The right use of God’s name always ends in thanksgiving.
That I believe is the message contained in the story of the 10 healed lepers. It is not just a miracle, although it is that. Neither is it an overly simple, “aw shucks, we should give thanks” lesson, although giving thanks is a good habit. It is really a lesson on who has used the name of God rightly. There are three groups named at the start: Jerusalem, Galilee and Samaria. All three think they know how to use the name. The 10 lepers use the name in seeking mercy. But only one receives the grace. Only one receives the kingdom. This sermon contemplates the 2nd commandment from Luther’s catechism, which is a spiritual classic. And it ponders our lives, our prayer, praise and thanks, in light of the command and the text. What does it mean to use the name of God rightly? Think about it.
We are continuing our reading of Ephesians Chapter 3. The formal assigned reading begins at verse 14, but to me just picking up Paul there clips off the entire thrust of his story in this chapter. Verse 14 forward is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (and all the people of God) based on the revelation in the prior verses. Verse 10 – “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:10 NLT)” – is the hinge to me. Prior I hope we know from the book of Acts of Galatians and the first two chapters of Ephesians. But Paul adds this rich line about God’s purpose. This sermon examines that line in all its richness and terror. And then it seeks to understand Paul’s prayer for us in light of that calling to display the wisdom of God. This is the Christian life in its cosmic purpose. This is the Christian life connected to its deep meaning.
There is a saying that all theology ends in doxology. For those who don’t know, the doxology is simply a hymn of praise to the Triune God. What it means is that at the end of all our contemplation and argument and understanding of God is simply praise. He is God and we aren’t. There are biblical books that operate in that zone: Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, some of the minor prophets, but Paul does not work there. There is a joy in Paul even in the midst of his sufferings. And the opening to Ephesians captures that. And that Joy is centered in the eternal workings of Father, Son and Spirit. Eternal workings that have been given to us by the Father’s good pleasure. Eternal workings found in Christ. Eternal workings brought to their completion by the Spirit. Eternal workings for the purpose of praise and glory.
I think the lectionary makers have stuck us with the end of one devotion and the start of another. I think 2:1-3 complete the chapter 1 thought. Peter then picks up a new thought in 2:4. The first devotion moves from new birth to craving pure spiritual milk. It is a devotion about growing up in Christ. The second devotion moves from that individual and early growth in faith to the communal nature and its maturity. As individuals we are newborns (baptism), babes (milk) and eventually grown up into salvation. As the church we are living stones built into the new temple, the royal priesthood, a holy nation. When we are grown we come into our maturity which is as a people.
This being mother’s day, the childhood analogy works well. The bridge from the childhood to the communal is that the church is the feminine or mother image. God is building his church, and he builds it from the stones that are rejected by the world. We living stones conform to Christ, the rejected cornerstone, with all the rough angles of the cruciform life. In this there are always two building projects: the world’s and God’s, the false house and the high house. Mom, the church, is the means by which we are built as the living stones of the High House. (Note: I’ve stolen those labels from an enchanting work of fantasy (The Evenmere Chronicles by James Stoddard).
Music note: I lost most of the music in the recording, but I think I kept the best piece, although as a congregation we got off to a rough start on it. LSB 645, Built on the Rock, captures the spirit of the text and the sermon quite well.
Recording note: I’m sorry for the overall quality. The volume level was quite low (our line volume ghost came back). I had to re-record the lesson as the early parts were unusable. I’ve normalized the volume levels to the best of my ability, but you will notice the change from a studio sound to the live static.
I was somewhat shocked this week when I went to read what the church fathers had to say when commenting upon the text. Not shocked in a bad way, but maybe I should say surprised. Maybe it is the limits of my sources which are basically those contained in the ACCS. The ACCS is an updated form of the Catena Aurea or Golden Chain, a string of quotations and gloss that past commentators felt important. But the 10 lepers did not attract much comment, and the comments it did attract were not moralism. While I would not call them moralists, the church fathers were not ashamed to encourage holy living or acquiring virtue. (Again the could be because of later editors felt that was what was worth copying and preserving). Instead what was present was what I would call beautiful and clear allegory.
Now we think of allegory as meaning flight of fancy. I’ve read enough of it to know it can be that, but I also think that is an awful label for what was essentially a method of pondering the scriptures. After preaching for five years week in and week out, what I now recognize is a tool for preaching. The literal level is the basis, and it grounds what you say in history and the text. This is trying to understand the text in its own time. The typeological level is about bringing the specific literal to the eternal. A good reformation way of thinking of this is how does the literal story tell us about who Jesus is and his purpose and work. What does faith latch onto? The third section then asks the question: Knowing that eternal truth how do we live in the now? Having generalized the truth, how do we realize it today. The last section never loses sight of the final day. What is the final fulfullment, the eschatological or resurrection reality contained in the text. What is our hope derived from the text? Over the entire method it is a way to be grounded in the words of scripture and history while connecting it (and ourselves) to the grand story of salvation.
So, this sermon takes the form of an allegory. Not those flights of fancy, but just a way of structuring the proclamation. And to ground it further, the Hymn of the Day was A Great and Mighty Wonder. Celebrating Christmas in October might seem odd, but the hymn dovetails perfectly with what the Father’s said and what I tried to proclaim. As so often is the case, the hymnwriters preach better than the preacher.
By and large, for what is a 4 minute segment built around a songwriting couple, it gets a bunch right. The one thing that is interesting is the complete absence of those congregations that never caught the CCM wave. It is written as if the entire chruch dropped hymnbooks for a while and then discovered them like Josiah finding the book of the law. As one of those congregations that hews to the hymnody of the church that is odd.
The best thing that they got right is the true dynamic of hymns and praise songs. Quoting Getty (the profiled couple)
The couple came to town to write songs not for individual artists, but for what Keith Getty calls “the congregation.”…There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song. But Keith Getty says it should be singable without a band and easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.
The hymn, because of its metric nature and usually simple tunes, should be immediately singable with minimal accompaniment. And because of the verse structure can actually say something. What has become known as the praise song is more musically complex. The performers sing it and maybe you get to join on the snappy chorus.
Now I’m not one to rule out the praise song (even though we don’t use them here), but what I would say is what is the intention of singing in church? Is it to emote, or is it to hear the word? Do we come to church primarily to bring what we’ve got to God, or to hear what God has for us? What you sing, even if you don’t know it, supplies an answer to that. The praise chorus can have proper places, but in my experience of it, where it is bunched up in front of the sermon, the purpose of that form is to emote and bring to God. The historic liturgy put the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) first. We praise after we’ve received the gifts – namely the mercy of the Lord. Putting praise before, as in “bringing all my worship”, is a misdirected understanding of what happens in church.
The textual basis for this sermon is one long sentence. The English translations break it up because that is good English. But what it does is miss the catechism like effect as the clauses build up. The core sentence is short and clear – God be Praised. The rest of the text reads like Paul starts asking questions and answering them in phrases and clauses attached to that simple sentence.
Which God? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. A Very specific one. One that you know.
Why praise? Because he has already blessed or praised us with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING.
What are these blessings? You were chosen to be Holy and Unblemished before the foundation. And not just that but you have been adopted into the family of God. You are part of the Royal ruling family.
How was this done (after all I don’t think I did anything)? You didn’t. It was through and in and because of Christ. First by his blood. Redeemed by the blood. Second you have been enlightened with the wisdom and insight of his grace to know the mystery.
What is the mystery? The cross primarily, but also the resurrection and the ascension (i.e. the Lordship). These things which have been hidden in plain sight.
How do I know this? You have been sealed with the Spirit which is the down payment. Outside of the revelation of Christ and the illumination of the Spirit the mystery would remain. But you have it right now.
Why has He done this? For the Praise of the glory of his grace. We are that praise. Our lives, our walks, our confessions and our worship. God be praised.