This is the Wednesday Lenten Mid-Week. My general theme this year is “The Word.” We will be walking through the first three parts of the Small Catechism, giving the most time to the Creed, taking each article of the creed individually. But, the catechism starts with the 10 commandments, otherwise known as the law. And all the commandments are captured in the first commandment to have not other Gods. The question really is “What does it mean to have a God?” Luther’s answer is deep, because it is existential. Whatever you fear, love and trust about all things is your God. This homily examines two things about the law and that answer. First how one can have an external keeping of the law – driven by fear or by wisdom – that is not necessarily bad, but not sufficient. The keeping of the law due to love is a true keeping. The second examination is how we so easily give our love away to things other than God. And it is in those realizations that the law has done it’s work which is pointing out that the law cannot save us. We need a perfect source of love.
I’m sorry, don’t know why I’ve had ghost stories on my mind. But, I ran across an essay that talked about the differences between US or Western ghost stories and Japanese. (Here is the link, although it is really geeky. http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/the-ghost-did-what-translation-exposing-providentialist-thinking/) The summary is to say that US ghost stories tend to reward the virtuous and punish the evil. That essay calls this providential, although that is a terrible definition of providence, which biblically is “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” The providence of God is not that he’s the galactic scorekeeper, but that he is gracious and merciful, not visiting upon sinners their due rewards. Japanese ghost stories have a different morality that can be shocking to Westerners. In the Western sense, complete innocents can die. People who do nothing to help but heed warnings can live. Victory, if you want to call it that, can simply be diverting the ghost out of your house somewhere else.
I find ghost stories and maybe horror stories in general interesting because they are almost always theological. They reveal more clearly than almost anything else what we actually believe about “God, the universe and everything.” I also think that is why the horror genre is a niche. Most people don’t actually want to think about theology. Which makes the pastoral job interesting. Because part of the job is not just getting people to think about such things, but to maybe make corrections to their thinking. And maybe even make changes in their lives to bring them into closer alignment with good theology. And it is part of the job not because any pastors really want to be the morality police. We don’t. It is part of the job because it is part of equipping the saints. We all enter the crucible. You don’t want to be putting on the armor while you are already being tested. You want to have it girded prior. So part of the job is Pastor as haunting ghost to get you to think about these things.
The Western ghost story, with its embedded works righteousness, is a fable of the law. And that law has three purposes: 1) The Curb, 2) The Mirror and 3) The rule. Watching a US ghost story where the evil and promiscuous die functions as a curb in that the innocent viewer might see where punishment is given and not follow that path. It functions as a mirror in that we might see what is due to us in certain characters. It functions as a rule in that it holds up – via the hero and heroine – a still more excellent way. The biggest problem with that fable is that it also lies. It holds out hope that by following the hero’s path we might live. By the law, we all die.
This is where I think the Japanese ghost story is a nice correction. It is a world of at best disinterested spirits, and at worst malevolent spirits. The disinterested do their jobs with varying levels of competence. It is interesting to me pondering a hurricane as the result of the weather power taking a day off. And I don’t think that is far off the biblical picture of “the powers that be.” (Luke 21:26, Romans 8:38, Eph 6:12, 1 Pet 3:22). And of course “Satan prowls like a roaring lion.” Stealing from Sci Fi/Fantasy, we live in a dark forest. Oh, we think we know everything because of our recent mastery of matter. But maybe we don’t have the mastery we think we do. We think we have clear cut the forest, but have we?
The secret to many Japanese ghost stories is “the wise old man or woman.” This character is usually a minor one, but they haunt the story. They show up usually after some deaths when the main characters are desperate. They tell the characters what is happening. And they tell the characters how to avoid it. And then they leave. What happens in the Japanese film is not about personal holiness. Did you follow the law? What happens is did you hear and take heed? The characters that are open to wisdom’s word are saved. Those who have ears to hear are not always those we think deserve it.
This is the advent of the gospel. The star has appeared. The light shines in the darkness. Are we willing to set aside worldly wisdom and follow the star? Or do we insist upon our own knowledge unto salvation? At least in the Japanese ghost story, the one who listens to the Word makes it out of the dark forest and lives.
Biblical Text: Matthew 18:1-20, (Ezekiel 33:7-9)
I started using the word clouds a long time ago for the image. Originally I thought it was artistic cute: a Word cloud for preaching the Word. But, as I made them I started to realize they did have something to say, and what they had to say too seeing a few. There was always the simple surface fact of the most commonly used words. Like above – Luther and Jesus. I learned and adapted over the years that if “God” was the biggest word, the sermon was probably too generic. I looked for Father or Jesus or Spirit to show up. But there are a variety of shapes that show up. The clouds that are dominated by 2-3 big words and everything else is small are usually the simplest. They tend to be more about proclamation. At the other end are ones like the above. There are lots of words that are large enough to be read, but none that really just pop. Those tend to be less pure proclamation and more teaching or invitation to ponder. The every Sunday preacher has to have a bigger repertoire than the occasional. The lectionary preacher even more so, if he wants to preach the text and not just what is on his mind that week.
Matthew 18 is a deeper text than we normally treat it. Depending upon if our preference is for Young Luther or Old Luther (listen to the sermon), we tend to reduce it to “The Process” for solving disputes in the church, or reduce it to the ridiculousness of even thinking about the law parallel to Jesus’ hyperbole about cutting off body parts. We aren’t going to do that and the Father would not want that, so thinking in sin counting terms must be just wrong. I hope that this sermon was an invitation to think beyond those simplistic reductions. The Christian Life has a simplicity to it, but those are caricatures. That simplicity is the one found on the other side of a complexity.
Biblical Text: Matthew 27:11-26
Capturing this sermon in a simple paragraph is hard. The driving question is why would the Christians remember Pontius Pilate in the creed? And it is a question that has some maybe surprising contemporary impact. It has been one of those weeks where I feel that years have passed. This sermon directly addresses some of those things, because with Pilate as the source, they are appropriate.
Biblical Text: Matthew 5:13-20, Isaiah 58:3-9
I don’t do these types of sermons that often. Most Sunday’s I try and proclaim the gospel. That proclamation of the cross of Jesus for you is the primary job. But occasionally the text seems to call for a catechetical or teaching sermon. In this case the question both the OT and the NT passages want us to ponder is: What is the purpose of the law? And this is a very important teaching of the church that we have simply lost today. This sermon looks at the two ways the church can lose the true purpose of the law: works righteousness (over-playing the role of the law) and antinomianism (underplaying the role of the law). It then turns to the catechism and confession’s three uses of the law with a specific meditation on almost a precursor to the formal law, a 0th use or a an expanded 1st use. Why expanded? Because none of the teachers of the church could imagine a people rejecting the natural law at such basic points.
There are these series of “songs” in the book of Isaiah often called the servant songs. The most famous is the one most associated with the passion in Isaiah 52 and 53. “Behold, my servant…shall be high and lifted up…he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…” Our Old Testament Lesson for this week (Isaiah 42) is another one of the servant songs. And it contains one of the most fascinating descriptions in the Bible of the way that God will operate with men.
The first thing it does is make sure that we understand who and what we are dealing with. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” There are three unique things here that we should absorb. The first is that the mystery of our election is tied up in the mystery of the Trinity. The son is the only-begotten of the Father. This is the one in whom the soul of the Lord delights – soul here meaning being or essence. The delight of the Lord being with his people has always been tied up with his people being connected to the only-begotten son. And from where does this delight come? The choosing. This one is my chosen. And this chosen has chosen his own. As John says at the start of his gospel, “given the right to become Children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:13 ESV),” And for what have they been chosen? They are servants of the most high. Now it is the paradoxical nature of this God that he raises up his servants. And the one who is the servant of all now sits at the right hand of God. The church is the servant of Christ, his chosen, and the delight of his eye in an analogous way to the son and the Father.
How is this made known? “I will put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Spirit was placed upon Jesus in his baptism. There is a long-standing fight between the Western and the Eastern churches over the Nicene Creed. The Eastern one confess that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. The Wester adds: and the Son. The Spirit placed upon Jesus in His baptism then proceeds from the Son to us in our baptism. He took our baptism, so that we might receive his. Just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit for his service, we have been anointed by the Spirit for our service. And what is this service? To make known to the nations what the justice of the Lord is.
And all of that brings us to the toughest verses. How is this done? Can we bring this justice to the nations by brute force? What about by the wisdom of the world? “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” All of the straightforward ways of power and authority of the world are to be shunned. The gospel proceeds by “left-handed” ways. It is not that the gospel denies truth and justice. No, “he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged.” This is the same God who “created the heavens and stretched them out.” His law stands. But that rule is to be accepted and longed for. “The coastlands wait for his law.” Because Christ will not have the might of the law crush the weak. Christ has chosen us and his election is sure. That “left-handed” way is by faith. The Servant has chosen us and the will of God will not be confounded. Our faith is not in vain. The One who made all things, will make them all new in due time. “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
God operates with us by telling us exactly what he has done. By giving us His servant “as a covenant for the people.” And all those who have faith in this covenant are the chosen, those in whom the soul of God delights.
Biblical Text: Genesis: 4:1-16
Cain and Abel is one of the “Ur-Stories” of the world. Of course the first sibling rivalry ended in murder. You know it’s true. The question for me always was why? And the best answer that I can understand from the text is family expectation. Mom had expectations of Cain, that were not on Abel. This sermon spells out that case. It cleans up what I think is a “preacher story” about the difference in the offerings. Some preacher stories are made up to help the cause, but this one I think hurts it. And then it looks at how families are things of grace, and how our brother – Jesus – is the best brother’s keeper we could hope for.
Biblical Text: Luke 10:25-37
The Text is the Good Samaritan. When you are preaching on such a story you really have to be content with telling the old old story. And as a Lutheran that Old Old story is captured in this incredibly compact story of law and gospel. The law story is clear and is the direct text. You have a lawyer, arguing points of the law, and a command to go and do likewise. The gospel? The gospel is the subtext of the story. Because you eventually realize that the text is impossible. Something or someone must deliver us from this narrative that we have been living. That someone is Jesus the Good Samaritan.
Biblical Text: Mark 13:14-23, 24-37
The day on the church Calendar is the last Sunday of the Church Year, sometimes called Christ the King. The sermon completes our reading through Jesus’ last things sermon from Mark 13. You might call it the distinction between the end of a world, a time of tribulation, and the end of the world, the deliverance of Christ the King. The first of those we should be able to recognize by the “sign of the fig tree.” The last of those, we do not know, but we await that day. For that day is the day the Kingdom comes in its fullness. The Day of our deliverance.
Biblical Text: Mark 7:14-23, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Both of these texts are holding up the law. Moses encouraging Israel about to cross the Jordan to remember it, to keep and do it. And the Jesus describing the natural state of our hearts in regard to the law. Out of the heart come all evil thing. But in each case the law serves a specific purpose. It isn’t salvific – it doesn’t have the power to save. Neither is the point purely to damn us. The point is to hold before us the love of God, to point us to the gospel. And it is that love of God held before our eyes that keeps it in the heart – that give us a clean heart and renewed spirit.