Living Signs

Biblical Text: Acts 9:1-22

This sermon takes on a topic that is probably a little far afield for most Lutheran churches, conversion. And in thinking about conversion we have to think about things above and things below. What I mean by that is we live in a sacramental world. The reality above breaks into our reality here. We can call it sacraments. We call it signs. We call it revelation. Depends upon the stability of the inbreaking. The conversion of Saul/Paul is the text to think about this. If you ask how Saul was converted, a valid answer is baptism. Ananias baptizes Saul and he is welcomed as brother and receives the Holy Spirit. That is the reality. But that is not how most of us would describe Saul’s conversion. The road to Damascus is the sudden replacement of Saul’s will which was breathing threats and murder with the will of Christ. This is also the daily conversion of any Christian. The sermon attempts to think through these things. As I said, not a standard subject. I think it hangs together, but sermons are signs themselves. And describing signs is always a bit like interpreting dreams or reading revelation. You are better off experiencing it.

Seeing the Risen Christ


Biblical Text: Luke 24:13-35
Full Sermon Draft

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.)

Blindness and Vision


Text: John 9
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon attempts to show how the characters of the man born blind and the pharisees are representative of contrasting spiritual paths. The primary difference is the reaction when presented with the act of God. The primary act or work of God is His creation of the Spiritual life through water and the Spirit. If the reaction one of obedience to the Word, then the result is vision. If the reaction is one of rejection, then the result is blindness. The encouragement for the Christian life is to examine our own reactions to the work of God in our lives.

From Babel to the New Jerusalem


Biblical Text: Genesis 11:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

How does the Spirit work? That might be a question that leads to a just-so-story. But just-so-stories don’t give the Bible, and its author the Holy Spirit, enough credit. Such stories can be manipulative. If you are taking Babel as a just-so-story, the real purpose is to say “know your place”. It would be the Biblical Icarus, and God would be the capricious Zeus. But that is not the story told at Babel and Pentecost.

The story told is of a God who saves us from the worst of ourselves. The story told is of a Spirit that takes the wounds of sin an glorifies them. No longer are all the languages a reminder of how sin turns us inward, but they are a testament to the width of the love of God. The new creation comes not through compelling force or manipulative story, but through an invite to the heart. God’s will is done, the New Jerusalem is built, one heart (one stone heart turned to flesh) at a time.

I was called, gathered, enlightened (and sanctified) by…?

Are our testimonies honoring to the whole landscape of the Christian journey? Not if they only speak of the “how-shocking-was-my-sin-before-I-met-the-Lord” story. (As though the sin I commit today is less shocking!). Not if they only share the safe feelings, rehearsed responses, and good “decisions” for which we give ourselves unearned credit.

This word—conversion—is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God. I know of only one word to describe this time-released encounter: impact. Impact is, I believe, the space between the multiple car crash and the body count.

Those are two close quotes from this book by Rosaria Butterfield. I recommended the book to Sunday morning bible study this last week primarily on the strength of its depiction of coming to faith and the unflinching picture of the work of the Holy Spirit. (That is the answer to the post title’s question. Read Luther’s answer to what the 3rd article of the creed means.) As a picture of being called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified and what that might actually mean in real flesh and blood, the book is harrowing. And it is a spiritual classic.

Our Christian culture likes to tell prodigal son stories or sing Amazing Grace (I once was lost but now I am found.) We love the dramatic Damascus Road conversion. But what we miss is the years Paul spent in Arabia (Gal 1:17, Acts 9:23-25). We hear the story of the slaver John Newton, author of the Hymn, but we don’t notice the timeline. Conversion in 1748, but he didn’t quit slaving until 1754 and that only after he suffered a severe stroke. In 1757 he applied for ordination, but he was not ordained until 1764.

The conversions in the words of Mrs. Butterfield are “a train wreck”. We don’t get off so easy as “I once was blind and now I see”. At least not in how we understand that today.

I bring that up because the gospel text for this coming Sunday is probably one of the most offensive possible for our modern understanding. The 4th Sunday of Easter is usually “good shepherd Sunday”. All the pastoral metaphors come out – still waters, green valleys, protection, leading. But the gospel text in John where Jesus says he is the good shepherd (John 10:14) ends with the Jews saying Jesus has a demon or is possessed (John 10:19). The specific text for this Sunday has Jesus saying, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We don’t get a choice. Like Mrs. Butterfield there are no pat on the back decisions, only an impact, a train wreck, a meeting of the living God.

The Holy Spirit calls us. Usually through common means like preaching and the word, but sometimes uncommon like bright lights. The only choice we really have is to turn it down, to not believe what we hear (or see). And we are called to a purpose or what feels like a process. We are gathered (baptism, church family). We are enlightened (bible study, prayer). All so that we become sanctified. All Christians are being lead by the shepherd’s voice in those paths. And those paths go right through the valley of the shadow of death. Because something does die along those paths – our old self. Leaving that body (of sin) behind can be traumatic. We like to sin. We are good at it. It creates deep roots.

It is also not our decision. The sheep follow the shepherd.

Two Realms and the New York Times

David Brooks is like the one eyed man in the land of the blind.

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties…Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses.

I say one eyed man because David Brooks understands the law. Not the civil law, but the natural law or the religious use of the law. He understands 1 John 1:8, “if we say we have no sin the truth is not in us”. Many politicians of the left and the right think that if only we could implement out program we would get it right. That is a form of denying the truth. Because as St. Paul says all the law does is increase sin. (Rom 5:20). But David Brooks only has one eye. That part after the ellipsis in the quote gives it away. He thinks that just acknowledging original sin or our inclination to break the rules will restore good government. Now turning from complete falsehood to truth might lead to better government, but it might just as well lead to another rash of “men of iron” who would seek to impose that better way. Since all men are rule breakers we need that “strong ruler” to keep them in line. That thinking lead to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and every homicidal dictator of the 20th century left and right. Hitler won elections. Stalin was popular.

The second eye is the gospel. Those founders understood that law only leads to sin. They also understood that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had political dimensions, but were largely spiritual in nature. For a democratic government to survive required citizens of private virtue (4 Cardinal: Prudence, Patience, Fortitude and Temperance; 3 Theological: Faith, Hope and Charity). And the only way to sustained private virtue is conversion and the indwelling of the spirit. You can have the best system set up with complete understanding of the law, but absent private virtue it will come to naught.

What the democracies of the west are reaping is the coming to naught. Virtues are not built and practiced because the Spirit has been denied. The Spirit has been denied because the Spirit testifies to Christ alone. And we do not want Christ. We can do it ourselves. We can perfect our democracy and our safety net and our war machines. We do not want the grace. Especially a grace given from a cross. Empire always looks better than the cross, until you live in it or under it as the case may be.

A few links I need to clear out

In prepping for sermons and bible studies and teaching moments you become a hoarder of stray thoughts. The internet has only made that much easier because people actually write it down for all the world, and really good ones stay like tabs on my browser taking up space like all the junk in a house before a good cleaning. These are a few recent good things that I’ve run across, but I don’t think have incorporated (i.e. stolen for use) anywhere.

Simcha Fisher on weight-loss and conversion or sanctification.
For poetry lovers, Dave Wheeler on Advent Ghosts. (HT: the High Calling, a great site for laymen and women pretty much by laymen and women.)
Christianity Today on The Leavers. When I asked that question in the Sermon about living from the Mount of Olives, this is in the background.
Into deep water here. The Monday Sermon for preachers. What does Ambrose and Celibacy have to say to a sex drenched culture.