Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 10:23-37

          Trinity 13
                                                                                                            Lk 10:23-37

            As many of you know, until the apostasy of my youngest son, the Surburgs have always been Cubs fans. The origin of this is my Grandpa Surburg who grew up on the north side of Chicago within walking distance of Wrigley Field.  Too poor to buy a ticket and get into the game, he used to stand outside and listen to the crowed as he watched the scoreboard to know what was happening.
            Grandpa Surburg was born in 1909 and died in 2001.  He lived ninety-two years as a Cubs fan and never saw them win the World Series because the last time they won it was in 1908 – the year before he was born.  He waited his whole life hoping to see it … and never did.
            I believe I will see the thing he desired to see, but did not.  Now Cardinals fans will of course laugh at this.  I said it when Theo Epstein came to the Cubs organization after leading the Boston Red Sox to a World Series win that ended the “curse of the Bambino” in which they had not won it since 1917.  I said it as the Cubs under Epstein began building an organization from the ground up in the minor leagues.  I said it as that approach built the Cub’s farm system into one of the top rated organizations in baseball.
            Now, I am not about to claim that at that the beginning of this season I thought that the Cubs would have one of the best records in baseball and be very likely to make the playoffs.  Joe Maddon is obviously an excellent manager.  I am not going to claim that the Cubs will win it this year – with more on the way - I don’t think their pitching is strong enough yet.  But when they can win like this with so many very young talented players, I have no trouble continuing to say that the Cubs will win the World Series before Theo Epstein is done. I will see what my Grandpa Surburg waited his whole life hoping to see and never did.
            In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus shares a similar thought with his disciples.  They have returned from preparing the way for Jesus as he is going to Jerusalem, and joyfully report what they have experienced. Our Lord tells them that they are in fact experiencing a remarkable end-time moment in God’s saving plan.  He says to them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
            When you heard the Gospel lesson announced as the text for this sermon, you probably thought, “Well we are going to hear another sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.” That is a very reasonable thing to surmise.  Because of course, almost all of the text this morning is about this classic parable by our Lord.  However, note that I said, “almost.” Because you see, the first two verses of our text do not deal with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Instead, they are the conclusion of what Luke has been narrating since the beginning of chapter 10.  And so in order to consider the first part of our text, we will need to fill in what has been happening in the Gospel of Luke.
            At the end of chapter nine we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Jesus has just predicted his passion as he said, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” Now he begins his journey to Jerusalem as he heads towards suffering, death and resurrection.  He begins his journey towards the culmination of his saving ministry in fulfillment of the Father’s will.
            As he does so, Jesus sends out a kind of “advance team” to prepare the way.  Out of the broader group of disciples he sends out seventy (or perhaps seventy two) disciples in pairs.  They are to travel light and go quickly, not even stopping to greet other people on the way. The time is short and the matter is urgent.  Our Lord gives them this instruction, “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Where a town does not receive the message they are to go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.”
            The disciples return from their mission with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus said to them in reply, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” and then added later, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
            These events are what prompt Jesus to say in our text, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  Our Lord says that what they are experiencing is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament.  It is the arrival of the end time salvation of God that prophets like Isaiah announced. It is Satan being kicked out.
            The question raised by the text is whether we believe these words are true for us as well.  The question for us is whether we perceive the amazing character of God’s end-time salvation that is at work in our midst – the same thing that Jesus describes in our text.
            Now I doubt that any of us would answer with a flat out “no.”  But I also think we are hesitant to answer with a resounding “yes.”  After all, when we look around we see a world that doesn’t give the Gospel the time of day.  We see a world where the Church is facing some of the worst persecution it has ever experienced. It sure doesn’t look like the kingdom of God – the reign of God – has arrived.
            We see the rejection of the Gospel by the world.  We see the suffering of God’s people and it makes us wonder – even doubt. But what we have to recognize about the beginning of our text this morning is that Jesus speaks these words to people who have met with rejection.
            In his instruction to the seventy, Jesus told them to proclaim “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But then he added that where a town does not receive the message they are to go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.”
            Jesus prepared them for rejection because he knew that they would also meet with rejection.  Their work had not been one big success story.  But it had been the reign of God at work.  That reign could bring salvation where there was faith, or it could bring judgment were it met rejection. But either way, God was powerfully at work.
            And then, consider where Jesus is going at this very moment.  He is making his journey to Jerusalem.  There he will meet the ultimate rejection.  There he will be sentenced to death on trumped up charges.  He will be crucified and die.
            That does not look like the reign of God.  That does not look like God’s victory and salvation.  And yet, it is.  For it was God’s plan for his Son to be numbered with the transgressors.  It was his will for Jesus Christ to bear our sin and die for it so that we can receive forgiveness. And then it was God’s will to raise Jesus from the dead.  As Jesus said to the two disciples walking to Emmaus on the evening of Easter, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
            When Jesus died on the cross and was buried, it did not look like it was victory over Satan and sin.  Yet it was.  We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus descended into hell.  Our Lord’s descent into hell was not about accomplishing something that still needed to be done.  Instead, it was about Jesus declaring that he had won – that Satan had been defeated.  It was about Jesus going into Satan’s own backyard and talking trash to him – talking smack – because Jesus’ had won and Satan had lost. And then in his resurrection, our Lord stuck the dagger in that last enemy – death.
            This is what Jesus Christ has done for you, because he is the end-time fulfillment of all of God’s promises.  And you have seen it through God’s Word.  You know what has happened.  You know the whole story.  The apostle Peter described it in this way: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
            In our text Jesus says, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  Yes, blessed are your eyes that see and your ears that hear!  Yes, blessed are your eyes that see water poured and ears that hear, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Blessed are your eyes that see Christ’s servant stand in front of you, and your ears that hear Christ say, “I forgive you all your sins.”  Blessed are your eyes that see bread and wine, and your ears that hear, “This is my body. This is my blood, given and shed for your.”  Blessed are you, for when you see and hear this you are experiencing the kingdom of God – the reign of God that frees you from Satan and sin.  You are receiving God’s end-time salvation that all the saints in the Old Testament longed to see.
            This is the good news. This is the “now” of God’s salvation.  But there is also bad news - the “not yet” in which we live.  You are blessed to see and hear things the prophets wanted to see and hear.  But Jesus also says you are blessed in another way.  Earlier in this Gospel our Lord says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”
            Believing in Jesus Christ will mean enduring hardship. It will mean not fitting into this world.  It will mean receiving the world’s derision.  You can’t shy away from these things.  You can’t seek to avoid them.  In faith, you need to step up and be willing to accept them.
But Jesus can call you blessed when you do this because it is on account of him.  In fact, paradoxically he says rejoice and leap for joy because your reward is great in heaven.  Jesus assures you that because of him, the victory is already yours.  It is stored away in heaven, ready to be given to you.  This is not something that you have to go there and get. It is something that Jesus will bring to you on the Last Day when he returns in glory and raises your body to be like his resurrection body.
Blessed are you now, because this is your future. Blessed are you now because of what you see and hear. Indeed, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”



Friday, August 28, 2015

Commemoration of Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian

Today we remember and give thanks for Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian.  Augustine was one of the greatest of the Latin church fathers and a significant influence in the formation of Western Christianity, including Lutheranism. Born in A.D. 354 in North Africa, Augustine’s early life was distinguished by exceptional advancement as a teacher of rhetoric. In his book Confessions he describes his life before his conversion to Christianity, when he was drawn into the moral laxity of the day and fathered an illegitimate son. Through the devotion of his sainted mother Monica and the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (339–97), Augustine was converted to the Christian faith. During the great Pelagian controversies of the 5th century, Augustine emphasized the unilateral grace of God in the salvation of mankind. Bishop and theologian at Hippo in North Africa from A.D. 395 until his death in 430, Augustine was a man of great intelligence, a fierce defender of the orthodox faith, and a prolific writer. In addition to the book Confessions, Augustine’s book City of God had a great impact upon the church throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you, give us strength to follow the example of your servant Augustine of Hippos, so that knowing you we may truly love you and loving you we may fully serve you – for to serve you is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Commemoration of Monica, Mother of Augustine

Today we remember and give thanks for Monica, Mother of Augustine.  A native of North Africa, Monica (A.D. 333–387) was the devoted mother of Saint Augustine. Throughout her life she sought the spiritual welfare of her children, especially that of her brilliant son, Augustine. Widowed at a young age, she devoted herself to her family, praying many years for Augustine’s conversion. When Augustine left North Africa to go to Italy, she followed him to Rome and then to Milan. There she had the joy of witnessing her son’s conversion to the Christian faith. Weakened by her travels, Monica died at Ostia, Italy on the journey she had hoped would take her back to her native Africa.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord, You strengthened Your patient servant Monica through spiritual discipline to persevere in offering her love, her prayers, and her tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine, their son.  Deepen our devotion to bring others, even our own family, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever.

Mark's thoughts: An example of soft antinomianism

When I wrote the blog post What is soft antinomianism?, I encountered the rather interesting response that such a thing does not exist.  Some said that soft antinomianism is no more real than unicorns. There were those who said, “Where’s the proof?  Show us sermons!”

Now the problem with sermons is that there are many variables that go into an individual sermon such as the text, the circumstances in the congregation, and the pastor’s week (every pastor has written a sermon was probably less than his best when short on time because of pastoral care concerns during the week!).  In addition, a sermon is just one sermon.  You would need a large number of sermons to demonstrate soft antinomianism, since of course, this describes a lack of preaching about new obedience and good works. And even if you did show this in one pastor, it would still be only one pastor.

It is more useful to examine what pastors have to say about how preaching should be done, for here you have the assumptions and beliefs behind their preaching set out in the open.  Again, one could argue that a large number of samples would be needed to demonstrate the case that soft antinomianism exists.  But as I looked online yesterday, I was struck by the fact that examining how a prominent and influential pastor discusses preaching can provide important and useful evidence to demonstrate the existence of soft antinomianism.

The thought occurred to me as I read Pastor Donavon Riley’s post Just Another Law-Gospel Sermon?  Pastor Riley is an excellent writer and a prolific blogger.  He has often been a featured speaker and writer at Higher Things.  To his credit, Pastor Riley’s thought is very consistent and developed.  You don’t have to read very much of his writing to recognize the points he is driving home in a well honed fashion. 

Just Another Law-Gospel Sermon is a classic example of Pastor Riley’s work. It is also a classic example of soft antinomianism.  I have defined soft antinomianism in the following manner:

Soft antinomianism is an inability and even a refusal to preach about new obedience and good works.  It does not exhort, admonish and teach in sermons about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us.

I described that:

When soft antinomianism controls preaching, the sermon has only two goals.  First, the preacher seeks to address sharp, accusatory Law that will convict the hearers of their sin and prompt repentance.  This is done in service of the second and main goal, which is to deliver the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. The preaching of the Law prepares the hearer for the preaching of Jesus and the Gospel.  In that movement from Law to Gospel the sermon has achieved its entire purpose.  What soft antinomianism does not have as a goal in preaching is to guide and direct Christians in how they are to live because of Christ and the Gospel.

In my second post in the series, The elephant in the Room – Presuppositions of soft antinomianism, I wrote:

The second presupposition of soft antinomianism is that the Law always accuses, and that in accusing it does only one thing – it shows people their sin. The fact that the Law always accuses (lex semper accusat) is a basic truth of confessional Lutheran theology.  Apology  IV.38 explicitly states, “For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences” (Ap. IV.38).  All statements about how Christians are to live are inherently Law – they tell people what they are to do.  From the perspective of soft antinomianism such preaching can only do only one thing.  It will convict people of the fact that they do not do these things.
Since the Law always accuses and shows people that they can’t do, any attempt to exhort or admonish Christian about new obedience and good works can only lead people into the twin ditches of legalism: despair or works righteousness.  There is no way in which the Law can assist the individual Christian to do things that are right and avoid things that are wrong.  Soft antinomianism maintains that to suggest such a thing (as I will) contradicts a basic truth of the Lutheran confession and ultimately denies the Gospel since only the Holy Spirit can produce these things in a Christian.

When one examines Pastor Riley’s explanation of what a sermon is and does, it soon becomes clear that this perfectly matches my definition of soft antinomianism.  First Pastor Riley clearly indicates that the sermon does not in any way have the goal to exhort, admonish and teach about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us. Rather all attempt to talk about what Christians do is rejected. So in the first paragraph any movement towards talking about Christians and what they do is attributed to a diminishment of justification.  Riley reports how he unfortunately did not believe his professor when he said:

The temptation for you then will be to back off Law and Gospel. Slow but sure, you’ll back off justification. You’ll change your sermons. They’ll be more and more about the people. More and more about what you want them to hear, or what they want to come out from the pulpit. Your sermons will be less and less about Christ, and more and more about Christians. (emphasis added)

The false answers to the challenge of preaching that Pastor Riley then lists share in common the feature that they all in some way deal with what Christians do and how they live:

But I wasn't preaching Law-Gospel sermons. My professor’s warning had been right on. I’d given into temptation. I preached what I imagined the congregation needed to hear or what they demanded to hear. I even sought the advice of pastors and preaching gurus who explained to me that there were ways to read the Bible and preach other than just the Law-Gospel formula. Some said I needed to focus more on how Christians are to live in the world as Christians. Others urged me to emphasize evangelism and the mission the church more often. Still others told me I needed to emphasize Christ as example for Christians to imitate. (emphasis added)

Pastor Riley goes on to say: “The congregation isn’t free to demand the pastor turn his attention to their favorite subject - which is always themselves - either.”  Sermons that talk about what Christians are to do and how they are to live serve the ego of fallen sinners.  Near the end of the piece, Riley delivers some of the sharpest rebuke to any notion that the sermon should have as a goal to exhort, admonish and teach about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us when he writes:

Instead of the preacher’s tales of spiritual victory or his exhortation to the congregation to turn their attention toward moral reform, God’s Word announces “God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ” (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device). (emphasis added)

On the contrary, the sermon is to have only two things – Law and Gospel.  But Riley defines the function of the Law (its “use” as we call it) in a singular fashion.  He says that, “In a Christian sermon the hearer is cracked wide open by God’s Word of Law and pieced back together by the Gospel” (emphasis added).  The Law is something that cracks the hearer wide open.   It does this because, “God’s preacher declares to His hearers that they’ve failed to do what God’s Law demands of them.” This is sharp, accusatory Law that convicts people of sin.

Once the Law has done this, the hearer is then “pieced back together by the Gospel.”  In a clear articulation of the Gospel, Riley writes:

Instead of the preacher’s tales of spiritual victory or his exhortation to the congregation to turn their attention toward moral reform, God’s Word announces “God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ” (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device). All the Bible has to say about the Law’s requirements, demands, and penalties have been satisfied by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant has been annulled. The New Testament invites all to come, receive their inheritance. Spiritual and moral failures are made heirs of the kingdom of God. Sinners are welcomed to the Lamb’s feast.

Hearers are confronted with the fact that “they've failed to do what God’s Law demands of them. God’s Word of Gospel then announces that these same people are now accepted by God for Christ’s sake.”  And that’s it.  There is nothing more to do.  Riley ends his piece by saying:

The biblical text that is preached is either Law - what hinders the deliverance of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus - or it is Gospel- what gives Christ Jesus and his gifts. There is no other method. No better way to interpret or preach Scripture. There’s God’s Word of Law and the Gospel. What is preached is one or the other. That’s it. There are no more options.

Riley is certainly correct when he writes, “God’s Word announces ‘God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ’ (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device).”  But that is where he stops.  There is nothing of the apostle Paul’s understanding that because the Christian is in Christ through the work of the Spirit, the Christian begins to fulfill the law through love.  There is nothing of his exhortation to live in this way. Paul writes in Galatians, that letter that so greatly influenced Luther because of its focus on justification: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6 ESV). Then shortly thereafter in words that clearly pick up on 5:6, Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:13-14 ESV). 

Paul expresses the same thought in that other letter dominated by justification, Romans:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 ESV)
This biblical manner of speaking is precisely what soft antinomianism avoids and rejects.  Exactly as Pastor Riley explains, it does not exhort, admonish and teach in sermons about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us (because we are in Christ).  Just as we find in Riley’s piece, soft antinomianism operates with an understanding of the Law that assumes it only does one thing as it accuses – it shows people their sin.  Exactly as Riley describes, in soft antinomianism the sermon seeks only to move from this accusation of the Law which shows sin to the forgiveness and peace found in the Gospel. What Pastor Riley sets forth in his post is soft antinomianism.  What he says is true, insofar as it goes. The error occurs in what he doesn't say, and why he doesn't say it.  It is in these two factors that the great divide exists between the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions on the one hand, and Riley's soft antinomianism on the other.