The text is one of the most famous in all of scripture – Ezekiel’s Dry Bones. It’s famous, because of how it works on the heart if you allow it. If this field of scattered bones is the whole house of Israel, if the chosen people can come to this, what about us? And you’ve got to think about it because the Spirit takes you there and places you in the middle of it. And God asks you the question, “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel has a reply, not an answer. The answer is God’s. But it is not the easy triumphalism we want. Nor is it a counsel of despair. It is a promise. It’s the Word proclaimed. This sermon hopefully opens the heart and lets that work on it.
The text is the Road to Emmaus. It is one of those stories that pop out. Other than Jesus, the main characters are all but anonymous. Cleopas and his unnamed companion and a road between two cities. You get the feeling that Luke heard Cleopas tell the story and said to himself, “I’ve got to include this one.” This is one of the serious faults of the three year lectionary as the story only gets read on a Sunday once every three years. It is too reactive and psychologically rich a story to only meditate on together once every three years.
Just off the top of my head I could think of four strands of biblical theology that Emmaus puts a capstone on: table fellowship (i.e. God eating with sinful men), the road or the journey, Seeing and not-seeing God, The City of God vs. the City of Man. In other words, in five minutes I could outline at least five good sermons from the text that each would have a different doctrinal point and gospel message. The one that I worked with here is the power and place of word and sacrament. No theme operates exclusive to the others. Seeing and not-seeing plays a key motif when you talk word and sacrament, but it is still a supporting roll.
When you strip the church to its core, when our personal and often misguided desires fall away from the church, what remains? Word and Sacrament. How do we see or recognize the risen Christ in our lives? Through Word and Sacrament. What is the correct order? What is the individual’s role in faith? How do these things function in the life of the believer? What is the tragedy and triumph of Word and Sacrament? These are some of the questions that this sermon contemplates as it attempts to apply both law and gospel.
(I wanted to make one stray comment. John, the man who does our recording, usually includes at least a couple of verses from the hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book #476 – Who are You Who Walk in Sorrow was this service’s hymn. It is a modern text (copyright 2000) paired with a haunting american hymn tune (Jefferson). The text is a powerful one made more so combined with the minor key and lilting tone of the tune. Here is a link to someone who has typed it out. You can find a reflection on many of those biblical themes in the hymn as well as another one from the Easter Season of death and Resurrection. That is a powerful and meaty modern hymn.)
This is my attempt to read or make sense of what might be the hardest batch of text in the lectionary. The three texts for the Day were Amos 8:4-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-15 and Luke 16:1-15. It is days like today that a lectionary is actually built for and why you follow it. There is no way and sane preacher would choose these texts to preach from today. And in all truthfulness you would probably not even read two out of three from the lectern because just reading them raised blood pressure.
The sustained argument throughout this sermon is that what raises blood pressure (or just baffles) is not the texts themselves, but what we import into the texts in reading. The problem is that we have trouble reading the Bible. Not that we can’t read, but we have not developed the habits of mind and heart that go to understanding. The foremost of those habits is reading the word in submission to the word. That means a bunch of different things, but I primarily think about it on two lines. First, scripture interprets scripture; second, we give the word the benefit of the doubt. We assume that it is right and can be made clear if we are willing to understand. Part of making it clear is understanding the context of the writing, social context and the larger purpose of the book.
So, as I started with, this is my attempt to publicly read, or interpret for modern ears. To come at these hard texts with proper habits of mind and heart.
This week was the 2nd week after Pentecost otherwise known as the first week of ordinary time or the first of many Sundays with green altar cloths. The lectionary during these times is something called a lectio continua or a continuous reading of two books. The gospel reading, which is normally the sermon text is from Luke this year. But for the next six weeks we are reading Galatians from the pulpit for the Epistle lesson. I’ll be preaching through Galatians for that time. This sermon starts that series.
In my reading of Galatians there are three main themes. Those themes are being an Apostle, the Gospel of grace and our delivery from this present evil age. Paul’s opening words, Gal 1:1-5, touch on all three.
What this sermon concentrates on is “Christ and…”. The devil is always trying to pervert the Gospel by sneaking in one small word, and. Galatians is all about pushing back on the and, in all possible ways. Pushing back such that it is clear that “there is no other gospel other than Christ alone”. False teachers may come and trouble the church, but the sure answer is always the apostolic word which is nothing less than the Word of God.
Sometimes data visualizations just get it. The word tree above gets its. We are in the middle of lent which is a penitential season, a season for repentance. Now there are some really good questions that we might ask about that. What is repentance? What does it include? How do we do it? Why? Who?
This text is at its core about answering those questions.
Why? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Because the assumptions that we have been taught by the world are not what the Word of God tells us. Hear the Word.
What does that Word assume? No one is good. The word itself accuses us (the law), but that same word is our salvation (gospel).
What does repentance include? A change of assumptions from the world’s to the Word’s. A fruitful living according to the Word.
Where do I go to understand fruit? Look it up in the Word.
The text is the cleansing of the Temple. It is an episode that is in all four gospel. Words from it end up at the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus. In Matt/Mark it is the proximate cause or fig leaf for convicting Jesus. In John it is moved to the front – the first action by Jesus of his public ministry – for theological reasons. All that is to say that the Scriptures view this as important. The indictment of Jesus is that the people have turned His Father’s house into a marketplace. It was easier to make God a transaction.
I have to say that much of American church life can feel like that at times. That sometimes it is just easier to pay the temple tax than to carry the cross.
Where does renewal start? “The disciples remembered…and they believed the scriptures and the word that Jesus had spoken.” The disciples remember. The sheep hear his voice. The new temple is a temple of living stones. A temple cleansed in the blood of Jesus. A temple where the sacrifices are the broken and contrite heart. The renewal…the life starts by being deep in that word.
This is an awful Christmas text. It is heart wrench and not at all in the saccharine mode of modern Christmas. In the words of Doctor Who – ‘its half-way through the dark.’
So far I’m finding Matthew tougher that either Luke or Mark to preach from. I think that is because of a couple of impressions of mine.
1) This could be take the wrong way, but I generally think that most Christians today, even those who claim a high view of Scripture, have a low view. When it comes down to it, we really question or hold suspect if the Bible is the Word of God. If we did think it was the very Word, we would struggle with it. We would argue over it. We would have bibles worn out. Fact is we don’t. The opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. My impressions of Mark and Luke were that their stories stood on their own a little more. They were more about ‘Jesus is Lord’ which is a theme that can be made within the context of Jesus’ life. Matthew, as this sermon will talk about, has some different themes like ‘Jesus is the Son of David’ and ‘Jesus is the Nazarene/Suffering Servant’. Those are intensely biblical. If you don’t have a high view of scripture, and you don’t have a good knowledge of the basic salvation story, then Matthew’s “proofs” are meaningless.
2) Mark is supposed to be the gritty one, but Matthew in the infancy is the one that looks at the abyss. Matthew is the one that gives us our sin in all its horribleness – a tyrant killing babies. When one of your proofs that Jesus is the messiah is that he is the Nazarene/Suffering Servant, Matthew so far has some darker colors on his palate.
Here is the money portion or emotional payoff of the full sermon… Suffering Servant
The closest I can come to seeing it, is Matthew’s last “proof”. In order that he would be called a nazarene. That Jesus would be despised among men and rejected. A man acquainted with grief.
Sometimes, in fact in this sin crippled world most of the time, what we can do and accomplish is nothing. Sometimes the tyrants are too strong – including that tyrant sin within us. Sometimes there is no Egypt to run to. Sometimes there are no angels instructing a righteous step-father Joseph. Sometimes all we can do is bear witness. Bear witness that God is not the God of the philosophers distant and far off. God is not the cleaned up and sparkly God of the marketers and Christmas cartoons. We bear witness that God is one of passion.
That the babe in the manger grew up to a cross. That the God revealed to us in his Word does not spare us from life, but came to give us life. Right now, that life includes sorrow, it includes passion. But it also includes a God, a savior, who has felt it and knows it all. A God, a savior who remembers. A God, a savior who will comfort Rachel in the only way possible. Her children that are no more – will be. Because that savior bust the gates of death.
Now we might be Nazarenes, despised and rejected. Now we might be standing a Rama – the place of leaving for exile. But now we have hope – a God, a savior who is Christ the Lord.
It is hard talking about this one. Because there is no real answer other than prayer, which I desperately beg of you to do.
In that vein, this is Anselm of Canterbury which happened to be the prayer of the day in my prayerbook…
Blessed Lord and Savior who has commanded us to love one another, grant us grace that, having received your undeserved bounty, we may love every man in you and for you. We implore your clemency for all; but especially for the friends whom your love has given us. Love them, o fountain of Love, and make them to love you with all their heart, with all their mind and with all their soul, that those things only which are pleasing to you they may will and speak and do. And though our prayer is cold, because our charity is so little fervent, yet you are rich in mercy. Measure not your goodness to them by the dullness of our devotion; but as your kindness surpasses all human affection, so let your hearing transcend our prayer. Do to them what is expedient for them, according to you will, that they being always and everywhere ruled and protected by you, may attain in the end to everlasting life; and to you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and praise forever and ever. Amen
Two choices with any Special Day sermons, preach the day or preach the text. Preaching the day is by far the more popular. People expect it. It is actually easier (maybe why it is more popular) – no translations to do, find some simple stories preferably cute about the people involved. But I think that puts the cart before the horse with most things Christian. The text or the Word drives the Christian story…drives the Christian. Preaching the day drains it of its vitality. The day becomes just another museum piece. One more birthday, anniversary or commemoration to remember. Preach the text and the living Word might show up.
Russell Saltzman here has heard or given one to many sermons on the Day. He gives some great examples of the species. It is also a great example of loss of hope. When the day has lost its vitality, it can’t inspire hope. The Word that inspires is absent.
Red flag of the parsons own views here – we made/make too much of the politics and the piety that came out of the reformation, and not enough of the original insight. For centuries the camps of Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed have gloried in their people and places and documents. And those things are important, but they don’t capture the complexity of the people – their tragic incompleteness. The original reformation insight allows for that incompleteness, and lets God complete things. And that insight came from the Word.
For no one is justified by works of the law…but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the the Law – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:19-22).
If you read Saltzman’s last paragraph – he put his hope in the wrong place. Even the church, which will be protected until the end, is an imperfect and incomplete vessel – waiting to be made complete…waiting for the saints to be revealed…waiting for the righteousness of God through faith.