Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sermon for the Eigthteenth Sunday after Trinity - Mt 22:34-46

                                                                                    Trinity 18
                                                                                    Mt 22:34-46

            It took me longer than it should have, but eventually I learned the lesson that you should not attempt to discuss anything of substance on social media.  Facebook, Twitter – it’s all the same.  The impersonal interaction that lacks clues of intonation and non-verbal communication; the limitations inherent in writing a response; the fact that multiple people are all trying to talk at the same time – all of these things contribute to the outcome that not much good is going to come out of it.
            In particular something I have noticed is that in discussions on social media, you feel the need to have the last word.  Even when it is obvious that you and another person simply have antithetical worldviews, it is hard to let the last statement in a thread be that of the other person; the other side. I guess this is because the conversation remains there for everyone to see, and we don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t have a reply.  We don’t want to give the impression that we just gave up because the other side won.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning we see that the Lord Jesus does get the last word.  Recorded in the Gospel, this conversation now remains for everyone to see. We find that Jesus silences the opponents by asking a question about the Christ.  It’s a question they can’t answer.  Today, we know the answer to his question.  Because we do, we have forgiveness and peace.  And we also have the means by which we begin to do what our Lord speaks about at the beginning of our text.
            Our Gospel lesson this morning takes place during Holy Week.  During this time, the Jewish religious leaders engaged in an ongoing series of attacks against Jesus.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees may have been rivals, but in Jesus they found a common opponent. They both challenged Jesus with questions that they hoped would harm his reputation … or worse. In this chapter, the Pharisees had asked Jesus about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, but the Lord answered it in a way that left everyone marveling.  Next the Sadducees had asked a question about the resurrection and marriage, but Jesus answered in a way that astonished the crowed at his teaching.
            We hear in our text: “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.”  Jesus had shut down the Sadducees. So the Pharisees decided to take another run at him.
            The Pharisee asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  In the semitic idiom, he was asking, “What is the greatest commandment?”  This was the kind of question that Jewish scholars debated for centuries. And so now the Pharisee addressed it to Jesus, apparently in hopes that he would provide an answer that could be attacked.
            Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
            Our Lord made short work of the question.  It was easy.  Love God with all that you are. That is the great and first commandment – a summary of the first table of the law.  And the second that follows from this is, love your neighbor as yourself – a summary of the second table of the law.  Jesus said that on these two commandments hangs – or depends – all the Law and the Prophets.  Everything in the Old Testament comes down to these two things: Love God with all that you are.  Love your neighbor as yourself.
            It would be so simple … if it just wasn’t so hard.  Love God with all that you are.  But that means God must come first, and I must come second. As fallen people, that’s not the way we want to run things.  If I fear, love and trust in God above all things, I won’t get to do some of things I want to do.  I won’t get to have some of the things I want to have.  I won’t have some of the time for me, that I want to have.
            And love your neighbor as yourself?  Are you kidding me?!? Do you have any idea how much I love myself?  There can’t possibly be enough love to go around by the time I get done with me. To love others in that way would mean sacrificing something for me, and I’m not about to do that.
            This is the sin that is present in our life. There’s no denying it. There’s no excusing it. And if our text ended there we wouldn’t have any Gospel. We would have only law. We would find only a word of God that shows us what we are not. We would have a word of God that only shows us our sin.
            But that’s not where our Gospel lesson ends.  Instead we hear: “Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, ‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’”
            It was, of course, a widely held belief in Judaism that the Christ – the Messiah sent by God – would be a descendant of King David. But Jesus then followed up by asking them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
            Our Lord quoted Psalm 110:1, a psalm attributed to King David and understood to be about the Messiah.  Jesus explicitly says that David wrote the Psalm under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And then he calls attention to a puzzling feature. David, writing about his son – his descendant, the Messiah – calls him “Lord.”  In the ancient world the father was always superior to his son. And the farther removed in time the patriarch was, the more superior he was as well.  So humanly speaking, there was no way David should ever call his descendant “Lord.” What was going on here? The Pharisees had no answer.  We are told, “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
            However, we know the answer to the question. Jesus was David’s son – his descendant.  He was a human being, born of Mary.  Joseph, who was from the line of David, had taken him to be his own son when he accepted the pregnant Mary as his wife. Through Joseph’s action, Jesus was a son of David.
            Yet Jesus was not conceived through the union of Joseph and Mary.  Instead he was conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit.  He was born of the virgin Mary. And he was David’s Lord because he is the Son of God.  He is God – the second person of the Trinity – now incarnate as true God and true man.
            This individual – the son of David and the Son of God; David’s son and David’s Lord – was unique. He was uniquely suited to carry out a completely unique mission. And for this reason he was in Jerusalem during Holy Week. He was there to give his life as a ransom for you because you are a sinner.  He was there to redeem you from sin and the devil by dying on the cross.  And having accomplished this on Good Friday, he then defeated death by rising from the dead on the third day.
            Jesus did this for you.  His Spirit brought you to faith through his word.  He baptized you for the forgiveness of sins.  Now, God the Father sees you not as what you are, but as what Jesus Christ has done for you.  He sees you as forgiven – as a saint.  In Christ, he does not see you as a person who loves yourself more than him.  He does not see you as a person how loves yourself more than your neighbor. Rather he sees you as a person who loves him with all that you are.  He sees you as a person who loves his neighbor as himself.
            But this is not all that Christ has done.  Through his Spirit he has made you a new creation.  When Martin Luther preached on this text he said: “Then he also promises to give you the Holy Spirit, so that our hearts begin to love God and to keep his commandment.  God is not gracious and merciful to sinners so that they will not keep the Law nor so that they would remain as they were. Rather, he gives and forgives both sin and death for Christ’s sake, who has fulfilled the whole Law, in order in this way to make the heart fresh and through the Holy Spirit to kindle and move the heart to begin again to love him from day to day more and more.”
            Until you die or Christ returns you will always be plagued by sin. You will not perfectly love God with all that you are.  You will not perfectly love your neighbor as yourself.  Yet because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that means nothing before God.  Through the work of the Spirit you are forgiven. You are a saint.
            And instead of worrying about what you can’t do perfectly, you are free to seek to do all you can.  Christ’ Spirit provides the inclination, the motivation, the power to put God first in ever greater ways.  The Spirit provides the inclination, the motivation, the power to love your neighbor as yourself.
            So because of Jesus, trust in God’s care and love, even though as far as you are concerned things are not going well.  Make time for prayer and give thanks to God. Read God’s Word during the week and come to Bible class on Sunday. Obey your parents … the first time they tell you to do something.  Help you neighbor who needs assistance with something. Tell your spouse about how much he or she means to you, and then show them by what you do in the the living room and the bedroom. Speak in ways that help a person’s reputation.
            Jesus Christ makes this possible through his Spirit, just as he makes your forgiveness and salvation certain.  His death and resurrection is the source for both.  Your life will never be perfect, but because of Christ God views you that way. Nourished and strengthened by the Means of Grace, the faith that receives this status, is the faith that seeks to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself.



Saturday, September 29, 2018

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  The observance of a day to honor the angel St. Michael dates to the fifth century.  It was later expanded to include all angels. .  We confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.”  Included in this are the angels who are spiritual beings created by God to serve Him and help His people.

The Bible mentions two angels by name.  Michael is mentioned in Daniel (10:13, 21; 12:1), Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7.  On the basis of these passages he has been honored as “captain of the heavenly hosts.”  Gabriel is mentioned in Daniel 8:16 and 9:21, and was the messenger of God in the annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:19) and Mary (Luke 1:26).  In the Scripture reading from Revelation 12, Michael and the angels cast Satan from heaven.  This casting out of Satan took place as a result of Christ’s victory in his death, resurrection, and ascension.  No longer is Satan allowed to appear before God and accuse His people (such as we find in Zechariah 3:1-5; the name Satan means “adversary” in Hebrew). 

Scripture reading:
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:7-12).

Collect of the Day:
Everlasting God, You have ordained and constituted the service of angels and men in a wonderful order.  Mercifully grant that, as Your holy angels always serve and worship You in heaven, so by Your appointment they may also help and defend us here on earth; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Mark's Thoughts: Luther's Church Postil teaches us to preach

C.F.W. Walther said, “Oh, would to God that these dear men had the humility to sit down a Luther’s feet and study his postils!  They would learn how to preach effectively” (Walther, Law and Gospel, Twelfth Evening Lecture).  If the need was true in 1884, then it is even more true today.  The adoption of the three year lectionary which accompanied Lutheran Worship has meant that since 1982 many lectionary texts have no corresponding Church Postil sermon.  In addition, differences in nomenclature for individual Sundays between the one and three year lectionary make it difficult to identify when there is one.

I strongly suspect that the training in sermon writing for most LCMS pastors included little about Luther’s own preaching or the reading of Luther’s sermons.  There was much about whatever homiletic approach was the flavor of the day (always changing), but very little regarding what Luther’s preaching teaches us about preaching.  In my own case, there was nothing about Luther’s preaching at all.

At the same time, this oversight is not limited to homiletics.  It is also true more generally in the practice of historical and systematic theology as they deal with Luther.  Scholars have used Luther’s many treatises, lectures and other works in order to develop “Luther’s” understanding of the Law and what this means for the Lutheran Church today (notably the denial of the third use of the law by Werner Elert’s In Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Gesetz und Evangelium [1948; Law and Gospel] and Gerhard Ebeling’s Zur Lehre von triplex usus legis [1950; “On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the Reformation”]).

Yet as M Hopson Boutot recently observed, “Lamentably, in the midst of historical-theological skirmishes on the third use, Luther’s preaching is largely ignored.  Scholars frequently cite what Luther said in his theological writings, but surprisingly little effort has been undertaken to ascertain what Luther actually did in the pulpit” (M. Hopson Boutot, “Invocavit Imperatives: The Third Use of the Law and the Survival of the Wittenberg Reformation” Mid-American Journal of Theology 27 [2016]: 49-66, 49; emphasis original).  This is striking because in Luther’s sermons we see what Luther thought his theology meant for preaching.  If we believe Luther’s theology as confessed in the Book of Concord, then we should be keenly interested in how Luther applied that theology in his sermons. Likewise, any interpretation of Luther (especially his understanding of the law!) that does not correspond to his preaching must be rejected as inaccurate.

The modern lack of interest in Luther’s sermons is all the more striking, because they were so influential in his own day.  Benjamin Mayes comments: "Luther’s sermons were among his most influential writings, especially the collection of sermons known as the Church Postil.  From 1525 to 1529 some twenty-five editions of Luther’s postil were published, while in the next half-decade the number rose to more than fifty, and publication remained strong for the remainder of Luther’s life and long after his death in 1548" (LW 75: xiii).  Indeed, in contrast to the modern scholarly approach, the Formula of Concord cites Luther’s Church Postil as a source for understanding what is being confessed.  In a very important example, as Formula of Concord article VI explains about the third use of the law it points to this work: “Similarly, Dr. Luther explained this in great detail in the summer part of the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity” (FC SD VI.9).

The Church Postil was an important means by which people at the time of the Reformation learned about the theology Martin Luther taught. This work was a collection of Luther’s sermons that covered the church year and, “From the beginning of his work on the postils, Luther had stated that they were supposed to serve ‘common pastors and people, and thus were to be the great devotional books of the Reformation” (Luther’s Works 75: xxiv).  They provided models for Lutheran preachers and, “In 1526 Luther suggested that less-capable preachers could occasionally recite one of his postils as their sermon, thoughin 1543 he did not want preachers to use postils as a crutch for their own laziness” (LW 75: xxiv-xxv).

At the beginning of this work, Luther provided a “Short Instruction” which bore the title, “What Should Be Sought and Expected in the Gospels.” Luther warned first of all, that the books of the New Testament are not to be seen only as moralistic “law books.”  He stated, “It is a still worse custom that people regard the Gospels and Epistles as law books in which are taught what we are to do, and the works of Christ are described in no other way than examples” (LW 75:7). He warned that “you should not make a Moses out of Christ, as if He did no more than teach and set an example” (LW 75:8).

Instead, the chief thing is Gospel.  Of this Luther wrote: “Most briefly, the Gospel is a report that Christ is God’s Son who became a human being for us, died, rose again, and was made Lord over all things.  St. Paul says as much in his Epistles and emphasizes it, though he omits all the miracles and acts which are described in the four Gospels” (LW 75:7-8).

Luther urges that we must first receive Christ as a gift.  He states:
The main point and basis of the Gospel is that before you grasp Christ as an example, you first receive and apprehend Him as a gift and present given to you by God to be your own.  When you see or hear that He has done something or suffered something, do not doubt that Christ Himself with His doing and suffering is yours.  You can rely on Him no less than if you had done it – indeed, as if you were Christ. That is truly apprehending the Gospel, that is, the superabundant goodness of God, which no prophet, no apostle, no angel has ever fully expressed, which no heart can ever sufficiently be amazed at and comprehend. That is the great fire of God’s love for us by which the heart and conscience become happy, certain, and at peace; that is what preaching Christian faith means. (LW 75:8-9)
Yet for Luther that is not the end of the story.  Indeed, it cannot be.  Instead, after receiving Christ as a gift, the Christian then receives him as an example.  Luther goes on to say:
When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and blessing of your salvation, then the second part follows, namely, that you take Him as an example and devote yourself to serving your neighbor, just as you see He devoted Himself to you.  Then faith and love are both active, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and the person is cheerful and fearless to do and suffer anything. (LW 75:9; emphasis added)
According to Luther, Christ as gift is for you and your faith. Christ as example uses your works in order to help your neighbor:
Therefore, just look at this: Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example uses your works which do not make you a Christian, but rather they come from you who have already been made a Christian.  Now as far as gift and example are separate, so far are faith and works separate.  Faith has nothing of its own, but only Christ’s work and life. The works do have something special from you, but they should also not be your own, but belong to your neighbor. (LW 75:9)
Luther immediately reinforces the importance of this approach in the sermon on the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent (Mt 21:1-9). There he writes:
In the preface, I said that there are two things to be noted and considered in the Gospel readings: first, the work of Christ presented to us as a gift and kindness, to which our faith is to cling and in which it is to be exercised; second, the same work offered as an example and model for us to imitate and follow.  Thus all the Gospel lessons first teach faith and then works. (LW 75:28; emphasis added).
Then after emphasizing the Gospel of Christ as gift, Luther again goes on to say:
We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith but also as an example through love toward our neighbor, to whom we are to give service and do good as Christ does to us.  Faith brings and gives Christ to you as your own with all His possessions.  Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions.  These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love; and out of these grows hope in patience (LW 75:41-42; emphasis added).
Luther does not speak about good works in the abstract, but rather identifies them according to the vocations in which Christians find themselves:
A man is to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die for the love and service of his wife and child, the wife for the husband, the children for the parents, the servants for their masters, the masters for their servants, the government for its subjects, the subjects for their government, each one for his fellow man, even for his enemies, so that one is the other’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, even heart and mind.  These are truly Christian and naturally good works, which can and should be done unceasingly at all times. (LW 75:44).
The Lutheran understanding of the law and what it means for preaching have been the subject of much discussion and disagreement in recent years.  The introduction to Luther’s Church Postil provides clear and unambiguous guidance about what Luther’s understanding of the law means for preaching. The question then is whether modern Lutherans are willing to listen to him.