Thoughts on a Six-Year Old Sermon

2013-01-17 St. Peter neighborhood Jan 2013 010I was thinking of a story I wanted to use in a sermon maybe, and I wanted to see when the last time was that I told it, because I was pretty sure I had told it before.  Lo!  Apparently the last time was in August, 2007!  That was when I had been a pastor a whole year.  That was a lifetime ago.

The sermon was not bad.  Actually, technically it could well be better than my sermons now.  It was certainly shorter.  On the other hand it seems to stick closely to the pattern of sermon I heard preached at seminary.  That may be why it is better technically, but it also seems derivative.

Yet I can see that I was trying to (even then) communicate with the congregation, not preach over everyone’s head.  I’m not sure how successful that’s been over the years.

Anyway, I look at this and think that I haven’t changed much technically or theologically.  If anything I’ve gotten worse technically.  On the other hand I feel when reading it that it was a different man who wrote and preached it.  I hadn’t yet experienced very much tentatio or suffering.  The theology is orthodox, but the preacher had not yet suffered much of anything in the ministry.  I thought I had though.  It will be interesting to see what I think in another decade if the Lord sees fit to have me preaching then still.

I know what it is that strikes me as off about this sermon.  Even though it is probably better technically than my sermons now, the difference is that I can tell that when I wrote it I still was naive and thought that all I would have to do is preach it a couple of times and then people would get it.  You can also see me banging the drum about “Lutheranism”; that was back when I thought that I could convince people that they should care about being a Lutheran.  You can also see me subtly (or not so subtly) rag on the congregation for thinking they know everything and being unwilling to learn, a theme that I have undoubtedly returned to again and again.  And it has seemingly had little effect beyond making many people angry.

I post it mainly for myself.  But any other pastor who reads this and still feels like he just left seminary but really has been at it over five years may be inspired to go look at a really old sermon.

When you come out of seminary you don’t know that it costs you to preach.  I mean, the cost we pay is really nothing if we look at it correctly and don’t whine, considering the exceedingly great glory of the Word that we are allowed to speak.

But I think I didn’t really understand that it was God’s Word then, so I thought my performance in writing or speaking would do something.  That was a very painful lesson that I don’t know if I’m done learning–the lesson of running into a ten feet thick titanium wall for years–that it is God’s Word, and He has it work in spite of me (thanks be to God), and not how I want it to work.  I knew this theological concept but it was a painful lesson to learn, or begin to learn, in experience.

I didn’t understand that cost associated with preaching the Word of God.  And I also didn’t understand a different kind of cost– that it was necessary to experience pain and weakness and failure and utter inability to see anything, to know whether you were doing it right or wrong.  Of course I knew, theologically, that if the sermon was Scriptural and the law and gospel rightly divided then you were doing it right.  I hadn’t felt what it was like to have the Word rejected and agonize about your failures, to blame your lack of preparation and so forth, and to see your clumsiness in handling God’s Word.  I knew theologically that preaching and suffering went together, but I hadn’t experienced it yet.  And I am sure that that remains true.  Dr. Kleinig said something to us at the Ft. Wayne class about Exodus.  He asked whether we had suffered as a result of preaching, whether we had had major conflicts and faced opposition.  Then he said, We assume that as we get older, we’ll have fewer problems like that because we’ll gain experience.  But, he said, the hardest trials come as you have been in the ministry a long time, and as you approach the end of your years of service.

2012-11-26 plainfield november 2012 013 - CopySo, I haven’t experienced anything yet!  Quit whining!  is the moral of the story.

I wish that I could help someone else escape the pain that comes from preaching God’s Word and having to learn the hard way that it is not your Word, and therefore you can’t make it do anything, and it’s necessary for you to be afflicted by the devil so that you do not “become too elated at the surpassing greatness” of the Lord who is pleased to raise the dead through your lips.  But I suspect that I cannot help anyone escape it, except maybe to comfort someone else who is in the middle of it and let them know that it is the Lord’s work when you fail.

The beautiful thing is that it is really the Lord’s Word, even if it is despised and seems to bear no fruit.  Even if you have no talent as a preacher or a pastor or an administrator, and you appear to ruin more than you build up, it is Jesus Christ’s word that you have to preach.  And He preaches it to us as well as to the congregation.

One of the most shocking things about preaching is when, after years of everyone esentially telling you your sermons are “all right” and everyone else saying they are garbage behind your back, and when even your wife doesn’t like your sermons, somebody in the congregation was edified–maybe even comforted–and it was a person who doesn’t like you.

So it is really the Lord’s Word, and He has to keep us aware of the fact that the treasure is from Him and not from us, and therefore it is driven home again and again that we are jars of clay.  In my case more like a potsherd or a broken vessel.

But that also means it is really going to be ok, because the Lord will watch over His Word (Zechariah?) to perform it, even if it came out of your mouth and you were trying to help it along because you didn’t fully realize what it was.  His Word will do its work, and He will not forsake His servants, even though they are great sinners.  He will justify them by the Word, make them holy by it, and overcome their enemies through it.  He does not abandon His servants.

Have mercy upon us O Jesus, and teach those who preach that they may not seek their own interests, but those of Jesus Christ (Philippians).

Ah, yes, the sermon.  I forgot about it.  Here.

10th Sunday after Pentecost

St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, Joliet, IL

St. Luke 12:13-21

August 5, 2007


            You may be surprised to know that many people find Lutheranism boring.  Or you may not be surprised.  You may, in fact, be one of the people who’s bored.  Bible, catechism, liturgy, hymns—no screens, no lattes, no bass, no sex appeal.  Worse yet, Lutheranism tells you that you are by nature sinful and unclean.  Every Sunday.  And some of the hymns have 3 and 4 stanzas talking about how you are by nature sinful and unclean.  That’s even worse than being boring.  That’s bad for our self-esteem.

            So why bother doing it?  First of all, because it’s true that you are by nature sinful and unclean.  Second of all, because many of us don’t believe that we are, and even those of us who do believe it are continually tempted to think that we really have something to offer God.  Lutheranism teaches us that we are beggars who are saved by grace alone, and we stay saved by grace alone.  We live and move and have our being in grace, in the righteousness of Christ which we take hold of by faith alone—faith which is not our doing, but God’s.  And deep down in our flesh we have a major problem with that.

            In the Gospel for this Sunday, a rich man in Jesus’ parable faces a very uncomfortable situation.  The rich man says to his soul, Soul, relax, eat, drink, and be merryBut God said to him, Fool!  This night your soul is required of you

            All of us would like life and our relationship with God to be more like the retirement the rich man had planned for himself.  Relax.  Be happy.  You became a Christian a long time ago and now you can just kick back and not worry about anything.

            Unfortunately, the scary God of Jesus’ parable, who can bring you before His throne of judgment tonight, doesn’t go away just because you heard the Gospel in Sunday School 10 or 20 or 50 years ago.  God is still holy; He is still the judge, and even though you are a baptized Christian, you continue to be a poor, miserable sinner who daily provokes His wrath and anger.

            It’s not simply that you swear or get drunk or commit sexual sins or gossip or think bad thoughts.  Paul says about those things: On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  What is far worse is that the true God of heaven and earth has said: Thou shalt have no other gods—which means that He intends to be our God and give us everything we need, and we have said, No thanks, I’d rather have any other God in the world besides you.

            Jesus says to guard against covetousness, and Paul says that covetousness is “idolatry”—worshipping another God.  Not one of us here is free from the love of money, even though some are more tempted that way than others.  But the root of all these things is the same—the desire to be independent from God.  We don’t want God to be all in all.  We want to rely on ourselves, not God’s promises—even if that something in ourselves is our feelings of God’s nearness.  We would rather have Jesus as a tinker who says, “Hey, you know, you should really split the inheritance with your brother,” or, “here’s some spiritual disciplines to make you a better person,” than the Savior who died and rose again so that we might be put to death in Him and be raised up again.

            Mercifully, Jesus doesn’t simply let us have what we want.  He continues to pursue us and doesn’t let up until we’re dead—and resurrected.  The rich man got what he wanted—wealth enough to take life easy for awhile—but he still had to face the God he was running from.  In the divine service, God comes to us speaking words of judgment which kill us so that we don’t die eternally.  After the words of judgment, and after our confession, our speaking back those same words, “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean” come the words of recreation—“I forgive you all your sins.”  There is no music in the world that can match the angelic singing in those words.  God says you are sin-free. 

            Once, when I was a preteen, I somehow convinced my mother that she should allow me to leave the church premises during coffee hour so that I could walk to the gas station and buy a candy bar.  On the way back, I crossed the street only to see a Doberman pinscher come tearing out of somebody’s yard at me.  I ran like the wind across the street and as I was running on the grass in my dress shoes I wiped out.  I laid there, certain that I was going to die, and prayed very rapidly.  The Doberman ran up and I could feel its wet nose on my neck—and then it sniffed me and ran away. 

            What happened to me as I was trying to skip Sunday school is really a picture of what God does to us in worship.  He comes to us in the Law with the truth that God’s wrath is upon us.  But where the Doberman sniffed me and ran away, the law clamps on our neck and shakes us like a rag doll.  It shows us that there really is no hope for us—not just as a theory, but by wrenching from us the cry, “O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  We can try to avoid this in our worship—in fact, we all do.  This God is the one we’re trying to get away from.  We don’t want anything to do with this God against whom we’ve sinned.

            But this God who kills us is also the one who raises us from the dead.  The resurrection comes when you believe that Christ was condemned for your sins on the cross and raised again for your justification.  Paul says You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.  Christ is our life, but our life is hidden.  No one sees that we have eternal life; no one sees that our sins are taken away.  It’s hidden—even from us, many times.  Christians often feel sinful, because the Holy Spirit through the preaching of God’s law has shown them that they are sinners.  But Christians seldom feel holy, because their holiness and righteousness is credited to them.  Christians believe in the forgiveness of sins—they believe that they are righteous and holy, because they believe in Christ, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  They believe His promise in Baptism—that they have died with Him and been raised with Him.  They believe His promise in the Holy Supper—take, drink, this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

            Lutheranism—bible, catechism, liturgy, hymns—is about Christ coming to you to kill your old, self-reliant nature and to make you alive through faith in His forgiveness.  The music, the words, the order are all carefully crafted to serve the Lord’s purpose of coming to you in judgment and forgiveness.  Thank God for that purpose, because it gives you new life!

             He puts to death the old nature which is bound for eternal damnation, and gives you a new nature who lives before God in true righteousness and holiness forever.

            He sets us free from our efforts to justify ourselves.  I don’t have to pretend to be somehow not a sinner.  I freely confess that I am unrighteous every day—and even though the law of God still accuses me, I rely on Jesus Christ, the righteous one, and the blood of His cross.

            Since I am no longer trying to justify myself, old, earthly prejudices and divisions no longer own me.  Paul says, “there is not Greek and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.”  Similarly, there is not black or white, rich or poor, republican or democrat, young or old, punk or hip hop or country, because you are all one in Christ Jesus.

            Christ gives me forgiveness and He also gives me the gift of living a life of love—not love as a feeling or something that I do on my own, but spontaneous love that comes from relying on the love of Christ. 

            Love works itself out as, trusting in Christ, I am free from trying to save myself—free to think about my neighbor’s needs.

            Free to seek the good of my children and grandchildren as I pray for them and teach them God’s word.

            Free to seek the good of my congregation and those who do not believe in Christ as I tell them about the forgiveness of sins, witness to it by forgiving them, and allow Christ to use me to support the work of the gospel in my tithes and offerings.  10 percent is a good guideline for free and joyful giving to the congregation’s work; but some could give more, and some can’t survive unless they give less.

            You died with Christ and have been raised to eternal life.  You are forgiven and holy through Christ’s blood.  You have a right to eat at this feast which belongs to sons of God and which goes on through all eternity.  Don’t listen to the lies of your earthly nature, which tell you that you are not forgiven, that you can’t afford to rely on God’s salvation or on His provision for your earthly needs.  Don’t listen to the lies that tell you you don’t need the gifts Christ gives through bible, and bible-filled catechism, liturgy, and hymns.  Through these gifts Christ strengthens your faith that You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory.  Amen.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son…


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