Christ’s Power Revealed in Weakness
Ascension Day Sermon| Baptism of Samuel Robert Preus| May 28, 2006
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:15-16
Right after Jesus sent out his first ministers, he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. The Bible joins these two events. God wants us to see His power, glory, and majesty in Christ’s holy ministry here on earth among us. Just as God the Son, whom the worlds could not contain, chose to be born of a young virgin girl and to be laid in a manger, so this same divine Savior chooses to reveal himself today in very humble means – through the speaking of sinful, mortal, fallible men. Jesus is no longer humbled. The right hand of God refers to the full exercise of God’s almighty power. It isn’t a geographical location like Crookston or Fertile. You can’t find heaven or God’s right hand on a map. God is a spirit. He doesn’t have a right hand. But you can know that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that he shall reign forever and ever. This you can know because this is the clear teaching of God in the Holy Scriptures. He fills all things and rules over all. He is the Lord God.
And this same Jesus rules over us by serving us with his gospel and sacraments. He serves us and he comes to us and he makes his home with us, choosing us to be his own. He invites himself into our hearts. He comforts us. He gives us forgiveness of all our sins. He keeps us in the true Christian faith. He grants us a blessed death. He sends his angels to carry our souls to heaven where we will be with him forever. And Jesus does all of this through the ministry that he has established right here in his church. Preach the gospel, Jesus said. Preach it, not just here or there, but everywhere. Preach it, not just to this or that group of people, but to every man, woman, and child in the world. Preach the gospel. Baptize. Those who believe the gospel that you preach and who are baptized will be saved. They will be rescued from their own sin, from death, from divine punishment, from all evil, and will have eternal joys in heaven. They will rejoice in God forever as they find the purest pleasure in worshipping the One who rescued them from sin. Those who reject this gospel in unbelief will be damned. They will go to hell. There will be no end to their suffering. Whoever does not believe will be damned. Even if he is baptized, his baptism will not benefit him unless he believes the gospel.
The gospel is what we believe. Let’s pay close attention to what Jesus says. First he says, “Preach the gospel,” and then he says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” To believe is to trust in, it is to have faith in. To believe is not to do something. The gospel is not something we do. It is something that we believe. These are the only two alternatives. One either believes the gospel or one does not believe it. The one who believes the gospel will be saved. The one who does not believe the gospel will be damned. There is no middle ground. There are no other alternatives than heaven or hell. There is no limbo. There is no purgatory. There is no Nirvana. There is no becoming one with Nature, as today’s trendy pantheists like to pretend. There is only eternal joy in heaven or eternal torment in hell. Heaven is received by faith alone. Hell is received by unbelief alone.
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Jesus does not say that he who obeys God’s law will be saved. The reason is that the Bible teaches that everyone stands condemned by God’s law. St. Paul puts it this way in Romans 3:19-20:
Now we know that whatever the law says it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Many people believe and teach that if you do your best to obey the law that will be good enough for God. Nowhere does the Bible teach this. The Bible teaches that the law shows us our sin and it will always show us our sin. Those who believe that their obedience to the law will save them are not Christians. They reject the gospel. The gospel is not a new law given by Jesus. The gospel is the message, the good news (for that is what “gospel” means) that Jesus has done the obeying for us. He has obeyed the law as our substitute to give us the credit for his obedience. He has suffered on the cross the punishment for our sins so that we won’t have to suffer it. God forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake. This is the gospel. This gospel is not something that can be obeyed. A gift cannot be obeyed. It can only be received or rejected. One embraces and loves and cherishes a gift. One doesn’t obey it. To turn the gospel into a law that must be obeyed is to despise the vicarious suffering of Jesus. It is to trample his blood under the feet, as if his holy obedience all the way to the death on the cross was insufficient. Did Jesus fail? Was his obedience lacking? Was his love impure? Did he not die for us all? Or did God refuse to forgive us even though Jesus took our sins away? No, Jesus did not fail. His obedience was perfectly sufficient. His love fulfilled God’s whole law for us all. God has forgiven us all our sins because Jesus has borne them in his body on the cross. This is how we can know that the gospel is not a command to be obeyed. It is a promise to be believed.
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Therefore, baptism is also a gift. If baptism were our work, then Jesus wouldn’t have said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Baptism couldn’t save us if it were our doing. That would mean we are saved by what we do. But we are not saved by what we do. We are saved by believing in what Jesus gives us in the gospel. Baptism doesn’t save us as a legal requirement that we fulfill. Baptism saves us as God’s gracious gift that gives us salvation, as St. Peter writes,
Baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. 1 Peter 3:21-22
In baptism you see a man wearing a robe standing by a font pouring ordinary water over someone’s head and speaking words. Since we are wont to judge God by what we see rather than by what God promises, many have argued that baptism is the work of men. But they are wrong. Listen to what Luther said in a sermon that he preached on our text on Ascension Day, 1523:
But you see no work of man in this transaction; for baptism is not my work but God’s. He that baptized me stands in God’s stead and does not the work of a man, but rather it is God’s hand and work. God is the real worker. Therefore, I may and should say: God, my Lord, baptized me himself, by the hand of a man. Of this I may boast, and on this I am to rely, and say: God, who will not and cannot lie, has given me this sign to assure me that he is gracious to me and willing to save me and has through his Son given me all that he has.
Look through the Holy Scriptures at the many references to Christ’s session at the right hand of God the Father. You will notice that it is always joined to the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments here on earth. Jesus is exalted up on high, higher than the highest heavens, with all the majesty, glory, and power of almighty God. And yet, where do we find this exalted Christ who rules over all things by his almighty power? We find him in the washing of holy baptism. We find him in the words of absolution, spoken by sinners to sinners, through which absolution Jesus himself gives to sinners the forgiveness that he won on Calvary’s cross. We find him in the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper; because by his own authority and promise these lowly elements that you can buy in a store become his life giving body and blood by which our sins are forgiven and our souls are saved.
Where is God’s right hand? Is it billions of light years away, out there in a corner of the universe where no man can go? No! The right hand of God is right here. Here within these four walls, Jesus Christ who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many continues to serve his people. With power! With gracious, life giving power that saves us from hell and takes us to heaven.
The God who created all things by the word he spoke does a far greater work here among us. Greater than controlling the weather and the affairs of nations and the flight of birds or the migration of whales or the direction of the constellations of the stars in the sky; greater than any of these magnificent works of Almighty God is the work that he does in our hearts when we come to his house to find him. Through the holy gospel and sacraments God creates, sustains, strengthens, and purifies our faith. “Whoever believes,” Jesus said. And when we doubt, he send us his Holy Spirit to spark to life the dying embers to keep us in the faith of our baptism.
Jesus claimed all power in heaven and on earth just before sending out his ministers to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. If you want to see Christ’s power, you must look under the cover of weakness. On the cross Jesus appeared helpless, but there it was that he took away our sin. We see little Samuel Robert Preus. He weighs less than seven pounds. He can’t talk. He can’t walk up to a stage and pray a prayer inviting the Lord Jesus into his heart. He can’t confess. He can’t really do much of anything. He’s just a little baby. But don’t let the weakness of this infant fool you. God’s almighty power is at work here among us today. A little baby who can do nothing but receive care from others receives the power of God unto salvation in this sacred washing. The water you see is joined by God’s almighty promise to his saving gospel. Jesus became a baby to redeem babies. Today little Samuel puts on Christ. He is united with the death and resurrection of Christ. He is adopted into God’s family to live a live of daily repentance and forgiveness, a live hidden under Christ’s suffering and weakness, even as Jesus pleads for him before the throne of divine grace in heaven.
“He who does not believe will be condemned.” Heed the warning. Living in sin without repentance and neglecting the gospel and sacraments will destroy faith. Listen to the warning, but even the warning contains a promise. “He who does not believe will be condemned.” Who will be condemned? Not the one who sins much for a long time; not the one who fell again into sin after confessing the faith; not the one who has hated, coveted, committed adultery, lied, killed, slandered, and mocked God. No, only he who does not believe will be damned. Unbelief is the only sin that does indeed damn us forever, because Jesus Christ has taken away all of our sin – all of it – all of the sin of all of the sinners in the entire world. He has taken it all away. This is the gospel. This is what holy baptism gives us. So we return in humble repentance to our baptism every single day of our lives. In these sacred waters we find the Jesus who died for us, who rose from the dead, and who ascended into heaven. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He lives to intercede for us. He displays to our Father in heaven the obedience he rendered for us. He is our Mediator. He pleads for us. Our Father hears his plea and graciously forgives us our sins and delivers us from every evil. By his divine intercession Jesus guarantees that we remain God’s children and heirs of everlasting life. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved. Grant this, Lord, unto us all.