The first three groupings of questions asked the who, what, when, where and how type questions. The stuff that can be mostly intellectual. These questions ask the why? What motivates Jesus/You? Why? For me this is probably the center of any self-examination. There are all kinds of reasons. But the only valid one is love. But even within the realm of love one has to question is love properly aimed. Lots of things are done for the love of money. These questions help us both understand the proper aim of love – The Father – and how The Father’s love encompasses us through the Son.
This is the 4th Lenten Midweek service. We have been working our way through the Christian Questions and their answer from the Small Catechism. These Questions and Answers are a model of “fitting preparation” to receive the Lord’s Supper. To me they run in expanding cycles. The first cycle is the simple proclamation of sin and salvation. The second cycle expands on that from the creed. This third cycle is very Lutheran. It always goes back to faith, but it also is not afraid to ask the question “why should or do I believe this?” The Lutheran understanding of the faith has an answer. That answer might not be satisfactory to all, but it has the advantage of being how the Bible talks about the origins of faith. And it has the advantage of being grounded in the cross. We remember and proclaim the cross as the ground of our faith. This sermon meditates on that.
Seasons and Holidays always have a chicken and the egg effect. Is the season or holiday where it is because something happened then, or was there already a celebration of some sort that was infused with theological meaning? The classic atheist taunt that Christmas was originally the Roman Saturnalia is an example. Which I’ve always taken as just strange. What if it was, who really cares. Add onto that the question of how strong must the theological meaning of the birth of Christ have been to completely take over a pagan festival? The cynic might reply, “you think Santa Claus and black Friday aren’t a pagan celebration?” Yes, yes.
This type of question goes back to the OT feasts. There were three primary ones: Passover, Pentecost or Weeks, and Sukkot or Booths. The theological meanings are rather clear. Passover was God bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Pentecost or Weeks was when Moses received the law on Mt. Sinai. Sukkot’s theology is rooted in the wilderness wonderings and God’s providence for all Israel. All three holidays also have an agricultural basis that the bible acknowledges. Passover planting, Weeks the early wheat harvest (the Holy Land being a place of multiple harvests) and Sukkot the big harvest. We live in a sacramental world. Everyday things are infused with the Spirit.
Lent’s chicken and the egg is something that we moderns probably forget. Your grand-parents, maybe your great-grandparents, certainly further back didn’t. By late February what had been stored for the winter was probably getting repetitive. Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras was the day you took out the last of the really good stuff from the larder, if you had any left. Did you start the Lenten fast because of the theological meaning, or because all you had left in the pantry was wheat for bread and scraps for soup?
Living in a sacramental world I think can go both ways. The material reality of our existence can point toward spiritual meaning. Likewise a Spiritual truth can suggest a material practice. In our world of material abundance I’m not exactly sure we’ve worked out what a penitential season means. Fasting can be meaningful, but it is certainly better when the entire community is doing it. And not even Rome seems to have the ability to mandate the fast. The Spiritual truth that Lent captures is that we have all fallen short of the Glory of God. What a fitting material practice would be escapes me. I’m often tempted to say we are all living a long lent. We are surrounded by a material abundance unimaginable to most of human history, yet far from being fat, dumb and happy, we are collectively the most medicated and depressed society ever. Man lives not by abundance, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And when God withdraws his word, no amount of abundance can replace it.
Lent as a season not to give things up, but to pick things up anew would strike me as better. What practices have our abundance squeezed out? Has Netflix eaten our prayer? Return to prayer. Has the BMW payment squeezed out charity? Recommit to alms giving. Has fast food and business ended the family meal? Make room at the table for something from scratch that begins with prayer. And if your family won’t join you, ask your neighbors, until someone accepts. Lent as a season to choose the things that truly feed might be a meaningful material practice. If you try, let me know.
(Note: This was a piece I wrote while I was a pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran in West Henrietta, NY. I forgot to import it over to here when I brought over my sermon file. Luckily it was on the internet archive and I was able to recover it. It came to mind in bible study at Mt. Zion in Peoria, AZ when asked a question dealing with the flood and sheol.)
The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostle’s creed though states it “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the apostles, was clearer. That apostle’s creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring of the scriptural teaching. Not a loss but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.
Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on
one thing here. What Peter says is Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite is the hymn verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it. I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What descent into hell means is the victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we got ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.
Biblical Text: Luke 23:1-56, Luke 19:35-40
Full Sermon Draft
Palm Sunday has the best hymns, they even rival Easter in my mind. Since the lectionary (the assigned readings for the day) have pushed Palm Sunday toward the Sunday of the Passion it sets up an interesting dynamic. There is a juxtaposition of the Palm Sunday parade which we re-enact in a small way with the via dolorosa. The hymns capture this changing dynamic. Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (LSB 443) and All Glory, Laud and Honor (LSB 442) are more pure Palms and celebration. But then No Tramp of Soldiers Marching Feet (LSB 444) starts perceiving the irony of the Palms and another parade. (For my opinion, this is a classic of what hymns are supposed to be – sung meditation. And it does it from a modern viewpoint.) And then Ride On, Ride On in Majesty (LSB 441) ends with the eschatological note. These parades of palms and cross are not the final word.
I don’t have the hymns on the recording. (The sad truth is we just don’t have the equipment for that sort of thing.) But the sermon attempts that sort of motion. It starts off with thinking about what parades are actually about and hopefully demonstrating that these biblical parades are the same as we can understand from our own time. It then moves on to the heavy irony, here defined as the difference between human and divine perception, that covers these parades and all of holy week. In that irony it perceives what Christ has done for us. It attempt to align our perception with the divine. We do that through the moral burden that comes with knowing the divine view, and knowing that we don’t measure up. It concludes with that eschatological view. We accept the moral burden because that is how we live out faith. We believe this is what God had done. And we believe that he will do as promised. So we walk in this parade.
Biblical Text: Luke 20:9-20
Full Sermon Draft
All of Chapter 20 in Luke is Jesus teaching on proper authority. It is set in the conflict between Jesus and the Temple, and this text is the parable that Jesus uses as the loadstone of the entire teaching. You find true north in regards to authority by pondering this parable.
It happens to be a fortuitous text as the political season moves in strange ways this year. It also comes up at the same time as a situation I have been pondering simmers. This sermon attempts to think through the text and those situations. What it emerges with I hope is a picture of what authoritative leadership looks like. In this world authoritative leadership looks like the cross.
I don’t bring it up in the sermon itself, but Luther once attempted to talk about the marks of the church, how you would find it. His biggest mark was the cross. You will know you’ve found the church when what you are looking at bears the cross. It is only that type of authority and leadership – a leadership that is directed toward God and neighbor willing to bear the burden – that is truly fruitful.
I hope that this is helpful in your meditation. Also, I want to add a note about the recording. This is a re-recording after the fact, because the recording at the time something went wrong. Which is a shame, because the choir sounded wonderful, and we sang one of my top-5 hymns. LSB 423, Jesus Refuge of the Weary. The words are by the original Bonfire of the Vanities Girolamo Savonarola. The author is a cautionary tale. He rose is acclaim and fortune castigating a corrupt authority. He was later hung and burned at the same time. I believe the text of the hymn comes from his prison meditations. It might not be true, but I hear the confession of a man who got lost but came to see the cross anew. A historical support for the limits I attempt to point out in the sermon.
Biblical Text: Luke 15:1-32
Full Sermon Draft
The assigned lectionary text for today was the parable of the Prodigal Son, but one of the things that I found out in preparation is that the church fathers never really treated the prodigal separately from the two parables preceeding it. And when you do the translation, they do seem to roll together with specific roles for a point. So, this sermon attempts to address these parables as the church fathers did.
We’ve focused on the theme of division in Lent so far, but Luke 15 turns that focus around. It assumes the division, and starts portraying reunion. THe question these parables focus on to the church fathers was not evangelism or restoring a wandering brother. That is a valid moral lesson. We are the body of Christ and have those responsibilities. But instead, these parables were about God’s action on behalf of his elect. The perfect number will not be broken. There will not be 99 sheep, or 9 coins, or 1 brother. God will gather all of the elect no matter where they find themselves and through whatever troubles.
And how God does this is first through the good shepherd who has carried us on his shoulders on that cross. Then he calls, gathers and enlightens us through the church – the woman with a lamp looking for that coin with the image of the King. And the purpose of this is to reunite us with the Father. All that the Father has is ours. That doesn’t change regardless of our actions. He has chosen to give us the Kingdom. It is just necessary that we come in and rejoice.
Biblical Text: John 2:13-22
Full Sermon Text
I used the title remembrance because that is the word John uses twice in the text to help explain it. John has yanked an event out of time, an event from Holy Week, and put it at the start of his gospel. He’s done this because the spiritual importance to him, what he wants to get across to us, he’s only seen in remembrance. And his importance is different than that attached to the event by the other gospels.
The event is the cleansing of the temple. To the other gospel writers this event is the action of the returning king, even if it is drenched in irony as in Mark. To John, in remembrance, this is the start of the sacrifice. This is where Jesus starts to clean the temple. But the temple is not one of stones. It is one of flesh. Jesus chases the animals out, because he becomes the offering.
The two pieces of music I’ve left in here pick up on that theme. The choir sings “What Wondrous Love” which is a gorgeous meditation on that sacrifice. And I’ve left in the hymn we sang after the sermon, LSB 431 Not All the Blood of Beasts which contemplates exactly that exchange. “A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.”
Biblical Text: John 3:1-17
Full Sermon Draft
Preaching on John 3:16 tends to fall into two categories: 1) insipid, usually because it has a definition of love completely contrary to the passage or 2) counter-productive because it proclaims what is cheap grace. It proclaim the truth of Christ without asking that we receive him and live by the Spirit.
We have no problem with Jesus, so long as we have control over him. The problem with that is that the Father has chosen Jesus. Verse 17, we are saved through him. And in the context of Nicodemus’ midnight visit Jesus has chosen to act in a specific way – by water, Spirit and cross. Believing in Jesus is not just a simple matter of intellectual assent. Believing in Jesus is in part an admission that we are not “in control”. The Spirit which dwells within us from our Baptism is our guide. And that Spirit leads in the path of the cross following Jesus. Grace is a gift, we can only receive it or turn it down. We can accept Jesus, or stumble around in the dark with Nicodemus.
Text: Luke 22:7-20
Full Sermon Text
Luke’s record of the Last Supper is interesting. He has a fuller passover meal when he captures two cups. Over that first cup Jesus says:
For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
(Luk 22:16 ESV)
Which places a strong emphasis on eschatology or the things to come. The central image anytime you are dealing with wine and banquets is a Wedding. What this explores is the eucharist as engagement and the sense of anticipation for its fulfillment.