trap as well. They even had a name for it - ex opera operato: The belief that the Sacraments are a work unto themselves, and that simply by doing them or receiving them they are efficacious.

In our consideration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism these Wednesdays in Advent we have been reminded as we confessed the Small Catechism that, without faith, Holy Baptism, and the other Sacraments, avail us nothing: How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. Plainly, there are three absolutely necessary factors in the Sacrament: The Word of God, the water, and faith which trusts the Word of God in the water. If any one or more of these factors is missing, it is not a Sacrament. Thus, it is impossible for Sacraments to benefit anyone ex opera operato, in and of themselves, for the benefit of a Sacrament is received by faith.

An ex opera operato understanding of Holy Baptism bears disastrous fruit, fruit condemned in our Scripture readings this evening from Romans and First Corinthians which warn us to consider ourselves dead to sin and flee from idolatry. St. Paul connects baptism to the Exodus and the Red Sea Crossing and to the presence of Christ in the cloud, the sea, the rock, and the manna. He considers them all to be sacraments of a type having this in common: They each have a particular promise from God’s Word, a visible, physical element, and they mark a turning point and a change in one’s life – repentance described as death and rebirth, new life, and freedom from slavery. St. Paul’s exhortation and warning in both Epistles is that the baptized must not turn back to their former life and way of living.

Shortly after the LORD’s mighty deliverance of them in the Exodus, the people turned back and grumbled about food and water, they longed for the food of slavery in Egypt, and they even blasphemed that the LORD delivered them out of Egypt to murder them in the wilderness. Because of their sinful rebellion the LORD sent poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them died. The same poison that was injected into creation in the beginning threatened them then and threatens us still – the poison of sinful idolatry and the temptation to sin. St. Paul treats the story of the Exodus not as a mere history lesson but as an example of the very real consequences of sinful idolatry: Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were.

St. Paul’s point is that Holy Baptism begins a new life and a new way of living. The old man has drowned and died in the sea, was crucified with Christ and was buried. The new man has been born and raised up having left the old man of sin dead, buried, and behind. There is no going back: How can we who died to sin still live in it? So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. St. Paul understands well that the faithful will face temptations from the evil one, temptations to turn back to sinful idolatry and death, therefore he comforts you saying, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Notice that God doesn’t promise to take away the temptation, but to give you a way of escape that you may be able to endure it. There is no way around the cross, but Jesus’ disciples must take up their cross daily and follow Him.

St. Paul asks rhetorically, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he replies, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Nevertheless, it will be a battle. You will be tempted by Satan, the world, and your own flesh and reason. Therefore, you must daily repent and be forgiven, returning to your baptismal grace, washing your robes white again in the blood of the Lamb. This we confess in the Small Catechism: “[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

No, Holy Baptism does not work ex opera operato; it is not a work in itself, but it requires faith to benefit from it and it effects a change in the baptized so that they are born again and resurrected to a new life and obedience. Yes, you will still sin, for as long as we have the corrupted flesh we will have sin, but we must not let sin reign and have dominion over us. When we sin, we return to our baptismal grace in contrition and repentance and in faith and trust that our gracious and merciful God will forgive us anew on account of Christ’s righteousness and atoning death in our place. This is the gift of God’s love we celebrate with thanksgiving at Christmas: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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