Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 21, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

I Timothy 1:2  Codex Sinaiticus

I Timothy 1:2 Codex Sinaiticus

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

Wait, what was that? Those words beginning with Grace, mercy and peace, have introduced literally hundreds of sermons that you may have heard. Those words come from the Bible, from the opening words of the epistles in the New Testament, which are in their own way sermons themselves, and examples for our sermons today. The pastor could certainly just start talking, just like a prayer can be said without having to say the actual words, in Jesus’ Name, or even the word Amen. But when you do hear those words, you should regularly remind yourself why they are there. Grace, Mercy, and Peace are yours at this very moment, for these are gifts sent to you straight from God the Father who has revealed Himself in His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit isn’t explicitly mentioned, but He is still there wherever the Word is preached purely. There is a definite order, too: Grace, Mercy and Peace. Your peace with God doesn’t automatically happen of itself, but it comes from the reconciliation that was established by the first two gifts: Grace and Mercy. Of these two does Jesus speak when He preaches the blessed invitation, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

When you think of mercy, consider it for starters using a negative, as in, God’s not giving us what we deserve. When Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, He said, “Repent.” Though it is a hard-sounding Word from the Lord, “repent” is a declaration of God’s mercy. We don’t see that connection at first because part of the proclamation “repent” means pointing out that you are sinful – that you have sinned – that you are a sinner. None of this proclamation sits very well with the old Adam that we have in us. The Gospel points out that John was forced into prison and eventually beheaded, and we know this is because he did not let up on an uncomfortable preaching of repentance. Powerful rulers wanted to silence his accusing voice. You are by nature a child of wrath – you have transgressed the will of God – this is who you are, as well as what you have done. As a result, you deserve nothing less than the venting of God’s holy wrath upon you now as well as condemnation and destruction for eternity. Every split-second that God does not do this immediately, right this very moment, is an example of His mercy.

Think of when Jonah preached to the Gentile people of the city of Nineveh, after his little episode with the big fish. How long was it going to be until the day God would destroy the people? Forty days. Even though Jonah was mistakenly looking forward to the big spectacle of a huge, catastrophic overthrow, his sermon unwittingly included God’s mercy because there was a time of forty days that God allowed for the people to repent and believe. Even those Ninevite Gentiles understood mercy because their leader said, Who knows? Maybe Jonah’s God will relent from this disaster that he is threatening against us. And so their humble acts were evidence of faith and repentance, which the Lord granted them by His Holy Spirit. When Lent arrives, we’ll hear again about the connection between forty days and repentance.

Now the invitation to “repent” may lead to at least three different responses. First, one can say “no.” This is one who rejects God’s Law and refuses to believe or accept forgiveness. Second, a person might reply, “I’m sorry that I’ve broken Your Law, O Lord, so give me a manageable list of do’s and don’ts and I will work at it. I’ll make some goals and personal resolutions that will challenge me to be better and make the grade by myself. You can even give me some grace to provide a little boost.” But even though this person lives under God’s Law, believes in the grace of God and wants to do better, yet that Christian is not crushed enough to the point of true repentance. If you are not crushed by the Law’s impossible demand, then you are still relying upon yourself, even if it’s just a little bit, and you must repent. Third, consider the individual who confesses his Sin, admits that he or she is a sinner, lays out all sins before the Lord and says, “I can’t do it on my own…God, be merciful to me.” This means, Lord, I beg you for mercy. Do not give me what I deserve. In Your mercy, grant me Your continual pardon. For this repentant sinner, in a merciful answer from God, the negative (that is, not giving you what you deserve) turns into a positive, which is a full and free forgiveness and acceptance, plus a promise of renewal and everlasting life guaranteed in Christ.

Indeed, repentance itself is a gift from God out of His abundant grace and we pray that by His mercy we may always be recipients of a repentant heart, cleansed and renewed with the Lord’s free Spirit. We pray also for those people who continue to refuse repentance and forgiveness, recalling the words of the Apostle Paul, “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).

So in God’s mercy He does not give us what we deserve; in His grace God is giving us what Jesus Christ deserved through what He did for us. The Gospel of Mark says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.'”

But what is this Gospel of God that we should believe in it? The Gospel is everything that God has done, going way back to creation and coming to perfect fulfillment in what Jesus came to do in and for our sin-filled world. Specifically from the creed we confess … Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven – was Incarnate by the Holy Spirit – was born of the virgin Mary. This is Jesus the Christ, true God and true man. This sinless, perfect Lamb of God, Who came to bear the sins of the world, did the Gospel when He fulfilled the Law perfectly, when He defeated Satan in the wilderness by His Word and atoned (that is, made full and final payment for) all transgressions of all transgressors. The Good News is that Jesus the Christ paid a sufficient ransom and then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. In this one act of real history, the eternal Lord has entered time and taken away your sins from you and removed them as far as the east is from the west. He remembers them no more. The world has been and, mystery of mysteries though it seems these days, the world still is redeemed. This is the Good News. This is the Gospel that, by the Holy Spirit alone, you believe.

In His grace, God has given you what Jesus deserved … forgiveness of all your sins, salvation in His Name, and eternal life now and forever. Grace and mercy are a prelude to and are sufficient for the peace of the Lord. This, dear baptized saints, is the Good News of peace with God. Therefore we can and may “repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Even though all of these events happened long ago, this Grace, Mercy and Peace continue today, because God’s Word continues in all its Gospel purity to this day. Even now, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus continues to keep His promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is mercifully and graciously present with His people as they gather together in His Name, even if it be but two or three. When called and ordained servants of the Word announce that you are forgiven of all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is really God’s forgiveness.

Where the King is mercifully and graciously present with His people, there the Kingdom of God is – not because of something God shows us and we see, but on account of God’s Word of promise that is spoken and what we hear and believe in our hearts. For “the Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is not just any old word, or a bunch of talk, or simply getting together as a group … for even the pagans can do that. Paul reminds us, “For the Kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

The righteousness that covers you completely and perfectly is Christ’s righteousness that is yours in Him through Word and the Sacraments. The peace that you have is peace with God on account of Jesus’ sin-atoning suffering and death. Joy is a blessed response to this Word of promise. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). What is the preaching of Christ? We just read it: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.'”

That Word was proclaimed a long time ago. That Word applies to you, not only when you first heard it, but also this very day and for as many days as God grants you in this life and on this earth. For, “repent, and believe in the Gospel” is a continuous thing. You don’t just believe once and then you’re done. You continue believing for the rest of your life. The ascending, enthroned and reigning Christ says to His Church, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of Life” (Revelation 2:10).

You the faithful have gathered today in the Presence of the Lord to repent, that is, to be sorry for your sins, to confess them, to seek the Savior Christ who has promised to meet you here, for you to trust in Him and to hear the words, “You are forgiven of all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And so we conclude where we began concerning the Gospel of Peace with God, namely, Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

I Tim 1:2 – Grace Mercy Peace

Lectionary Readings:
  Jonah 3:1–5, 10 – Arise, go to Nineveh
  Ps. 62 – I shall not be greatly moved
  1 Cor. 7:29–35 – the time is short
  Mark 1:14–20 – Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

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