Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Happy New Year! Happy New Year! One of the things that people love about a new year is the idea that when the calendar rolls over, they get a second chance or a clean slate—a do-over on last year. Out with the old, in with the new! But do you feel like a new you? The New Year seems a little dusty already. Even though we welcomed in 2017 just a week ago, I am already failing at my New Year’s resolution to “exercise, lose weight, get in shape, and feel great.” Yes, my New Year’s resolution rhymes, making it easier to remember and repeat like a mantra—and just as easy to forget and fail at like so many resolutions before.
How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? Are you trying to lose weight, go vegan (I hope not!), read your Bible more (I hope so!), or maybe spend more time with the kids? How’s that working out for you? Are you succeeding or failing? Maybe you’re having mixed results. By the end of January, if you are like most people, your New Year’s resolutions will have gone the way of the dinosaur: extinct! Why is it so hard for us to get in gear at the New Year? Why do we set out with such excitement and enthusiasm, only to fall back on old habits and attitudes?
We are not the only ones who struggle with our attempts at self-improvement. One of America’s most famous Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, famously kept a daily diary of virtues. As a 20-year-old man, he decided to embark upon a program of self-improvement. He drew up a table of 13 virtues, or admirable characteristics, that he wished to inculcate in his attitude and behavior, including Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility (“Imitate Jesus and Socrates”). What a worthy enterprise! Every time that Franklin violated one of his virtues, he would put a dot in the appropriate box on the page as a reminder of his need to do better tomorrow. Day after day, week after week, year and year—until the day he died—Ben Franklin kept a careful log of his progress. Over the years, Franklin claimed, the number of dots became less, indicating he was improving, although he never attained the perfection he sought to work in himself. (Franklin was famous as a womanizer and imbiber of beer). I wonder also if he was being completely honest about that last virtue—humility—while he boasted of his virtue!
The unfortunate problem is that we, like Benjamin Franklin, are sinners. We are conceived in sin, and from our birth we rebel against God (Ps. 51:5). We don’t believe his Word. We don’t obey his Commandments. We live life our way instead of his way. We are foolish, selfish, arrogant, and rude. In St. Augustine’s classic definition of sin, we are “curved in on ourselves.” And so we are unable to make any real progress or improvement in our lives apart from God. As St. Paul writes in Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18, ESV). The real problem with self-help is that we are helpless apart from the animating power of the Holy Spirit and Christ in us.
That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a New Year’s sermon, writes that our resolutions to start over are signs that “people cannot make a new beginning at all; they can only pray for one.” We have the spiritual inertia of a rock and can make no move toward God. He must take the initiative and come to us himself. Our sin will not let us budge. So God must bring us to him. If we want a new attitude, a new outlook, or a new beginning, he must deliver what we cannot contrive ourselves. We can only pray for it.
C.S. Lewis illustrates this wonderfully in one of his children’s books about Narnia, a magical world in a parallel universe visited by children from earth. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one such visitor is Eustace Scrubb, an obnoxious, beastly boy who is always griping and grumbling about his circumstances and contributing very little to the solution.
During a Narnian ship voyage, Eustace becomes separated from the rest of his party when they go ashore onto a strange island to resupply their provisions. There he discovers a treasure horde in a cave formerly inhabited by a dragon that just died.
After rummaging greedily through the treasure, Eustace slips a golden arm band up his sleeve, and falls asleep on the piles of treasure. During the night, unbeknownst to him, he falls under the spell of the cursed treasure and turns into a dragon! That’s right! An enormous, scaly, fire-breathing, odorous dragon. When Eustace realizes this the next morning, he is absolutely mortified. Worst of all, his entire arm is sore with pain as the armband, which was quite large for a puny boy’s bicep, now cuts deeply into his bulging, swollen, dragon’s flesh. Try as he might, he cannot remove it. Tooth and claw are of no avail. He simply cannot save himself.
But everything changes when a strange Lion shows up. The Lion beckons him to follow him somewhere, which turns out to be a deep well of water mysteriously built on the island. Eustace knows that if, somehow, he could just get into that water, it would make him feel clean again and “ease the pain in [his] leg” (114). But the Lion tells him that first he must undress before he gets in. Dragons, of course, don’t wear clothes, but Eustace understands this to mean that he has to shed his skin like a snake. So he scratches and gnaws terrifically at his scales until “[his] whole skin started peeling off beautifully.” But just before he tries to jump into the water, he realizes that he is just as “hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly” as before (115). He tries and tries again, yet all his efforts to undress himself amount to absolutely nothing. “It had been no good.”
Then the Lion says, “You will have to let me undress you.” And at this point, let me quote Eustace on what happened next:
“I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt….
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I’d been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I Found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again” (115-16).
Eustace went into the water as a nasty, beastly dragon. He came out as a clean, fresh little boy. If you know anything about Narnia, you recognize that the Lion was Aslan, the Son of the Emperor beyond the Sea. But if you haven’t visited that far-off country yet, let me help you understand that Aslan the Great Lion is a kind of symbol or type of the Lord Jesus Christ, who in the Bible is also sometimes called the Lion of Judah.
I hope that you see this episode from C.S. Lewis’s novel is not simply a nice fantasy for children, but a parable or allegory for Baptism. Just as Eustace’s greed and selfishness turned him into a ghastly creature (a dragon), so also our guilt—both inherited and actual—turn us into wicked, ugly creatures called sinners. And just as Eustace could not rid himself of the pain or shame of his dragon nature, so also we cannot rid ourselves of our corrupt condition.
Sin is a problem we cannot solve ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us. Someone else has to undress us. With his cutting Word of Law, Christ strips us bare, exposing all our wrongdoing in repentance. Then he throws us in and washes us through water and the Word. We go under the water one way. We come out entirely different. For just as Eustace went into the water as a dragon and came back out as a boy again, we go into the water as God-forsaken sinners and come out as the adopted children of God!
That’s why he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and rise again to give us eternal life. He brings us to the well of water called the Baptismal font so that we can be undressed, washed anew, and reborn as the people God intends for us to be. Out with the old, in with the new! A brand, spanking-new you! Not because of anything you have done or haven’t done, but solely and simply because of who God is and what Jesus did for you.
Listen again to how the Apostle Paul talks about Baptism in Romans 6:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into 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” (Rom. 6:3-4).
Two verses later, Paul describes Baptism in terms of crucifying our “old self,” literally, our old man. Luther calls it our “Old Adam,” our old, beastly, dragon-nature with its allegiance to sin and the devil, which is drowned and killed in Baptism so that a new child of God can emerge from the watery grave.
But it doesn’t end there. Baptism is not just about a spiritual death and resurrection or a ritualistic washing. After Baptism, like Jesus, “we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is not just about dying, but living again in a new way!
“What does this baptizing with water indicate?” Luther asks. “It 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” (SC, Fourth Part of Baptism). The ongoing significance of Baptism in the Christian’s life is the recognition of our need for daily dying to sin and rising to new life. Hopefully, whether you are baptized as a baby, a child, or a “grown-up,” you are only baptized once. There is “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism” (Eph. 4:5). But Baptism continues to have meaning, pointing us to our need for daily death and renewal, repentance and mercy, through the Lord Jesus. God has called us to walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), instead of falling back on our old, sinful ways.
Back to Narnia! “It would be nice,” Lewis writes, “and fairly nearly true to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun” (119-20). The same can be said of us. We have begun, by God’s grace, to be different boys and girls, men and women. Until the day we die or Christ returns—whichever happens first—we will wrestle and struggle against our old, sinful nature. Yet through daily contrition and repentance, daily dying and rising, we cling again to God’s mercy.
This is not an easy thing. Nor is it painless. It hurts to admit that you’re a sinner. It hurts to swallow your pride and admit that you have let down other people, you have let down God, and you have let down yourself. Just as Aslan’s claws ripped and tore away the dragon scales from Eustace’s skin in order to make him a boy again, so also the Lord will do a little tearing at your guilty conscience when he brings you to repentance. But it is well worth the pain. Jesus’ back was torn to ribbons before he was nailed to the cross. “And with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). I would rather be torn to shreds by Jesus and put back together again the way I am meant to be than to remain the wicked way I am right now. He kills and makes alive (Deut. 32:39). In Baptism and in daily repentance, Christ wounds us in order that he may heal us (Job 5:18).
Baptismal life is painful. But it is the only way to live. We must be buried with Christ in his death and raised with him to walk in newness of life. As Lewis puts it, “Out of ourselves, into Christ, we must go.”
Some of you are newly baptized. All of this is new to you. Most of you were baptized long ago. Others of you, I know, are not yet baptized. Yet the hope and promise of Baptism is meant to be yours in Christ Jesus. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). That is something of what it means to be “born again,” as we Christians like to say. Born again means “born anew” and “born from above.” Making a new beginning is not something we can do for ourselves. It is something that must be done for us and to us. It’s what Christ does for us in Holy Baptism, when his death and resurrection become our own, when we are buried and raised with him to new life. May his Life become your new life today. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.