Law and Gospel is a beloved Lutheran theological slogan. For my money though it has moved from being something that is life changing to being a doctrinal formulation that is barely understood. And part of the problem is how it has been preached and used for the past 50 years or so. It has been used not as law AND gospel, but law and gospel have been set contrary to each other. That is both an abuse of the law, expecting from it what it can’t do, and a misreading of the gospel.
This sermon is my attempt to move law and gospel from a dead doctrine to a life changing reality.
The text is Mary and Martha which has had an outsized influence on Christian history. It is not stretching it to think that the interpretation of this passage shaped Christianity from the 200’s to the Reformation. What I’m speaking of is the separation of the Christian Life into the Active and the Contemplative. But that division, isn’t really fair either to the historical reality or to the larger reality presented in all of Luke 10.
What this sermon attempts to do is understand Mary and Martha in the full context of Luke 10. It ponders how and why Mary represents the one thing needful, while at the same time giving Martha her place as one addressed doubly “Martha, Martha” by the LORD. (Ponder for a second the full list of those addressed this way. It is like finding yourself on a list with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds.) And then it answers how we move from an anxious and troubled place, to the place of holding the one thing needful.
The pastor’s of LCMS circuits get together on the monthly basis for worship, study and commiseration. The host is responsible for the worship and preaching. When it is my turn, as it was this month, I take it as an opportunity to preach to a unique audience. This is the text I preached.
When I say a unique audience the biggest thing I assume is a familiarity with certain texts and theological concepts. The second thing I assume is something of a contemplative practice by which I mean a willingness to examine the effects of our theological concepts played out in the lives of people. We all have these concepts. The difference is that pastors should be and usually are acquainted with theirs. And because they will be held responsible for those effects, they need to examine them in the light of scripture. That is what this sermon does. Which focuses on our lack of use of the law or God’s word of power.
The text for the Sunday after Christmas this year was the Purification and the Presentation of Jesus at the temple. These are actually two separate things. The Old Testament laws that are being fulfilled are from two separate places. The OT text of the day is the basis of the Presentation of Jesus. The Purification is from Leviticus. The Sermon is an attempt to ponder what odd ceremonial laws have to do with us today. I think they might mean more than we would give them credit for.
The image and the reality is all over the new and old testaments. We pray for it constantly in the Lord’s prayer. But moderns have no idea what the world King means. We don’t have a good concept what it means to receive one. And even the examples that we have, like the Queen/King of England, are not what we are talking about. When those places use the world or the thought King they don’t mean a statutory figurehead. They mean a real one. One like a lion, however nice they might be at play, all you can think is “those claws, those claws”. This sermon is an attempt to recover some of that meaning. It is also an attempt to understand how this King is still different that all the others. And finally it is an attempt to understand how we receive a king – here in time and their in eternity as Luther would explain the Lord’s prayer petition.
This sermon completes Paul’s re-upping of the moral law/10 Commandments in the Christian life. It treats the 4th commandment and how we live into the promises of God by honoring the various close authorities in our lives. Those authorities are both temporal and eternal/spiritual, and they are not always perfect. Paul discusses it all under the the banner of being in submission to each other. The world attempts to divide us and councils that we are first individuals. The wisdom of God says we live in a web of proper authority in which we look out for the other. He does this by penning what is often called a household code.
This sermon looks at the elements of that household code and what they ask of the Christian life. That includes the honor between husband and wife, and how that is a sacramental picture of something much greater. But in each case we are called to live toward the promise and not give in to the easy temptations of the way of the world.
New Year’s Eve is not something on the Traditional Church calendar, it is the 7th day of Christmas for those who follow the liturgical calendar. I know that other Protestant traditions (typically Reformed) have a long history of worship on New Years, but here, as I mention in the sermon, it is the first time in my pastorate that I’ve had the pulpit on the Eve. A new year automatically creates a looking backward and a looking forward. What this sermon attempts to do is ground it in the saintly examples of Simeon, Anna and the Holy Family. Instead of wishing the old gone and the new on our strength alone, the old is our grounding and the new we look for is the strength of God. Happy New Year, and may the consolation of Israel be found in your hearts.
The text is the fascinating precursor to the “good shepherd” passages. In the context, precursor is the wrong word because the first 6 verses of John 10 are the basis. Verses 7 through 10 are an expansion or a change of emphasis. The good shepherd verses are elaborations on these initial “truly, truly” sayings. What this sermon attempts to do is meditate on those sayings. It asks the confirmation question “what does this mean” about the structure. After answering is examines three things: a) how God acts in this world as explained by the parable, b) our duty after “hearing the voice” and c) what Jesus means by abundant life. I think this is a rather thick sermon, but worth a listen
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.