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Monthly Archives: February 2022

The Truth About Being A Prodigal and Why You Never Want to be One

[Reposted]

Prefatory material:

Should pastors who fall into grave public sin continue in the ministry?

This has lately become an increasingly talked-about topic. Most recently, people following the public debate on the issue could read dueling articles titled “Grace for the Disgraced: Showing Forgiving Mercy to Former Ministries” and “Real Sin. Real Forgiveness. Real Faith. Real Fruits of Repentance”.

I highly recommend reading these articles side by side (here is Martin Luther’s view of the matter as well). and I cannot recommend this piece by Quamdilexilegemtuam (or Quam for short), strongly enough.

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By Quamdilexilegemtuam

Much ink has been spilled and much oxygen wasted on the “testimony” of the so-called prodigals among us.  As a former prodigal myself, let me assure you, there is nothing glamorous nor beneficial in choosing to live a life of sin and rebellion.  Indeed, quite the opposite is true.

To begin, let’s get very clear on an oft overlooked and monumental fact.  Choosing to be a “prodigal” is choosing to abandon faith.  Lest we forget what abandoning faith ultimately means, let me spell that out in no uncertain terms.  Abandoning faith means choosing a lifetime of war with God and an eternity in hell.  It is a deception of the highest order to claim that abandoning the faith is somehow a “necessary evil” that aides in ultimately strengthening faith.  That simply is not true.  The notion that we cannot be saved by our works, yet we can be saved by our sin – that the only thing our salvation requires is our sin – is patently unbiblical.  It is a direct violation of the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 6 and in other places.  It is a blasphemy of the cross of Christ.

You may argue back, “But without our sin, the cross would not have been necessary!  It’s not the healthy that need a physician but the sick!”  True enough.  However, we distort these truths when we arrive at the conclusion that we need somehow to experience the heights of sin and rebellion beyond what’s already present in order to qualify for the cross and the aid of The Physician.  Simply being born in sin and acting in accord with that sinful nature is plenty to make us suitable for the Gospel, yet our sinful nature thinks that we must sin all the more that grace might abound.  Fundamentally, this is a failure to recognize our own sin.

Now, some might make the claim that we’re all prodigals at some level.  I disagree with that reading of the parable from St. Luke’s Gospel.  This is clearly a case of a man who was in the household of faith and chose to leave.  Not everyone who is in the Church does this nor should they.  The lesson for those who have remained faithful is threefold.  One, it is a warning not to abandon faith.  Two, it is a lesson on the great mercy of the Father.  Third, it is an exhortation to continually recognize the Father’s great mercy extended to us even as we remain faithful sons that are still in need of forgiveness.

I believe it’s no accident that St. Luke records for us the incident at Simon’s home in Luke 7 in order to prepare us for this parable in chapter fifteen.  The point of Jesus’ teaching there is not that Simon needed to go out and engage in manifest sin.  The point Christ was making was that Simon needed to recognize his own sin and be grateful that his many sins were forgiven.

To be sure, no prodigal thinks prior to their apostasy, “Oh, I don’t have enough sin.  I need to go out and do some ‘wild living’!”  Instead, those at the greatest risk of abandoning the faith generally fall into two categories:  one, a legalistic camp — believing a life can be lived on this side of glory with no sin and two, an “all is grace” camp – believing that a reformation of life as a Christian should, at best, not be emphasized.  Both potential prodigals ignore the clear exhortation of Holy Scripture to “take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor 10).

The “legalist”, thinking himself to be perfect, ignores his daily need of the Gospel.  The “all is grace” man ignores his need to strive, work, and discipline himself in his sanctification.  One day the “perfect man” is confronted with a sin he cannot bear up under because he has so neglected the Gospel.  The “grace man” falls into a pattern of sin that destroys faith because he has so neglected the seriousness of his sin.  These sins that lead to apostasy are generally sudden, manifest, and utterly devastating to both the prodigal and everyone around him.

Adding to this, if a prodigal does return to the faith, he often falls into the opposite ditch or goes deeper into his former error.  The legalist, reacting to his former situation, all but ignores sanctification or he tries to double down on his perfectionism.  The more libertine fellow will often do the opposite; seek to guard against sin only and neglect the Gospel or, attempting to justify his rebellion, put forth a recapitulated version of his former antinomian theology.  Put simply prodigals tend to experience a pendulum swing from one extreme to the other.

Take “Dave” for instance.  Dave was an all-American Christian man, a pastor, and eventually a teacher at his denomination’s college.  All he cared about was making sure he followed the commands of Holy Scripture and of his success as a college professor.  One day Dave is injured while on his daily bike ride and his doctor prescribes a muscle relaxer.  Dave becomes addicted.  Instead of turning to the Gospel for help, he determined all was lost by his moral failure and chooses apostasy instead of forgiveness.  Fortunately, Dave returns to the faith, however there’s a problem.  Instead of retaining his former love of God’s law, he completely abandons it in favor of an “all is grace” antinomianism.  Or, conversely, Dave decides that this time, he will try harder than ever before not to succumb to addiction and continue to all but ignore the Gospel.

Then take “Chris”.  Chris is popular, good-looking, and an elder in his local parish.  He teaches one of the adult bible study classes where his exposition of the Gospel is virtually irresistible.  Unfortunately, his “all is grace” message has fueled a vice of his – kleptomania.  He begins robbing liquor stores.  Eventually Chris is caught and is disciplined by his church.  Like “Dave”, instead of seeking forgiveness, Chris goes prodigal.  After some time, Chris does come to his senses and returns.  Only this time, he is going to take God’s law seriously.  Never mind all of this “grace” stuff.  Chris is going to follow the Law.  Or, conversely, Chris will decide that he didn’t get grace enough.  Now he thinks that because of his descent into gross and manifest sin, he is not only qualified to teach bible class, but is more qualified than anyone to be in the pastoral office.

Clearly, both “Dave” and “Chris” have it all wrong as prodigals.  As we will see, the returning prodigal still must deal with temporal consequences.  This might include, for defrocked clergymen who have betrayed Christ’s Church, to remain out of the ministry for a very extended period if not for a lifetime.  Like the situation regarding salvation, being an apostate does not further qualify a man for ministry over those who, while still sinners, have remained in the faith.  At any rate, we observe here that not only going prodigal, as it were, has no benefits to faith, it is also a detriment when said prodigal returns.  This is especially true when that man is attempting to enter into a formal ministry capacity.

Furthermore, what is most troubling about the returning prodigal is that it seems they are making attempts to salve their damaged consciences with another gospel.  (This would be a good example of the “all is grace” prodigal slipping deeper into his former error or the “legalist” reacting against his previous Gospel-less life.) This “gospel” tells them that somehow their sin is necessary because it brought them to a fuller understanding of the true Gospel.  Or that they never really understood the Gospel before they fell headlong into sin.  Furthermore, the claim is made that those who haven’t rebelled can’t understand the cross of Christ as deeply as a sin-scarred prodigal can.  Some intimate that they are better and more qualified teachers of the Gospel than men who have been faithful.  Moreover, this attitude perpetuates the lie that the Gospel has no power to transform men’s lives for the better; that there is no “getting better” as a Christian.  There is only the greater realization of how evil we really are.  For those in the “prodigal works salvation camp”, if you will, the entire Christian project is simply becoming accustomed to the justification in Christ we enjoy as Christians.  In other words, for the hyper-grace prodigal, the only “good work” we can do as Christians is to get more fully acquainted with our Justification.  In his mind, anything further amounts to legalism.

Additionally, I am frequently stunned at the surprise of the prodigals who aren’t welcomed back into the fold with open arms.  Totally unwilling to recognize the damage his own sin caused, the prodigal is quick to point out how his faithful brother mistrusts him.  We prodigals tend to condemn our faithful brothers for not being as gracious and welcoming as the Father.  It’s somehow permissible if we sin all the day long, yet we condemn our brothers for the sin of not being perfectly forgiving?  That’s hypocrisy.  If we as prodigals want forgiveness from our brothers, we too must be willing to give some grace to them – especially those whom we have betrayed the most.

I am reminded here of a relationship in my own life with a faithful brother who I hurt quite deeply with my sin.  While he never gave up on me, he simply would not allow me back in his life until he was convinced that I’d been brought to genuine repentance.  In this case, what my friend did with me was right, good, and wise.  But sometimes people are simply hurt by our sin such to the degree that it’s difficult to forgive the offending brother.  Prodigals, like me, should allow those who have been hurt by our sin this latitude.  We should recall that we have been forgiven many sins and that if a brother falters in the sin of unforgiveness, we too should extend him grace.

Moreover, the prodigal must take into account that it is perfectly legitimate for offended brothers to both forgive us all the while treating us with caution.  It is equally legitimate for certain brothers to mete out temporal punishment to us if they are in a proper position of authority to do so.  So for instance, a pastor who falls into manifest sin must be willing to undergo that church’s discipline process.  Instead of fleeing or decrying such discipline as “unforgiveness”, that man should, if he is genuinely repentant, embrace such discipline as from the Lord.

Finally, what many don’t realize about prodigals is that they will live with regret and shame the remainder of their lives.  As stated, I believe that some will try to salve those emotions and memories by falsely believing that their sin was somehow necessary.  A person can only do that exercise so long before he realizes such efforts are akin to holding your breath.  One day, the brutal reality will hit you.  You abandoned the faith and there was not a single shred of what you did that was good, let alone profitable to faith.  You didn’t earn a higher place in understanding salvation.  All you did – every bit of it – was evil and corrupt to the core.

Despite all of this, God be praised that while we were still a long way off, our dear heavenly Father ran to embrace us once again.  And that really is our only hope.  My son teases me because sometimes I weep during the singing of the Agnus Dei after the consecration of the elements.  It goes, “Oh Christ thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world.  Have mercy upon us.”  This moment is particularly striking because I realize I cannot in any way justify my sin and that I need One who can take it away.  My sin served no purpose.  It was stupid.  Irrational.  It hurt countless people who I said I loved.  Yet the Father still sees fit to welcome me back with open arms for the sake of His Son.  He called off the war, despite my best efforts to destroy Him and everyone around me.  He robes me with the robes of a son.  And now, far from thinking that sin and rebellion are what is required, my Father empowers me with His own Son’s body and blood and the preaching of His word to be the man I was created to be; a man who loves His law and His commandments.  I can truly put my hand to the plow in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to love much because I have been forgiven much all while recognizing that it didn’t require me abandoning the faith.  The Father’s love and grace was always there.

Here, I am reminded of the words the Father spoke to the older son.  “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Not only did the older son struggle to believe this about his Father, but I believe the younger son did as well.  This is what initiated his leaving.  May all of us grasp tightly to this truth whether faithful or former apostate:  by the death and resurrection of Christ and the forgiveness of all our sins, all that the Father has is now our inheritance. May we both live in accord with that truth as well as continually recognizing our daily need for our Father’s great mercy and grace.

FIN

Image: http://www.freebibleimages.org/

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Do you Really Want to Know What Love is?

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“But love your enemies, do good to them… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

–Luke 6:35

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What is love?

Back in the “awesome 80s”, when I was young, love songs by “rock-and-roll” bands were all the rage.

I particularly remember one very catchy and memorable line above all, from the group Foreigner:

“I want to know what love is. I want you to show me…”

When I was teaching a high school religion class in the nation of Slovakia several years later, I introduced the topic of love to the class by starting to play that song from a “boom box,” dramatically turning around, and quickly writing that line from the song on the blackboard… The class ate that up. Probably all they remember from that day…

If you do a Google search, love define, it says the noun love is “an intense feeling of deep affection” or “a great interest and pleasure in something.”

The verb’s definition is “to feel deep affection for (someone)” or “to like or enjoy very much”. What this means, of course, is that we can say things like “I love my wife” and also “I love chocolate ice cream” and not think there is anything too strange about this….

The Greeks, you have probably heard, did not just use one word for love, but four: To quickly review, they are “Eros, (romantic love), Phileo, (enjoyment, fondness, friendship), Storge (family loyalty) and Agape (unconditional love with stick-ability)…”[i]

The great English author C.S. Lewis, while writing his own book on the topic of love, or, the loves, had an interesting experience. I quote from a summary of that book:

“When [he] first set out to write about love, [Lewis’] thesis was “God is love” (as St. John writes in the Bible). Therefore, he divided natural human loves into two types—Gift-love (which is God-like, because God is self-giving) and Need-love (which is unlike God, because God lacks nothing). Based on this distinction, Lewis planned to praise Gift-love and criticize Need-love. However, he soon realized that things are more complicated. For one thing, human beings never lose their need for God, and this is the way God intends it to be…”[ii]

The Bible speaks of God’s love for us in terms of phileo, again, “enjoyment, fondness, friendship”, and agape love. Of Agape, one writer says this:

“Agape puts the beloved first and sacrifices pride, self-interest and possessions for the sake of that beloved. This is the love that God has for us which inspired him to sacrifice His son and for His son to obey and sacrifice himself. It is the kind of love we are commanded to have for one another. It is a love of supreme greatness…only Agape is free from the error of our humanity. Agape is the glue that holds the other loves fast and gives us the wisdom and patience when the other loves fail.”[iii]

We could go on saying much more about love Some have pointed out how in order to “do love” one needs to have another person, a community, and this explains why only the Christian’s God, being Tri-une, can actually be described as being love itself. In other words, God is love because He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And of course, the world isn’t wrong to associate strong feelings of care and affection with love!

And yet, at the same time, when the Bible speaks of love, it speaks primarily in terms of actions…

This is why even though I’ve heard many definitions which I think highlight an aspect of love, the best definition of love is this: “to seek the good of the other, and to take actions – sometimes very difficult – to ensure this…”

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Such a definition of love goes against the grain of what our culture today accepts.  

Many, especially many elites for example, might be hesitant to say that there is any real goodness in the first place – at least that we can consistently know across cultures and history.

In other words, what is good evolves, and so defining love the way I have would be problematic from the start!

Everything is “socially constructed,” they might say.

Nevertheless though, practically speaking, we know that people certainly do have their own ideas of what is good now; what we could call good actions today.

And even if they might give lip-service to ideas like tolerance, free speech, and self-determination for a while, they also, like any other human being, will end up condemning some actions.

In fact, we now know that they will even find some ideas of goodness that have been absolute staples throughout world history as being “beyond the pale”!

For example, in Finland, a pastor and a politician are currently being criminally tried for a small booklet they wrote in 2004 insisting that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that according to the Bible homosexual acts are therefore objectively sinful. This, their accusers, say, is “hate speech.”[iv]

So, what is considered goodness today, as matters currently have “evolved”? Well, perhaps the well-known rapper Eminem – who just “took the knee” in the Super Bowl last week – gets pretty close to articulating a widely-held modern ethic when, many years ago already (at least ten years ago) he said this:

“I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Simple as that.”

In a sense, Eminem is simply voicing a form of the Golden Rule, that, in its own way, has Christian roots. Before Christ, teachers like Buddha and Confucius were content to express this rule in its negative form: “Don’t do to other people what you don’t want them to do to you.”[v]

Jesus Christ, of course, said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” – found in our Gospel reading today – and many people will at least pretend to respect and follow this rule for very good reason, even if they don’t actually do it very often…

Indeed, this is the way it goes. And here, the “social constructionists” are, in this sense, very wrong. For no matter how far man gets from God, they are going to keep coming back to realizations like Eminem’s. Namely, that there is much truth in the very simple Golden Rule, even if what it actually demands of us in this or that situation is not always that easy to figure out….[vi]

For we can’t escape what it means to be men and women, as God’s creatures. We know there is something called love, and there is something called justice, and we persistently must reason about how these two things go together….

The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid for instance, writing in the 18th century, wrote the following:

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

Again, these are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to our nature, our properly-functioning human being.

So there is a fallout of sorts from Adam and Eve’s experience of “the Fall” in the Garden of Eden. We still know a bit about justice and love and God, as, for example, all people the world over are given joy by God (see Acts 14, also Psalm 104:15)… and hence are going to experience feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving from time to time…

And regarding goodness and love, the wisest of the worldly-wise  know it is not merely a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of thing, a mere “tit-for-tat”, a “quid pro quo”… it is indeed often about gifts given and received across time, sometimes over years…

Love, or need love, is a gift from God all people know. The non-Christian couple can have a happy and stable relationship across time. The caddy of the golfer who pays him can have a real admiration, respect, and affection for his boss. And, as Jesus says in our reading today, sinners love those who love them…

And yet, it is about gifts to a limit…

Must not reciprocity come at some point?!

As Romans 3:23 reminds us, all of us fall short of the glory of God… The glorious God who really did love us, his enemies, and is always eager to forgive, and hence, create relationship…

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Yes, our love is fallen.

Sinful man cannot comprehend the love of God.

This is why, for years, human beings, knowing their guilt and knowing the divine nature, sacrificed animals to their gods in their formal religions. And even children.

And it is why when the going gets tough, people are so ready to sacrifice others today in all kinds of way: as scapegoats, for example… “to throw [this or that person] under the bus” as we say. Someone has to pay the price, the cost, for our sin.

The Bible, on the other hand, condemned such acts of the nations around them – particularly the child sacrifice – and the animal sacrifices that God prescribed for His own nation, Israel, were to be seen more as provided than demanded.

As Abraham answered his son Isaac before God tested his faith like never before: “God will provide the sacrifice…”

No, these animal sacrifices were unique in their ultimate meaning: the blood of lambs, for example, pointed to the Lamb of God who God freely gave to take away the sin of the world, and hence the blood from the sacrifices really forgave their sins.

Again, recall that the Bible asserts that there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. And so the Father truly offered His Son, His only Son, to redeem us.

This is what our worship is all about really. Remembering and exulting in and participating in this truth!

And therefore, also offering God gifts ourselves as we receive those He continually gives to us in this worship service, this holy service where He first serves us…

And yet, in our society today, how much do we “get it” – this “holy service” this “Divine service”? Maybe, “buying into” in a modern consumerist society – where “we go out of our way to improve our wealth levels, comfort levels, physical appearances” – we have gotten too used to doing the things we do for personal benefit… (Harold Ristau).

Not too long ago, someone sent me a link to a sermon online. It happened to be from an old friend in seminary. He is a professor now, and made some very good insights, I thought, about some of the problems with modern Christian worship. It is very good, and as I read large portions of it to my family a couple weeks ago, I read it to you now:

“In other cultures, religion is more about giving and sacrificing. Yes, it’s a worship driven by fear not love. But there is a sense, in the best versions, that the creatures owe the creator worship and praise; and he owes them nothing. Theoretically, even if there wasn’t an afterlife, it would still be worthwhile going to the temple, to pay respects, give thanks and adore God. For, ‘Lord, I love the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells.’ We love it in itself and not just because we get stuff there, even though what we get there—the gracious and amazing gifts of God—is obviously necessary for our salvation.

In other words, our notion of perceiving church as a place where we ‘get stuff’, even in Lutheran circles, has sometimes deprived us of the beautiful sentiment of going to church to adore our Lord as we encounter His majesty. And believe it or not, in our going to church ‘to get’ attitudes, we can make an equally works-righteous error as the worshippers in false religions, since our getting stems from a culture of entitlement. We deserve a stress-free retirement. We deserve a high wage. We deserve high marks ….

We deserve our “blessings”. For when it comes to the Gospel, it can also become about getting something we deserve, even though we may not believe we need to work for it.

Isn’t it a peculiar observation of the human condition that we are more apt to appreciate and value those things which we don’t feel entitled to? After all, when you are entitled to something, when you believe that you deserve something, you control that something. You get shocked when it is taken away from you, or told that you are not entitled to it … things like civil or human rights (as is how many Lutherans have felt over the last few months and are expressing these concerns in Ottawa as we speak). For all of us, we don’t value those things that much, think about it them much, until we feel like those entitlements are being threatened. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we didn’t believe that we were entitled to all the wonderful gifts that God distributes to us in His holy house, we would be more eager to attend and receive. People were horrified by the closure of churches; but they didn’t line up to enter when they were ‘open for business’, so to speak. I think it’s safe to say that there has been more running away from, rather than running to, our Father’s house and family meal over the last two years. Yet if we really valued what happens in the divine service, we would celebrate it every week, as the Bible and Confessions instruct, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t show up late or find excuses to skip, avoid, or reschedule, right? We would faithfully say our prayers in the pews in preparation instead of reading the news in the bulletin; we would sing hymns with zeal, instead of mumbling the words, or arriving late for [worship]; we would focus on Jesus instead of getting distracted by meandering thoughts, or tempted to take the time to reflect upon [other things that are interesting to us], wouldn’t we? In other words, none of us values the means of grace as much as we ought. Yet God does, and that counts the most….” (end quote from Ristau)

Our God is a God of love, and therefore, of action – even as this is often in the form of simple and humble action, hiding His full gloriousness behind things like the bread and the wine that partake of at this altar…

He shows up to personally forgive us, in effect laying His hand on each one of our heads as He forgives us our sin as we consume His body and blood.

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Again, we know that external actions go a long way in this world – even humble and simple actions sometimes! – and even if the world is often wrong in promoting actions that seem to be of personal benefit to us, it is right in pointing out the importance of action: 

Benjamin Franklin said “Well done is better than well said,” and we of course, take it from there…

“You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”

“Put up, or shut up.”

“Show me, don’t tell me.”

“People lie, actions don’t.”

“Don’t just talk about it, be about it.”

“Actions speak louder than words.”

The world recognizes the importance of strong action. While one website I was looking at again puts the focus on one’s personal power and self-development it nevertheless made this point in terms a lot of people would understand.

“People speak a lot and do very little. Be it business, work, or personal life, you should always do things which you say. You should honor your words and be a person of integrity. By doing so you ensure that people trust you and your actions. Actions should always match your words. This is a sign of strong leadership and character.”[1]

And, there is something about action in the text I chose this morning, for example, as well:

…love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

So, interestingly, even as it is the opposite of the world in terms of the expectation that our actions should somehow earn God’s favor, attention, and salvation, the Bible nevertheless promotes a similar kind of wisdom as the one that we see in the world: action is critical, and our actions, among other benefits, communicate to others our beliefs, attitudes, and inspire others. 

The Bible puts it this way: a good tree is known by its good fruit.

In other words, the tree will *be* what it is… When a Christian mother and father urge their child to act like a Christian, they are, in effect, reminding him – who, like all of us, has a sinful “old Adam” – to act in accordance with their primary identity, the identity that God has freely given them…new creature in Christ! Child of God![vii]

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As faith in God grows… as it comes to better know God in the person of Jesus Christ… it comes to better know and understand the true nature of love, that is, Divine love.

All the things from our Gospel reading this morning in Luke 6 come to make better sense to us… we want to do the kinds of things Jesus talks about. We too, like our father in heaven, naturally want to be “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

And the actions that we find ourselves doing will not only look right on the outside to the people of God, but increasingly will be right on the inside, resembling the I Corinthians 13 impulses that Paul speaks about. After saying, for example, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” he goes on to proclaim:   

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…”

As we grow in as Christian, we love not because of what love does for us. Or because of fear of punishment or hope of reward. But we love others, God and man, for their own sake.

I’ll say this though: both sections of Scripture like Luke 6, today’s reading, and I Corinthians 13, with their emphases on hard actions and wholly pure motivations respectively, can at times leave us feeling a bit insufficient, and not only this, but wholly condemned…

Yes, they are actions that we should do – and again, I think these two passages taken together, from Luke 6 and I Corinthians 13, are more or less the best descriptions you could possibly give of a perfect life in the fallen world!

And no, we do not do them, or do them as we ought, but fall short of the glory of God.

For even insofar as we’re new creatures in Christ, we only begin to do them as we ought…

And yet, Jesus Christ pulled it off. And not for His own benefit. His was a perfect life and innocent death for us…

And this, my friends, this is a life that is now ours as well. In Him, we share in all the blessings that He has won by living in perfect love… So we could be together forever.

It is the ultimate picture of what love is.

His life and death for us, and then credited to our account… as we are baptized into Him and enter into this eternal love! 

Buried!

Risen!

Ascended into heaven and sitting at the very right hand of God!

Again, this is the life that He has lived on our behalf, and that is ours, and this is the life that He has called us to as well!

Let me go back to my wonderful pastor friend to give him the last word:

“Our Lord Jesus always shows up [for our worship, for the ‘Divine Service’]; He’s the first one there, never late, and with no locked doors barring access to His grace. Though we are faithless, He remains faithful. He is always well prepped, and–without exception–eager to receive, receive you, into His holy presence as invitees to His holy meal. This faithful steward of His own mysteries has prepared your heart, even when you haven’t. And even though He owes you nothing, He offers you everything. Just fix your eyes upon His crucified body. For He values you. He values you so much that He won’t let you get away with departing with anything but His peace. That’s right: His peace. And that is where the getting really gets good. When we go to church, we get peace.

…We go to [worship to] get something. God doesn’t mind. After all, it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And God is an extraordinary giver…”

Amen


[i] https://fromerostoagape.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/eros-romantic-love-and-agape-unconditional-love/

[ii] https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-four-loves/summary

[iii] See link in footnote 1.

[iv] https://www.gottesdienst.org/gottesblog/2022/2/16/latest-on-trial-of-rsnen-and-pohjola-in-finland

[v] Bovon, in his Luke commentary (Fortress, 2002), points out that the positive form can be found in Homer, being expressed by one of his characters (his reasoning about why he is doing something), though not stated as a formal rule.

[vi] From a blog post I did on the Golden Rule for my academic librarian blog: “Indeed it is. Forms of this rule have an impressive pedigree, appearing, importantly, in concrete testimony both trans-historically and trans-culturally. And this, it seems, is most significant for our discussion here regarding social constructionism and its either implicit or explicit claims about power’s all-encompassing role. For understood rightly[ii], the Golden Rule’s profundity is undeniable. As relational beings, all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly make moral judgments about ourselves and others (easier!). Here, the Golden Rule gives us the means whereby we might test the consistency of our judgments vis a vis our own lives, consciously self-legislate our behavior, and even recognize the significant overlap of our judgments with those of others – particularly those committed to living ethical lives. Further, it is conducive to building human understanding, respect, and mutuality – solidarity, trust, and even love (Guseinov, 2014).”

[vii] Took out the rest of this section:

This is why, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12, verses 1 and 2: ‘

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

…because, the fact is, we can lose sight of the mercies of God – all the wonderful things that He has done and does for us in Jesus Christ – and fall back into the world’s patterns, failing to live in repentance and faith.

Jesus would have us be those who go beyond the good intentions and to do the right thing, the good thing, the hard thing for our God and our neighbor, which is precisely why He told the chief priests and Pharisees who countered him this parable in Matthew 21:28-32:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

Faith clings to God because it has no choice. Only His freely given forgiveness can give us lasting and true hope.

And He can save us from what Peter calls “the empty way of life”: a worldly life that makes null and void the love of God…

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

How to See True Prosperity When it Comes

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Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.”

– Jeremiah 17:5-6

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It has been said that the biggest reason people in the Western world doubt God is because of the problem of evil, both natural evils (like earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and tsunamis) and, perhaps more importantly, the evils we see men commit.

And interestingly enough, the Bible itself is all over this concern.

In fact, there are a number of times when God’s people complain about how they suffer while the wicked thrive, flourish.

In the book of Job, we hear this great man of faith whom God commends like no other complain that,

“The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;

He blindfolds its judges.

If it is not [God], then who is it?” (9:24)

And:

“The tents of robbers are safe, and those who provoke God are secure – those who carry their god in their hands” (12:6)

He later also asks:

“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?… Their homes are safe from fear; no rod of punishment from God is upon them.” (21:8, 9)[i]

The prophet Malachai is bold to say “So now we call the arrogant blessed. Not only do evildoers prosper, they even test God and escape…” (3:15)

And did you know that the prophet Habakkuk deals with this issue as well? The entire book, in fact, is about dealing with the initial complaint with which he begins his writing, namely:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.”

He goes on to ask: “Why do You remain silent when the wicked devours one more righteous than he?” (1:13). 

And right before our reading today, just a few chapters earlier in Jeremiah 12:1, you can see – very interestingly I think – that the prophet tries to be careful, respectful even, as He also makes his concerns known:

“You are always righteous, Lord,
    when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

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You might also remember that in Genesis 18 – Abraham, the man God called from among the nations start a His new people, Israel – was interested in helping his nephew Lot avoid getting hit in the God’s crossfire.

He prays that God would not entirely destroy Lot’s home, the city of Sodom, but that he would spare it if He can find 10 righteous men there. Prior to Abraham getting God to bring down the numbers from 50 to 10, he had cried out to Him:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)

Abraham was confused and who knows?—maybe He was even more confused after God granted his request, perhaps giving the impression that Abraham had corrected Him. In any case, we can see that Abraham did not understand why God would act the way He did in His judgment.

We too, might often be confused by God.

And that prompts all manner of explanations about why God does what He does, given that He often does not give us direct answers to such questions in Scripture.  

I explored this a bit more this past week and found an online article by a Jewish rabbi dealing with the question: “Why Do the Righteous Suffer and the Wicked Prosper.”[ii]

The rabbi is careful to lay out his parameters. He carefully qualifies his words by stating beforehand that there are multiple and various kinds of causes lying behind every phenomenon and that “we cannot attribute a given cause to any particular case.” He then goes on, however, mostly using Scripture, to say that the righteous might be denied the opportunity “to earn an easy livelihood”…

-because of a sin previously committed that is now being repaid (Proverbs 11:31[iii]).

-or because one has failed to be zealous for God in confronting one’s contemporaries (think here of Eli refusing to confront his out-of-control sons in I Samuel, chapter 2).

-or because a person’s “patience and good outlook in the service of God” is demonstrated so that others can learn from that person (think of Job).[iv]

In like fashion, the rabbi says, “God might show favor to an evil person for a number of reasons”. He gives some very interesting examples:

-He might reward him in this world for an earlier good deed.

-He might give an evil person riches to hold onto, or a “deposit he has been entrusted [with]” so they can eventually be given to a “righteous son” (the rabbi than quotes Scripture that mentions the righteous – not particularly righteous sons – getting the wealth of the wicked[Job 27:17, and Ecclesiastes 2:26]).

-God might also give an evil person wealth so that it might be the cause of one’s own “undoing or even [ones’s] demise”. Ecclesiastes says: “There is a great evil I have observed under the sun – riches kept by their owner for his own injury.”

-Also, “[w]ealth might also be given to an evil person as a sign of God’s patience, in the eventuality that he will repent and become worthy of his lot” (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33).

-Another example: “Wealth might be given to an evil person as repayment for the good deeds of his righteous father. In 2 Kings chapter 10, as a reward for driving Baal-worship out of Israel, Jehu was granted four generations on the throne, regardless of the worthiness of his successors.”[v]

-Finally, the rabbi says this:

“[W]ealth might be granted to one who might be inclined toward evil on the inside but outwardly acting righteously. This is a test. When they see how the wicked prosper, will they turn from the service of God and follow the path of evil? This separates those who are loyal to God from those who allow the wicked to persuade them. The purpose of this is so that those who succeed will receive their reward from God.”

Now, we must be honest: even as these are all very much law answers, there may indeed be something to many of these reasons, (and, again, there are Scriptural examples to back them up).

At the same time though, when it comes to our own personal circumstances these are things that we cannot know with any certainty.

Remember, for example, what Jesus said about the man born blind: He was blind not because either he or his parents sinned – as Jesus’s disciples thought – but rather, to demonstrate the glory of God through Jesus’ healing of the man!

And really, for all that there might be to these reasons, we are still missing the greatest and most important of the reasons – the one which we can know for sure – and the one which we will indeed get to…

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Not quite yet though – because before that I first need to bring some balance to our little Bible Study here!

I started this message by speaking about many of the ways the Bible itself – God’s word itself! – complains about how the righteous appear to suffer while the wicked thrive!

In contrast to those passages though, it is of course important to note that there is a contrary theme in the Bible too. And one, it appears, that is shared by all of our Bible readings this morning!

Our Psalm speaks about how the one who delights in God’s law, or Torah – which, here can also be translated as “direction” or “instruction” – is:

…like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.”

It also assures us that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction…”

And what about the reading for today from Jeremiah that I based this sermon on: it too indeed asserts that the wicked ones who trust in man and mere flesh will not see prosperity… They will be like a “bush in the wastelands” while the righteous man is a tree whose roots are sent out to the stream. Such a tree does not fear when heat comes and has no worries in a year of drought…

And what of our Gospel lesson? It also talks about how it will not be those who are now rich, well-fed, happy, and who reject Christ who are blessed… but rather those who look pretty much the opposite!

His disciples – even fishing business owners like Peter, tax collectors like Matthew, and almost certain sons of privilege like the disciple John – Jesus characterizes as those who are poor, hungry, mourning, and oppressed by the world because of their Christian faith!

The Kingdom, he says, is yours!

Blessed indeed, they will be satisfied, laugh, and leap for joy!  

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Why can these passages be so confident in what they assert?

Well, in the book of Job, when the man himself is being assailed by his friends… being told that he is not a genuine believer because of all the bad things that are happening to him, he protests mightily.

Job defends his integrity even as he admits his sins – and also, of course, complains a bit in the process!

And if you know the story, you know that at the end of the book of Job, he was vindicated, and was blessed once again!

This was God’s way of saying to Job’s friends, a rather disloyal lot if there ever was one: “Job was right. You were wrong….”

So, in the end, God vindicates His people before the world that could only point, shriek, and mock.

Now I do not want to say that God’s vindication of those He loves never ever comes in this life, like it did in Job’s, by means of His being blessed with earthly blessings again in the end.  

At the same time, we indeed know from the testimony of Scripture that even God’s faithful people did not see this as a foolproof marker.

And of course – as we might gather from those first Scripture passages I read this morning – their prayers often amount to something like this: “God we know that we are your children. We know that You are good. So why is this happening to us? Why don’t you do something?”

And the answer is… the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This message the Apostle Paul shared in our Epistle reading:

“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures… he was buried… he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and… he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born… this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

The Gospel is the true goodness, and the true prosperity.

It is the treasure above all earthly treasures.

For in it we see sin defeated by goodness, the devil conquered by the Messiah, and death destroyed by resurrection.

Sometimes, as we pursue the things of this world and the things that make us happy here and now, this message doesn’t seem like much to us.[vi] Nevertheless, this great Gospel even breaks through the hearts of men who even after they are saved by Jesus still struggle to appreciate it!

We see that a man like Rob Bell – though having a bad theological outlook – did indeed get this right:

Love Wins.

It is because those who trust in Him will ultimately not be put to shame, for God loves His children.

This world is passing away, and the new creation and new blessings for His people are coming…. Where all will finally be set to rights…

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This is the solid message for us.

It is trustworthy; it is reliable. And it mocks the world in its certainties which are really falsehoods.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News and not fake news, news that is not about us, but is for us, containing the content – the Promise – that overturns the world.

So we hear this morning that blessings in this world, prosperity in this world, is not a reliable indicator that God is truly blessing you for your good, that He is pleased with you…

How can we really know that God is pleased with us, right now?  

We know it in the Gospel… in the cross and resurrection… in the fact that He is your Father, and in love, sent His only Son to destroy sin, death, and the devil for you!

In giving you His forgiveness, life, and salvation through His precious gifts: His true body and blood in the sacrament, His tender adoption of you in holy baptism, and His giving you all those who loved you enough to share the love of Christ with you!

As Paul says, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” and as He was raised, we too who are baptized into Him, like this sheet of paper in a book [actually do this], not only died with Christ but will also be raised and ascended and sitted and the right hand of the Father!

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Still feel besieged by doubts?

Are you sometimes haunted by your modern scientific and technological mindset?

Or perhaps a sensitive poetic disposition distraught by the world’s abject brokenness?

No matter! For we also take comfort in the fact that even as God does not scorn the blessings that have come through human reason and creativity He also, ultimately, is the one who will determine what constitutes proof of what is truly true and really real… what really gives us comfort and meaning in life!

When the Apostle Paul answers the Greek philosophers in Athens by saying:

“[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead…”

…let that message ultimately bring comfort you, for Christ has died for you and forgives you all of your sins!

Test the claims if you must, for there is nothing to fear! He is truly raised from the dead for you, and ultimately, the full flowering of this confidence, this certainty, this knowledge – this knowledge that defeats the world! – will be attained in the resurrection of the dead, your resurrection as well…

All doubts will pass away as we know fully and are fully known….

Now of course none of this means that we cannot vindicate before the world our brothers and sisters now as well… by, for example, attending to their material and physical needs in this world!

In fact, this is the kind of thing God urges us to do.

He would indeed bless us in this world through one another, as we use the blessings that each one of us has to be a blessing, and as we even do more, blessing our enemies!

“Many are unworthy!”

…we might think, but let us always ponder our own unworthiness and reflect on the love of Christ…

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One more thing, and we’ll wrap it up. I read a blog post this past week which dramatized a bit the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. I think it is worth sharing here:

“How did I get here? She was a little nervous. Her eyes were focused on Jesus. He won’t throw me out. He’ll be happy I’m here. She walked toward Him as everyone realized she was in the room. No one invited her. She was the last person you’d expect to be in an upstanding member of society’s house, let alone an authority of righteousness, such as the Pharisees.

Even to this day she doesn’t remember making some sort of plan or [careful] decision to barge into the Pharisees’ party and pour her perfume on Jesus. There was no deciding about it. She had watched him eat with tax collectors. She had seen him touch the leper. She heard him tell a divorced woman she was forgiven. She knew He loved her. She wasn’t allowed in the synagogue. She could never offer enough at the temple to make up for her public past. She had given up. She was scared of God. She pretended to not care about what God thought. But deep down she did. Everyone does.

She didn’t think about it. She didn’t contemplate various claims of Jesus. She really had nowhere else to turn. There were no “options.” She had no choice. She knew Jesus would be happy to see her. She knew that she was safe with Him. She knew He would forgive her and wouldn’t call her “whore,” but her name.

She followed Him into the dinner party. She wasn’t courageous or bold. This was the only option…”  

The post ends like this:

“The Pharisees were shocked by the woman. They still thought they had a choice. They still lived in the fantasy that death was far off, that perhaps they were not that bad. Some said Jesus was the Messiah. They contemplated the possibility – as if they had a choice. As if they didn’t need a savior. As if they had options.

Sometimes, like this woman, you need to have all the other choices taken away from you until you see there is only One. And there is only One who actually has a choice. And He chose to die and rise. And He chose to give His inheritance to YOU…”

And so, let us go and do likewise, seeing ourselves first as those like that woman without a choice, and then reaching out to others like her, like one beggar showing another beggar where to find the bread… the glorious bread of life!  

The resurrection life will be one of perpetual acts of concrete love, but there is no reason that cannot become stronger among us in earnest.

Did you know, regarding the early Christians, that a watching world said things like this: “Look how they love one another!” In addition to people saying “those Christians – they’ll take anybody…”  

This, my friends, is also good news!

Mankind is in darkness and decay; Jesus has come to bring us, and all people, into light and prosperity. That we might have life and have it abundantly!

And we love one another because Jesus Christ first loved us!

It is in Him we know the full blessing of God, a blessing that will continue to unfold and flourish unto life and joy everlasting.

Amen.


[i] The Psalmist, one named Asaph, is not silent either. For instance, in Psalm 73 we read:

“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” and “Behold, these are the wicked—always carefree as they increase their wealth”. Of himself, however, he complains that “I am afflicted all day long and punished every morning…”

The writer of Ecclesiastes says he has seen “a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness…” He dares to go on with his observation:

“There is a futility that is done on the earth: There are righteous men who get what the actions of the wicked deserve, and there are wicked men who get what the actions of the righteous deserve. I say that this too is futile… (8:14)”

[ii] Rabbi Jack Abramowitz first wisely notes that Deuteronomy 29:29 states that

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law…”

…but then he nevertheless goes on to speculate, as human beings are wont to do.

He also notes Ecclesiastes 5:8, a very interesting passage that will likely catch more people’s attention today: “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.” From: https://outorah.org/p/37805/

[iii] NIV: “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!”

[iv] Another: because “it is a contrast to the evil of this person’s contemporaries, in order to highlight the afflicted party’s piety and devotion to God,” as opposed to the attitude and conduct of others.

Another quote the rabbi mentions that I do not fully understand is this one: “It is to increase his share in the Next World, as per Deuteronomy 8:16, “To do good for you at your end.” From: https://outorah.org/p/37805/

[v] He goes on to say “Similarly, Psalms 37:25 says, ‘I have never see a righteous person forsaken or his children begging for bread.’”

[vi] If I recall correctly (I can’t find the quote) Martin Luther had something very interesting to say about the Gospel at one point.

He essentially said that if some salesperson came to us offering eternal life – the ability to live forever here on earth, along with all manner of earthly blessings and glory – we would gladly find the offer appealing, even if we didn’t believe the man. However, when Jesus Christ comes offering eternal life in His Person, we often flee from the far greater goodness and blessing that He offers through His perfect life, death for our sins, and glorious resurrection.  

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

The Role of Christian Preaching in the Context of Christian Liturgy

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What is the significance of preaching in the context of the liturgy?

This is the question that will be addressed in this brief essay, using the 2011 book Preaching is Worship: the Sermon in Context, edited by Paul J. Grime and Dean W. Nadasdy, and particularly Bo Giertz’s essay “Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening,” as the primary resource for formulating an answer.

Prolegomena

First, such a question demands definitions. What is preaching? And what is liturgy? The first question seems easily answered enough: preaching is to publicly proclaim the Christian message to those assembled to listen, usually in the context of a Christian worship service.

To define “liturgy” is a bit more difficult. A dictionary definition of liturgy, obtained from the first hit of a Google search performed on Nov. 18, 2018, seems simple enough: “a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted.” James Wetzstein goes deeper when he speaks of “liturgical people” whose lives are “framed, defined and interpreted in our regular encounters with the divine mystery through a scripted rite…” which gives them a shared story that “is at odds with the stories of the world” (200-201) And Giertz, taking this even further, provides a grand image of liturgy indeed, with the believer dying to self through the Love of His Creator-Redeemer:

“Liturgy in the church is a foretaste of the eternal song of praise, an earthly expression of that which is the content of eternity and the basic melody of creation, a never ending thanksgiving to the Creator and Father of all things. Within its earthly poverty liturgy contains something of the beauty of the heavenly, the blessed sense of the nearness of the eternal, and the joy of being privileged to sacrifice everything in order to be one with Christ (238).”

Where did this powerful and abundantly rich thing called liturgy come from? Giertz makes the following claim, connecting the work of the liturgy with the work of the Word of God:

The Word of God creates the church.[1] Already in the days of the primitive church the Word of God gave to the life of the church those forms which have continued through the centuries. This includes both those forms which appear to be more or less improvised and spontaneous and those which appear fixed and unchangeable….

The relation to the apostolic age [and before] is obvious. It has flowed through the centuries like a ceaseless stream… [2] To the ancient worship of the synagogue the apostolic church added the Holy Communion, that new creation which she received from the Savior Himself and which is the center of all liturgy. As it is celebrated still, with the traditional chants, the Preface and the Sanctus, it is essentially a contribution of the first century.

The unbroken connection with apostolic times is also revealed in the external forms of the liturgy. The altar is today the only place in our modern life where, with unbroken tradition, the vestments are still used which were worn by people in that olden day (229-230, italics mine).

Giertz explains that the external forms of the liturgy are meant to be accompanied by the greatest and most God-pleasing internal motions:

The deepest significance of liturgy lies in the fact that it is a form which the Spirit Himself has created to preserve and deepen the life which he has awakened in the church… Liturgy is the work of the same Spirit in preserving the flame which has been lighted. It is the means by which the awakened soul is bound together with the fellowship of the church. It is a pathway for walking in the light, a road that leads forward through the years, and the soul is ever anew called to join itself with that royal priesthood which worships before the altar of God with prayer and thanksgiving, with Communion, and with a quiet listening to the Word of the Lord (230, italics mine).

There are parts of the Christian liturgy that God himself has given and revealed to His church (to be covered more in part III). In its essence, those parts of the liturgy revealed to us directly by God are the core matter:

“[In the liturgy] the whole earth is full of God’s glory, but we have no visible evidence for it. Yet here… are the divinely ordained signs that tell us the Word is present in all His creative and redemptive power: the baptismal water, the spoken Word of Christ, the bread and wine of the Supper. You do not need to “go to heaven” to hear angels and worship God. You need only come to the liturgy” (144, Cwirla, italics mine).

The whole of what we have come to call the Christian liturgy is not given and revealed to the church directly by God. Rather, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit that God has mediately given to the church through the church. It is therefore largely something that has been brought about, in part, through the freedom of God’s people working with the Holy Spirit. This means that it also has the potential to be added to—and even adjusted—depending on the circumstances and needs of each age.

This is nowhere more the case when it comes to that which brings about spiritual awakening, the Spirit-led Christian proclamation of the Word of God, in accordance with the Church’s unchanging Scriptures.

Preaching Bringing Awakening for Liturgy

Kent J. Burreson writes that “other than Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it is difficult to conceive of anything as formative and fundamental to Christian worship as preaching” (xi). For Giertz, the matter of preaching is of great importance because “awakening” is of great importance. And what is this?:

“Awakening is the fire that flames forth in dead souls. The fire burns in the breast when the sinner feels a pang in his conscience. He is gripped by an uneasiness that makes him ask, “What shall I do?” And the Spirit answers by enlightening the soul about the desperate character of sin and the boundless mercy of Christ” (230).

James A. Wetzstein sees not only preaching, but the liturgy itself as performing this action. Explaining that the liturgy “tak[es] its cues from Scripture” and that its “script tells the great story of creation, redemption, and sanctification among the people of God who have come to say back to God what He has said to them (199),” he says things like the following:

“Like any good story, the liturgy tells us things not only about the protagonist (in this case God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but also about ourselves, the listeners of the story. And it is in this “people-producing power” that we often overlook the gift of liturgy. The story of the liturgy changes us….

All of the great stories of encounter with the divine share in framing the events of the liturgy of God’s people: the story of Moses at the burning bush, the account of the first Passover, Elijah hiding in the cave, the visit of the three strangers to Abraham and Sarah, the call of Isaiah, the confrontation between Nathan and David, the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the Last Supper, the conversion of Paul, and the vision given to John the Evangelist. The themes are the same. God’s people are confronted where they are by the divine presence. This confrontation takes place in the larger context of God’s covenant promises. The confrontation requires of God’s children a radical rethinking of who they are and who God is. The tension of confrontation is resolved through the gracious act of God, which is part and parcel of His presence and which, in the blessing, calls us to carry His message into the world” (199-200, italics his).  

Giertz does not deny that the liturgy may indeed have this effect on a Christian, but he sees the liturgy more as “preserving the flame which has been lighted” (230) ; being a slower and steadier burn which patiently can instruct the Christian in the fullness of the life that is truly life. For example, he writes:

“[Liturgy] speaks wisdom among those who are full grown. It uses all the richness of the Scriptures, all the meaningful symbols and prefigurements of Christ in the Old Testament. It prays the prayers of the Psalter anew, it listens to the prophecies and finds in them the deepest mysteries of the gospel. It loves exactly those hidden things that only slowly unfold themselves and constantly give the mind something new to ponder. Just because liturgy constantly turns back to the same holy forms, it dares to make use of the hidden wisdom of the Scriptures. Therefore it also loves that music which beneath an obvious simplicity hides unfathomable depths of humble worship and joyful longing” (231)

In other words, awakening leads to liturgy… is for liturgy. Even when Giertz hints that the liturgy might do the work of awakening, he seems to do so with Scripture reading and hymn-singing on his mind. He notes, for example, that Satan never knows—even in spiritually lethargic realms—whether “a little word from the Epistle lesson or a line from a hymn will fall on good ground…” (237).

Overall, for Giertz, awakening which confronts “sleeping sinner[s]” in fundamentally life-altering ways comes through the proclamation of the word, preaching: “the most common method is the preaching of the Word of God, the prophetic message, in the Spirit of awakening” (236). He describes this matter of awakening quite colorfully in a number of places. For example:

“The Holy Spirit always needs to awaken slumbering souls, stir up the dust, push the old Adam against the wall, and blow a new breath of life into the dead bones. Awakening is never superfluous, as long as we are in the flesh” (232).

Of course, the purpose of the sermon in the liturgy can be hijacked. Giertz writes that the liturgy can even become awakening’s “chief enemy”[3]:

“A false liturgy would rather clip the wings of the Word of God. It loves to make the sermon itself a portion of liturgy framed in liturgical formulations and Psalm verses and spoken with disciplined carefulness in a language removed from all concentration and all specific and accusing actuality… It accepts the ancient pulpit language and the time honored words. But they have lost their point, and they are so far removed from everyday sins that an unrepentant heart can listen to them with great satisfaction” (236).

What then, is the right way to prepare for the sermon in the context of the liturgy? Primarily, David Schmitt tells us, “the sermon recognizes God’s historic intervention as recorded in the biblical text but also confesses God’s continuing intervention through the public proclamation of His word and hopes for God’s final intervention in the fulfillment of all that God has promised (20)”.

In addressing the practical matters here, David J. Peter writes that the pericopal system allows God and not the popular culture to “dictate the subject of the sermon” (57) and Schmitt adds that “…in handling the Scriptures as literary texts inspired by the Holy Spirit and pointing to Christ, pastors use textual exposition, theological confession, evangelical proclamation, and hearer depiction in their sermons” (20).

Preaching or Liturgy as Pinnacle? And that Pinnacle’s Nature?

Charles A. Gieschen uses the memorable analogy of the sermon as a solo, which “blends with the concert sung before and after it” (90). Helpful as this may be, the previous section brings up the question: what is primary? Liturgy or preaching? On the back of Preaching is Worship, we read a statement which puts them side-by-side with one another:

“The sermon is ultimately an act of worship itself. Here God graces the listener with His Word, written in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the preacher. He graces the Table with His presence, the visible Word served by the celebrant. Altar and pulpit are in fellowship” (back of book).

And yet, as regards the liturgy, the Lord’s Supper, or the Sacrament of the Altar, is clearly the core component. And historically, the Lord’s Supper has been seen as the pinnacle of the entire worship service, as important as the sermon might be. As Kenneth W. Wieting argues:

“There can be no greater misunderstanding of the Divine Service than to deny or downplay the reality of Christ’s presence and the purpose for which He is present… the Lord’s Supper is central to regular weekly worship and not an appendage or an occasional extra. That is also why the sermon is properly used to set the table, inviting those guests prepared to commune to receive the heavenly food Jesus comes to serve” (74, 76).

Even more jarringly, when Giertz says that “sacraments need form, the order of worship must have some definite pattern” (232) one must notice that the sacraments already are a form, and a divinely given one at that! They are not just a supposed continuation of synagogue worship, but symbols of the New Covenant given in His blood: divinely given ceremonies that are Forms of the Gospel!

And here, I feel compelled to do a bit of preaching as to what this means for the rest of the service. All of the ceremonies of the liturgy, really and truly, should complement and adorn the Word of God, and particularly the Gospel—and even more particularly, the Lord’s Supper!

And here, Pastor Holger Sonntag offers some stunning words:

The humble nature of the gospel and the pastoral office reflects the humility of Christ’s life on earth. While he always possessed all the attributes of his divine nature, he only rarely used them openly. For the most part, he kept them hidden under his servant form. His humble external form as well as the humble external form of the gospel serve the key purpose of his mission: to bring his forgiveness to sinners terrified and humbled by the law. For such sinners need to be approached in a humble, gentle manner lest they be terrified further (100).

Hence God coming in things like words, bread and wine. From this, other ceremonies of the Divine Service are created. Therefore:

… ceremonies created and observed [should] conform to the humble form of the gospel also by the very way they are created and observed. In that such humility is also in keeping with Christ’s humble life of service on earth, they are part and parcel of the Christians’ humble way of life and service that puts the needs of the neighbor first. In this way love restrains the freedom that is indeed ours by faith in the gospel (101)

Here one can see some of the reason for Luther’s bold yet conservative reform of the liturgy in the 1520s. The cup withheld from the laity and sacrifices of the mass performed for profit for departed saints did not do this, to say the least! And with this rubric, one may also ask: “Does this text point to and properly adorn the word of God and the blood of the New Testament in its humble forms?

Do the church buildings, vestments, pulpits, fonts, altars, chalices, organs, music and other earthly forms we use point to and properly adorn the simple and humble forms of words, water, bread, and wine? Care must be taken that the liturgical ceremonies that grow up along with the forms of the Gospel serve the Gospel and do not overwhelm it.

Here, one is challenged to think not only of medieval extravagance and visual spectacle (should “giving our best” like Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil mean, when we have the means, massive medieval cathedrals, as well as all manner of pomp and circumstance?) but efforts less concerned to exalt a culture than to draw a crowd: using things like young, attractive singers, amplified rock music, smoke machines, and theatrical or stadium seating conducive to producing “The Feeling.” Here, one can, to say the least, issue a hearty “Amen” to Bo Giertz’s words:

“…it would not be wrong to say that the new forms that grow up… are usually less attractive and more profane than the ancient liturgy. They contain less of God’s Word, they pray and speak without Scriptural direction, they are not so much concerned about expressing the whole content of Scripture, but are satisfied with one thing or another that seems to be especially attractive or popular” (232).

Things like this also get far away from the humble and simple purpose of worship, for in one sense, the whole of the Christian life can be seen not only as an act of worship, but as liturgy. We consistently acknowledge God as truthful and Savior, pray, praise and thank Him in worship, study and follow his Word (the first table of the commandments: faith). Then, Gospel-driven service of the neighbor in one’s vocation according to the remaining Ten Commandments is also part and parcel of the Christian’s worship and thanksgiving (the second table of the commandments: love).

Conclusion

God is to be proclaimed as the Maker and Redeemer of all things. And while worship contains both sacramental and sacrificial elements, all ultimately belongs to Him: we have nothing that we have not received from His goodness and love. Of these truths, we are stewards and caretakers.

Hence the church’s formal liturgy.

We close this essay on preaching in the context of the liturgy by letting Giertz preach to us once more, explaining that liturgy not only unites us to God in Christ, but to one another as well:

“There are people who find it difficult to feel at home in the liturgical forms. All liturgy demands the submerging of self. The individual shall become a part of a praying congregation. One must become so much a part of a fellowship with others that one can pray the same words as they, follow along in the rhythm of the worship, the Confession of Sins, and the praise, and feel the same joy and penitence as the others. Every Christian is a member of the body of Christ… [and] does not live to please himself, but [is] a part of an organism. He who will not subordinate himself in such fellowship is no Christian, because one cannot be a Christian by one’s self. He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen in the church and at the Communion table, even so much that he can pray, sing, rejoice, and tremble together with him, must not imagine that he can love the God whom he has not seen, or that he can worship Him in spirit and in truth in his own chamber. And yet it is clear that there are forms for reverent worship which are very natural to some people, so that they immediately feel at home in them, while other people find it hard to become accustomed to them. The church must therefore be generous, open-minded, and tolerant. She must be able to give her children what they need most and what they can most readily receive, provided of course that she truly gives them the Word of God and real fellowship with God… (234)

FIN

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Works Cited:

Burreson, Kent J., “Foreward” ; Schmitt, David R., “Law and Gospel in Sermon and Service” ; Peter, David J., “Balanced Preaching: Maintaining a Theological Center of Gravity” ; Wieting, Kenneth W., “Sacramental Preaching: Lord’s Supper” ; Cwirla, William M., “Unfolding the Meaning of the Liturgy” ; Wetzstein, James A., “Liturgy as Story” ; Giertz, Bo, “Appendix: Liturgy as Spiritual Awakening” in Grime, Paul, and Dean Nadasdy. Preaching Is Worship: The Sermon in Context. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2011.

Sonntag, Holger. Christian Worship: Apology of The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel, Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Press, 2014.


[1] Bill Cwirla states: “The liturgy is the Word of God because it is almost entirely composed of quotations from the Holy Scriptures” (130).

[2] After the ellipses here we read: “It had its first deep sources in the synagogue. It is not only that a few words have remained in continuous use since that time, such as Amen, Hallelujah, and Hosanna, but the whole structural form of our order of worship shows clearly its relation to that worship which Jesus Himself share in the synagogue at Nazareth and in which, as a grown man, he officiated when he was invited to read and interpret the Scriptures.” Exploring and even testing these claims, even to the smallest degree, goes beyond the scope of this essay.

[3] Geirtz also writes two pages earlier about awakening being “the most deadly enemy of liturgy” (232).

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2022 in Uncategorized