The Third Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of Peter Harrison) – Series C – Luke 4:16-30
Rev. James R. Holowach

“Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death”

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

You need to ask my daughter Michelle, your pastor’s wife, to tell you about the day Pastor Harrison preached to an auditorium packed with college students from around the country…

It was really an amazing thing to see – boldly proclaiming the Word in its truth and purity – nothing held back!

He said, “You are damned sinners, one and all,” and at once, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave a standing ovation… True story!

Now don’t get me wrong – The students were not proud of their sin. Rather, they were exploding with joy and relief, because Jesus comes only for sinners – Jesus pours out His gifts only on dying sinners.

And by being told they were damned sinners, one and all, they were being told that Jesus had come for THEM!

Now, I should probably mention that it was Pastor Matthew Harrison, our Synodical President, not Pastor Christopher Harrison, your pastor, who preached this sermon, although it IS your pastor’s job to preach those same words for you!

For if the truth be told, you are damned sinners, one and all…

What, no standing ovation?

That’s fine – in fact, it is probably best, although it does bring to mind another story about an entirely different response to this type of preaching…

Several years ago, I baptized an infant about the same age as young Peter. And like Peter, that child was brought to the font dead on arrival –
imprisoned by sin, enslaved by the devil, absolutely helpless and destined for the pit of hell.

“The Image of God” in that child had long since been stripped away because the parents, all the way back to our first parents in Eden, had rejected it – They had exchanged their holiness, their righteousness, God’s love and their perfect, ordered lives for a slice of the world.

Communion with God – God present with His gifts and blessings and promises was not enough– not when there was a world to seize and a kingdom to make for themselves.

And when that first man and woman turned from the peaceful, ordered existence that had been given to them according to God’s Word, they brought chaos, destruction, and death to themselves and to all creation.

Where there had been joy and peace for life everlasting, there would now be fear and struggle and ultimately death for this man, for this woman, for their children, and for their children’s children after them until the end of time.

And so, the infant I baptized that day, like little Peter who was Baptized today, was a lost and condemned person. We ALL come dead on arrival – “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). For we ARE damned sinners, one and all…

Well… There was a visitor with us that day I did the baptism, and what I didn’t learn until later was that he was ready to kill me.

The baby’s grandfather, who by nature is generally peaceable and non-confrontational, was ready to come over the top of that pew and wring my neck for saying such terrible things about his grandchild.

Which brings us to the question: What, exactly, makes the difference between a hostile rejection and a standing ovation to the preaching of this Word?

When your pastor shows you your sin and the death you deserve, what determines whether you will become angry enough to toss him over a cliff, or rejoice to hear the Word he speaks?

What determines whether you will have liberty or death?

The answer, of course, is faith in those Words Jesus speaks today…

For fresh from the water of His Baptism and back from His battle in the wilderness, Jesus comes blasting into the synagogue, takes up the prophecy of Isaiah, and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because he has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” (Luke 4:18-19).

In other words, Jesus came to save sinners – He gave His life on the cross to rescue the captives, to give sight to the spiritually blind, to free those oppressed by sin and death.

And today, just as on that day Jesus first spoke these words, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21).

For today, Peter David Cyril Harrison, a lost and condemned sinner, has been raised up from death to life through the forgiveness of sins. Peter has been set free from the oppression of sin and united with Christ in His victory for life everlasting – just like you!

For through this washing of rebirth and renewal, God has taken away YOUR guilt (Titus 3:4-7) and made YOU heirs of His heavenly kingdom. He has united YOU with His Son (Rom 6:5) and clothed YOU in His righteousness (Gal 3:27). He has made YOU a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), holy and righteous in His sight (Eph 4:24). And He has given YOU His name and made YOU His own dear children – precious in His eyes –
honored and loved by Him (Isa 43:4).

Which is why everything is now different for Peter and for you and me and for all who have been Baptized. For in the place of condemnation and sin and everlasting death, you have been given love and peace and a whole new life in that relationship with God in Christ Jesus for which you were created (Rom 6:7-11).

You have been given liberty… And yet, you can have death any time you like… which is exactly what happens when you don’t like what Jesus or His pastors have to say about your sin.

That’s what happened in Nazareth that day Jesus came to His own with His gifts for life and salvation.

He came to give them liberty, but they chose the way of death.

Sure, they were impressed by His speaking – they thought His preaching was pretty cool, at least at first. But when He started saying things they did not want to hear, suggesting that their hearts were in the wrong place, or that far from being repentant and seeking reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sin, they were full of themselves and seeking only gratification for their bellies, they chose the way of death. They cast Jesus out of their midst, crucifying Him in their hearts even as they set out to throw Him off a cliff.

And the same thing happens to this very day.

For wherever the Word of God is NOT bringing about repentance, contrition, and faith, it is bringing about wrath. It is hacking people off!

I mean, let’s be honest: You don’t like being told you are living in sin… right?

You don’t want to have your wisdom and reason called into question. You certainly don’t want to be told “no” to those things your hearts desire.

And so, when a pastor tries turning people from their sin as Jesus did in our text this morning, all hell tends to break loose – literally!

And I’m not speaking generally of addressing homosexuality or abortion issues…

I’m talking about when your pastor says, “No, your child is not ready to be confirmed;” or “No, I can’t marry your son or daughter in the church as long as they continue living with their lover in unrepentant sin;” or “No, you really should not come to communion while holding onto that grudge, or behaving in that manner…”

For no sooner does a pastor say something like this than things tend to go very badly.

Believe me, things would have gone a lot easier if Jesus had just abandoned the people in their sin by gratifying the desires of their hearts.

In the same way, to this very day when “love” is equated with letting people do what they want, life would be a lot easier on your pastor if he just nodded along to get along, right?

But that is NOT what Jesus did then, and it is NOT what faithful pastors do now as Jesus continues to give liberty from sin and death by way of their word and ministry.

And when your pastor actually loves you enough to show you your sin and error in order to set you free from sin and death, especially at the risk of his own life and popularity, then perhaps you really should give him a standing ovation, or at least, hear his word and believe it. For you really don’t want to have Jesus slip through your fingers and remove Himself from your life the way He did those people at Nazareth.

In the end, the choice is yours… Give me liberty, or give me death?

It should be a no-brainer!

For you are Baptized. You are a new creation. You are reconciled to God in Christ for life everlasting.

And when the Law shows you your sin, “do not mourn or weep,” and whatever you do, don’t throw your pastor off a cliff – but confess your sin.

Repent and return to that life and liberty that is yours already through your Baptism into Christ, and take your places at the feast of forgiveness for life everlasting –

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.