Sometimes you have one of those spooky encounters. This includes mine floating in a pool a few years ago. But the points is about the warning and the blessing of being a follower of Jesus. The warning could cause fear, a little like my story. But it shouldn’t, because the blessing is so much greater.
I also left in a great hymn at the end that captures everything. LSB 836
The essence of the text is a list, a list of names. Sermonic suicide, right?
I think the list, when you add the stuff around it is more meaningful than that. And it goes right at our problems with evangelism. We grumble, we come up with all kinds of excuses why we can’t, why things are going good. We look at this text and say, “if you gave me those powers.” But that is simply a surface reading. Give is a good read. List out what the tools for the work of mission actually are. And then ask yourselves, are you willing to pick up these tools? That is what the sermon does.
The assigned lectionary text for today was the parable of the Prodigal Son, but one of the things that I found out in preparation is that the church fathers never really treated the prodigal separately from the two parables preceeding it. And when you do the translation, they do seem to roll together with specific roles for a point. So, this sermon attempts to address these parables as the church fathers did.
We’ve focused on the theme of division in Lent so far, but Luke 15 turns that focus around. It assumes the division, and starts portraying reunion. THe question these parables focus on to the church fathers was not evangelism or restoring a wandering brother. That is a valid moral lesson. We are the body of Christ and have those responsibilities. But instead, these parables were about God’s action on behalf of his elect. The perfect number will not be broken. There will not be 99 sheep, or 9 coins, or 1 brother. God will gather all of the elect no matter where they find themselves and through whatever troubles.
And how God does this is first through the good shepherd who has carried us on his shoulders on that cross. Then he calls, gathers and enlightens us through the church – the woman with a lamp looking for that coin with the image of the King. And the purpose of this is to reunite us with the Father. All that the Father has is ours. That doesn’t change regardless of our actions. He has chosen to give us the Kingdom. It is just necessary that we come in and rejoice.
The biblical text has two stories turned in to one of Mark’s famous sandwiches. Jesus’ natural family are the outside and the Scribes from Jerusalem are the inside. What this structure invites us to do is compare and contrast. It invites us to learn the lesson at the core or in the meat of the sandwich and apply it to the outside. Part of that core is a three step argument with the somewhat shocking image of Jesus as a thief. The work and words of Jesus are Binding the Strong Man, Satan. His family may think he’s crazy putting them on the outside right now, but the Scribes are saying that Jesus’ work and words are the work and words of Satan. Jesus’ words to them are a judgment. The only unforgivable sin is calling the Spirit a liar. The deliberate rejection of the word of God and antagonism toward those who hold to it, is a dire place to be. All sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, except calling the Spirit a liar. Even thinking Jesus is nuts. The difference is the one who is far off or outside can still be called near and take their appointed place as brother or sister or mother, while the one who says God’s work is Satan’s has chosen the side which is being bound. And what is bound is thrown into the fire.
The sermon looks at these themes in the text and pulls out three applications to our lives. The hymn of the day included in the recording and reflected at places in the sermon is Luther’s A Mighty Fortress with its themes of spiritual warfare against the strong man and what Christ has already done to bring us near. The title here is the biggest challenge application and the one I leave to conscience. The world teaches the brotherhood of man, or attempts to, and it can be a tempting vision. But that is not what Christ teaches. The brotherhood of man would be under the bondage of Satan. The true brotherhood is in Christ alone.
The text is the emergence of Jesus after the arrest of John the Baptist and his calling of disciples. This sermon looks at three sets of comparisons encouraged in the text by their juxtaposition: Jesus and John the Baptist, Andrew/Peter and James/John, and Jesus and his disciples. Each comparison increases our knowledge of God and the path of discipleship. The sermon explores those especially the role of courage in the life of discipleship.
A note on the recording: I’ve included a couple of musical pieces. Our Choir sang an infectious newer hymn, LSB 833 Listen, God is Calling. It has a dramatic African Call/Response structure. I’ve been looking for about three years for a chance to get it into the service. It is just not something that a congregation can take on cold, but the choir sounded great. The second hymn is LSB 856 O Christ, Who Called the Twelve. It also is a newer hymn with some amazing depth paired with probably a familiar tune, Terra Beata formally, but I know it as This is Our Father’s World. (And I am still convinced that the theme song running throughout the Lord of the Rings movies is inspired by this hymn tune. At every moment of near despair, Frodo or Sam remember the shire and this theme plays in the background.) Both of these hymns are great additions to a Lutheran Congregation’s Hymnbook.
There is nothing that makes a pastor more humble quicker than talking about evangelism. It is real easy to get hard numbers. How many baptisms? How many visitors? How many new members? These are things you can count without a big problem. And there is no end of people and places who will sell you a program. Many congregations and many pastors jump from one program to another to another. I’m not sure where is all started. My guess is that the first pastor of the church at say Thessalonica, about a year after Paul left, had other saying “hey, lets look at what the Temple of Nike is doing to goose attendance”.
One of the more hardy perennials are various fugues on how you can change your worship to appeal to those on the outside. The greatest exponent of that philosophy is Willow Creek. It is Bill Hybels and Willow Creek that popularized the term “seeker services”. The original idea was make your Sunday service as non-threatening as possible. That lead to things like: removal of crosses, replacement of altars with platforms, “worship” songs that don’t reference Jesus directly but instead just God, sermons that focused on “7 things you can do” instead of “this is what Christ has done for you”. That list might sound more negative than I mean it to be. If you were asking me what seeker services accomplished I’d say two things. First, they built a modern agora which is a reference to Paul’s method of going to the public gathering places to preach. All kinds of people will wander through a modern mega-church to talk general spiritual things. Second, the builders of these places are usually great preachers of the law. I don’t mean that is a specific moral law way. They are not great preachers of the 10 commandments. What they do very well is proclaim the way of wisdom. If you do and behave this way, good things will happen to you. And the best of them are wise and dispensing good advice. That is why there are plenty of people they can always bring up as examples. Here is the problem – and if you asked me Rob Bell is probably an example of this – the law kills. Even the best at keeping the law (paging Rob Bell), eventually crack under the strain. (I bring up Rob Bell because his story of hiding in the closet before he was preach one day is an acute case of the law.)
What went missing, and Willow Creek eventually admits something close to this, is the gospel. Thousands of people just burned out and went away mad. Thousands of other felt something lacking or dissatisfied with their spiritual life. They were doing all these things, and it didn’t work. They wouldn’t put it exactly this way, but they lost the bridge from talking in the open market to actually proclaiming Christ crucified for you. Evangelism a noble goal, but if you lose Jesus in the process what are you evangelizing too?
If we believe the small catechism it is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies. The sheep hear the shepherds voice. It might help if the sheep of the shepherd acted like it, but God’s will is done regardless. We are invited to be part of the mission of God, but it is not dependent upon us. (Thanks be to God!) One of the conclusions I would draw out of that theology is that worship is for Christians. The way the Spirit works is not through our mastery of psychological technique, but through the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments. In a paradoxical way, the stranger those are, the more effective they might be. Because there, in church, in word and sacrament, is where the holy touches the unholy and makes it clean. Hiding the holy is just hiding the face of God and lowering the volume on the Spirit. Another form of what Moses did when he put on the veil when he came down the mountain. After Christ the veil has been lifted. I’ll continue this further.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to have Ross Douthat’s email inbox. If people are willing to print things like this (headline with Ross’ picture right next to it: Do Not Have Sex With This Man), I don’t want to think about what would be said without an editor. Mr. Douthat himself had a follow-up, here worth reading. This is a First Things divide. How you answer what is the purpose of marriage determines many things. Different civilizations come from different answers to first things.
Catholic life needs to be reignited. American culture is a new kind of mission territory. It’s a cocoon of marketing, entertainment, and manufactured appetites; a narcotic of noise, distraction, and relentless propaganda for self-absorption and confused sexuality. Being in the United States in the weeks before Christmas is an education in what the culture really worships. It worships commerce.
Real Christian discipleship rejects and resists the kind of radical personal license and acquisitiveness that animates a consumerist society. So when the Catholic Church teaches about the dignity of the unborn child, the purpose of human sexuality, economic and immigration justice, the rights of religious communities and believers, and the nature of marriage and the family—she’s not just unpopular. She’s hated as the enemy of individual privacy and personal freedom. That shapes the way the Church is treated in the mass media.
The New Yorker gets cool to Rob Bell. I still like Bell. He says some things that should be said in interesting ways. But I also think what you are seeing in Bell is an attempt by one really smart and emotionally sensitive guy to create a Christianity in the hyper-individualistic America, a form of religion acceptable to those who are spitting nails at Ross Douthat. And I understand that desire to build such a thing, but after reading that New Yorker article, especially the last scene, you get a sense of the sadness and futility of the attempt.