I’m going to pat myself on the back here. Takes some guts to title a sermon “Yawn”.
The text is what I usually call Jesus re-upping the 10 commandments, while turning them to 11 on the dial. And if you are reading them the interpretation is rather straight-forward. Having focused on the law last week, and given the basic understanding, I turned this week to how we receive Jesus’ preaching. The focus is on what I label the strangeness of Jesus. We are able to “Yawn” at reading something like “leave the altar immediately” or “cut the body part off” because it is old hat or because it doesn’t get past the surface that this is GOD ALMIGHTY saying this. 2000 years can make any claim venerable. Those hearing Jesus were hearing that claim for the first time. How strange. And it hit them with a crisis. Do you believe it? If you believe it, the preaching demands something deep. Something more than a “yawn.”
I might end this on a questionable story, but it comes from a group that is no longer yawning. Waking from our spiritual slumbers is first hearing anew the claim of messiah.
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.
How we use the word saint in the English language has a couple of meaning that are somewhat contradictory. This All-Saints Day sermon ponders those categories of saints a bit and then turns to who and what Jesus calls blessed.
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.
There was an ancient tradition, probably coming over from the synagogues, where visitors would share news of what was taking place in the church where they were from. Maybe the salutation (“The Lord be with you”) at the start of the service is the ritual placeholder for that. We welcome you, please share. To which the response would have been to share and end with “and also with you”. The welcome has been given and accepted. This sermon is a bit like that. When you read something that is so profound it humbles you, you really need to share it. I could not come up with a better illustration of “a city on a hill” than the response of this pastor from Wuhan.
Who is a Saint is an interesting question. The typical answers I think fall into three categories.
a) Anyone we loved who has died. This is the generic or default answer. It is either just being nice or an unthinking universalism.
b) All those who have faith in Jesus. This the “Protestant” answer.
c) Those displaying heroic virtue. This is the “Catholic” answer.
All of these are bad answers, and all of them have a bit of the Truth. On All Saints Day (observed) this sermon attempts to ponder that question and why each one of those is a bit wrong. It also attempts to think about what a better answer would be. It then encourages us to take action in our lives. The theological engine is the distinction that Luther drew between passive and active righteousness. Passive is our righteousness before God. Only God can make saints. Active is our righteousness towards our neighbors. A tree, or a Saint, is recognized by their fruits. The sermon attempts to hear and sort and apply the word to our lives in Christ.
Biblical Text: Matthew 5:36-6:18 (Lectionary reading was Matthew 5:36-48, I extended it to take in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount as next week is Transfiguration and lent leaving the Sermon behind.)
We’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount for most of the Epiphany season. The beatitudes as the entry; salt, light and a city on a hill as the purpose; you have heard, but I say as the doctrinal basis of the Kingdom. We’ve said that the Sermon functioned as a catechism for the early church. The one thing that Luther’s catechism could be faulted for – even recognized by the earliest Lutherans who attached the table of duties – is that is almost completely an expression of the faith which is believed (fides quae creditur) and ignores the practices of the faith which believes (fides qua). Jesus doesn’t neglect that in his sermon. That is why I extended the lectionary reading. Following his authoritative teaching of the 10 commandments, Jesus takes up charity/almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are piety practices. Using Jesus words, how we practice righteousness.
The interesting thing about Jesus’ teaching is how free it is. He doesn’t mandate or limit piety practices. He assumes that we will have them and that they are necessary, but that we will live our own faith. What he is concerned about is that our piety practices are done with the correct heart. He is concerned that we do them to be connected to the Father instead of desiring the reaction of our neighbors. This is the difference between true piety and virtue signaling. Develop the first and you Father who sees in secret will reward; do the latter and you have received your reward.
The last movement of the sermon is to examine how the phrase that ends the doctrinal section “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” is fulfilled in Christ, and grows in us. The doctrine of the church can be summarized in a few minutes, the living of it takes a lifetime to master. And even then it is not us, but God who brings it to completion.
Worship Note: I have left in the recording two musical pieces. First between the OT and the Epistle readings our Choir sings a gorgeous piece. (I really need to get a better mic aimed there instead of simply ambient. I did raise the volume level slightly to compensate.) Then I left in our closing hymn, LSB 848, Lord, Whose Love through Humble Service which captures well I believe the force of the text. If we capture the vision of the doctrine taught, it empowers our lives. It also has one of the great tunes in the hymnal which is almost pure Americana from The Sacred Harp. If the American church adds nothing to the eschatological choir beyond these tunes, it will still have added something worthy.
We continue reading the sermon on the mount today. The Sermon starts with a very quick recap of the past two weeks before turning to the text. At a very basic level Jesus re-ups the 10 Commandments as part of the law that not a jot of tittle will disappear from. While this section of the Sermon on the Mount could be used as case law, Jesus’ purpose is really beyond just looking references. Instead what he is doing is demonstrating what we tend to do with the law, and telling us what we should be doing with it. We tend to look for an easy way to externally keep the law. We want the recognition for keeping it without the actual work (virtue signaling). What Jesus says back is that the external matters little, what he desires is that we attempt to keep the spirit, the internalized law. The real definition of privilege as that term is used today is the extent to which we can claim to keep the law while relaxing its claims on us individually. Part of keeping the law inwardly, is being willing to be scandalized over our own behavior. Hearts of flesh contrary to hearts of stone are able to feel the effects of sin, know where it leads, and be willing to make personal changes and sacrifices to avoid scandalizing our hearts, and not just to avoid scandalizing the neighbors.
Worship Notes: I have left in one of my favorite hymns, LSB 716, I Walk in Danger All the Way. This is the opening hymn of my funeral right now. The text and the tune mesh together perfectly. It is the rare example of the slow burn hymn. The open verse states a true problem, and things get worse from there, but there is no immediate delivery or magic as so often happens. It doesn’t deny the reality of this world, but it develops over the last three verses our solid hope both here and for eternity. Powerful text if you let yourself hear. The second item is that you might hear a missing note. Our organ decided to drop a note this morning. Providentially, we have a new organ on the way.
The lectionary continues reading through the sermon on the mount. For me the best way to read it is as what it was to the early church, a catechism on the Christian life. In these verses Jesus addresses a couple of questions. The first is a rare instance of a why question being answered by God. The second is what is the relationship between the messianic Kingdom and the old covenant contained in the law and prophets? The two answers feed into each other. As it turns out the old covenant maintains an honored role. This homily explores those answers and the role of the law in the life of the Christian.
Worship note: The Hymn of the Day supporting that theme is LSB 579, The Law of God is Good and Wise. It is a great example of a Lutheran Catechetical hymn. It teaches the three uses of the law, the important powerlessness of that law, and as with the Gospel text the fulfillment of that good and wise law. The law has become something of a four letter word in many churches. The more you read both Jesus himself and the church from different ages you realize how wrong that is.
The Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit, etc.) are the poetic introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. In Epiphany, the liturgical season given to coming to know who Jesus is, that sermon is assigned reading over five weeks. I won’t call it a sermon series for a couple of reasons, mostly because that phase annoys me, but also because I’d be worried by week 5 that even my regulars would be ditching services. More seriously, the sermons will be connected because the text is naturally connected, but it isn’t a forced connection.
So this sermon attempts to do three things:
1) Re-introduce into our imaginations the “Blessed are…” statements. We hear them, but they don’t engage the imagination as to what they actually mean because “blessed are…” is both too well known and too little understood. We’ve been inoculated to it. I want us to be infected with the Kingdom that Jesus is preaching.
2) Hear the gospel in these statements and not just a list of “well, I gotta do that.” Part of prodding the imagination is seeing a world where I would freely choose what Jesus describes.
3) Start laying the ground work for the connecting theme of compulsion vs. freedom.
Worship note: You can hear our recently growing choir in a couple of spots. This was a 5th Sunday where our choir supports the liturgy. I didn’t include the Chanted Intoit, but you can catch the gradual and the verse in the midst of the Alleluias. I have left in our closing hymn, LSB 690, Hope of the World. We sang stanzas 1-4. The tune is the workable EIRENE which grows on you once you grasp its internal stress and direction. The text is an deep contemplation not on the simple hope of a Deus ex Machina, but of the hope of becoming fully human in Christ.