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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I always laugh when I hear someone say the church is so political, although I think I understand what they mean. I laugh because it really isn’t. The lessons from this Sunday’s lectionary are the only ones that I think call for explicit political preaching. And to be honest, in my entire time pew sitting, I probably heard less than one handful of explicit politics from the pulpit. Most ministers would avoid it completely. But what I think they are expressing is not so much “vote for x” from the pulpit as the complete subordination of “things temporal” to “things eternal”. (Don’t miss the collective prayer I left in the recording.)
Jesus’ “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” saying is not an invitation to some type of church state separation. One can have a purely secular politics. Just stop at the first part. And that makes sense. That is the way of the principalities and the powers. But if you want to follow Jesus the call is to give to God what is God’s, which includes the things of Caesar.
Neither Jesus nor I get explicit about the answers to this. Honestly in Jesus’ day it might have been easier, or at least the average person would bear no responsibility for the actions of the gov’t because they were subjects, not citizens. But when you vote, when you are a citizen, you bear responsibility. This sermon attempts to lay out what discharging that duty in a Christian way looks like.
The Christian in called to live in two kingdoms at the same time. There are the kingdoms of the law. What we call the state is the typical representative of the Kingdom of the law. And in the Kingdom of the law the primary responsibility is Justice. Because this Kingdom is ruled indirectly by sinful humans (and fallen powers) justice isn’t always perfect, but that its responsibility. Christians also life in the Kingdom of Grace. And how we are called to live is thinking of the Kingdom of Grace as a millennium’s worth of work compared to the law’s as three months. Three months is a lot. Most of us don’t have three months in the bank. Three months is real. And legally we can demand it. But the Christian who wishes to reside in the Kingdom recognizes that those three months are as nothing compared to the 10,000 talents.
This is the way of the cross. The way of grace. Trusting that God’s justice is better than the best we could ever provide.
This sermon is slightly longer than I normally go, which yes, I realized that means nobody will listen. Way to lead with the glass jaw parson. But more seriously, I think I use the extra 10 mins or so for good effect. I promise you that this is not the typical sermon you will hear on Sunday. In short it is a defense of the law. It is an encouragement to holiness. But Christian holiness should not be something based in fear, because the law has lost its sting. Give it a listen.