There is always a bit of a frisson when I have a text with Satan in it. Giving Satan a voice from the pulpit always feels like crossing a boundary. There is a bit of that in here. But the main contemplative point is how Law and Gospel are connected with an “and”. In this world you don’t get one without the other, although that is always the temptation. Satan’s temptations are to break the relationships that bind and order our existence. Sometimes that temptation is straight up to our sinful nature. Sometimes that testing is to the power of the ring. But however they express themselves, they are always a rebellion against both the grace and the order of God. He has a way that He desires us to walk. When we tell the Spirit, sorry, I don’t like that desert or those 40 days, we’ve gone off the path. This sermon meditates on how Jesus walked it for us (hence the closing hymn), and bids us to follow.
The day was the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The Gospel text is Zechariah’s song which is what the Baptist’s father said after his tongue was loosed. And what a good portion of that song amounts to is a job description of a prophet. What this sermon does is compare that description with the modern popular conception of a prophet. It then moves on to why one of those is just as important for us today as it was for ancient Israel. It then ends with a recent example of prophetic work according to the Baptist’s model. The world would like us to dismiss or make silly the prophet, the biblical definition is our daily bread.
Whenever Christmas is on a Sunday there are a bunch of minor holidays of the the life of Christ that are also observed because they fall on a Sunday. A couple of them come right away. January 1 is the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus – 8 days after the birth. This sermon tackles that subject.
I hope the really bad joke at the start cleared the air for a stronger consideration of the day, because as I hold in the sermon I think the Circumcision and Naming is a deep strain of the gospel. If we weren’t able to contemplate the day because of snickering, we are missing something that stretches from Abraham to the Eschaton. I’d invite you to listen.
Part of the sermon is the example that prior generations have left us in the hymns. I left in our three hymns today. The first two are referenced directly: The Ancient Law Departs LSB 898 and Jesus Name of Wondrous Love LSB 900. I also left in our concluding hymn, O Sing of Christ LSB 362. The words are modern and the tune is familiar (Forrest Green, the Fancy O Little Town of Bethlehem). That combination makes for a surprisingly good 1st Sunday after Christmas hymn. It moves on from the simple fact of the incarnation to ponder it along with John 1 but including the themes resonant with the Circumcision and Naming – the frailness of the flesh and the wealth of the Name.
It is Reformation Day. The Lectionary gives us an alternative gospel text and I tend to take it. There are a bunch of reasons. The sermon puts forward a couple of reason. But the deepest reason is simply I like it. And I like it because it captures a gritty and real moment. Jesus, John the Baptist, the crowds and a confrontation of a sort. What did you think the Kingdom was? What are you going to do now?
Individuals of every age might have to answer “who do you say that I am,” but not every age gets confronted with a dramatic prophetic call. That is what John the Baptist was. That is what Luther was. Whose works and wisdom do you trust? Your own, or God’s? What this sermon is, is my pathetic attempt at proclaiming what a new Luther or a new Baptist would be saying to this generation. “To what shall I compare this generation?” My simple answer is that we lose that gospel because we dismiss its specific nature. We dismiss the specific law of the people of God defined in the Decalogue. And we glide over the body of Christ, the form of the gospel. We believe that god loves us, but we do so in a generic way such that the god who loves us is not Jesus Christ, at least not the one of scriptures, but one that looks more like ourselves. A recovery of the gospel today would be about its specific-ness and peculiarity – Jesus Christ, friend of sinners. It would be a recognition of the body in Word and Sacrament in our midst.
Worship note: I left in a little more music than normal. I left in stanza one of our opening hymn, Salvation Unto Us has Come (LSB 555). Our choir sounded great this morning in liturgical duty. I didn’t leave their Introit, but you can hear them in the gradual (between the First lesson and the epistle), and in the verse with the Alleluia before the gospel. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, LSB 657, was our closing hymn. We tend to sing the Bach arrangement, but most of the LCMS uses a LSB 656. A Mighty Fortress ends up being “the reformation hymn” but if you asked pastors they would probably give you Salvation Unto Us has Come. It captures the teaching of the Reformation clearly. A Mighty Fortress is a great hymn, but its popularity stems not so much from its teaching but from a later political-theological rallying cry.
Difference between the edge of the Jordan and Sinai? – doubtful
And standing covenant for all
The purpose of the law, to point us toward mercy
Christ is merciful first and greater
Not to go back into debt/sin
Reformation Day has had a number of modes of celebration through the years. This sermon mentions some of them, but maybe surprising for a Lutheran preacher, I’ve just never had much connection with the day. I guess part of that is my general distaste for the common forms of hagiography. If Luther is a hero (and he is) he can only be a hero in one form. Likewise, if he is a heretic who destroyed the church (and he did destroy a form of it), he can only be damned. Neither of those flavors ever appealed to me. We humans are way to complex for that. And it doesn’t give a good report on Luther’s key insight. In this life we are sinners and saints simultaneously.
Jesus uses a great visual image against “this generation” in the text. It was a generation that didn’t dance to the flute or sing to the dirge. Beyond that when the good law was proclaimed it said “he has a demon”; when the joyous gospel revealed it said “a glutton and a drunkard”. It danced to the dirge and sang to the flute, without recognizing the truth in either. For quite a while I’ve been feeling the same thing about Reformation Day.
But this year something happened that made it click. Stripping away the saint-stories and focusing on the story – A group of people confessing, remaining faithful, calling to the face the powerful and refusing to recant. It is a common story in the church. The only place I know of that celebrates those killed for being conventionally stupid. It is so much easier to recognize which side your bread is buttered on. The reformers did and they didn’t. Like Paul speaking to the Apostles wondering if his preaching had been in vain (Galatians 2:2) and confronting Peter to his face. Like the OT prophets sent to the Kings of Israel and Judah. Institutions go off track and sometimes need to be called on it. Separating the schismatics from the prophets isn’t always easy. And there is usually a little of both intermixed, but wisdom is justified by her deeds.
There is one more stripping away though. Institutions are fine and necessary. But as the hymn the choir sings in the recording tells us, God does not dwell in temples made with hands. He dwells in living stones. What is always most in need of reform is not the church or the collective or the other, but our hearts. Hearts that are no longer desiring only the clean story, but that desire God’s story – grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.