It’s the first Sunday in Advent. The Gospel text is traditionally Palm Sunday – the triumphal entry, which is Jesus the King coming to Jerusalem. This sermon is based off of the Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah. Jeremiah is traditionally the prophet of doom and lamentation. But here he tells of fulfillment. God fulfills his promises. He fulfilled them to the heirs of Jacob. There was a greater fulfillment for Israel, a fulfillment we receive by faith. But behold, the days are coming when they will be fulfilled again. This sermon retells the covenants God has promised to his people.
What exactly is Reformation Day? It has been a lot of things. This sermon mentions a couple of them. But almost of of the alternates are corruptions of what it really was. Which is a recovery of the Apostle Paul. Which is a new birth of freedom in hearing the law and the gospel. It is not just the gospel, although that is the happy best part. It is also the law. The Reformation recovered that 200 proof cask of grace that Paul preached. Christ died for sinners and God’s righteousness is given to you as a gift. You have been made a member of God’s house by God’s choice. And that free gift also frees us to see the law for what it is. It is not a method of saving ourselves. But it is also no longer our writ of condemnation. Yes, we are sinners. But the righteousness of God does not come by the law, but by grace through faith. So we can accept the law as God’s good gift to us for our good. Reformation Day is about the law and the gospel, and how they Reform our hard hearts into hearts of flesh.
The Gospel text assigned for today is the second half of a pair that occurs in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mark and Luke). The first part is the transfiguration, when Peter, James and John are taken up the mountain and see Jesus transfigured in glory. The second part is this story of arguments, crowds, fathers, sons and evil. It is a story of the confusion that reigns here on the plain, here at the bottom of the mount. And since they are always juxtaposed the text invites us to ponder, what is the difference between the mountaintop experience and life down below. The big difference is the role of faith. The mountaintop is not about faith, because you see. You might have trouble comprehending what you see. Integrating what you see might be tough. But you don’t have to have faith in it. Life on the plain is about faith. This sermon ponders that difference and the meaning of a prayer, “I believe, help my unbelief”, and prayer in general (“This kind only comes out by prayer”) in the life of faith lived here on the plain.
There is a fundamental conflict in our existence. It was present before Jesus, but in Jesus it has come in its fullness. And that conflict is the one the Elijah fought against the prophets of Baal and against himself. What is more important, what we see, or what has been given us in the Word? It is not that God has not given signs of himself. Elijah saw the fire from heaven. The people ate the bread in the wilderness. But those signs do not sustain forever. We file them away, or can’t process them correctly. Jesus gives to us the Bread of Heaven, the Word, himself. And this sustains on our 40 days and 40 nights here on our journey to the mountain of God, on our way to the Father.
The lectionary has us in John 6 for three weeks. It is one of those long watershed chapters. It all takes place in the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000. In the Gospel according to John the feeding and that crowd are a little more specific about their desires than in the other gospels. They wanted to make Jesus their King. But the type of King they wanted was not the King Jesus is. The crowds were seeking, but they were not willing to be found. God was offering the bread of life, but they wanted their bread. This sermon explores that dichotomy.
The Sunday is Trinity Sunday, which is the final “Festival” in the Festival half of the church year. It is set aside to meditate on the Truth that captured the imagination of the first six centuries of the church – The Trinity. Part of that in the Lutheran church is the confession of the Athanasian Creed. (In the recording responsively.) But the texts for the day are rich is so many ways. This sermon does something I don’t do that often, it layers the Old Testament lesson in with the Gospel. And I did this because the story of Uzziah, mentioned in Isaiah’s call, and the story of Nicodemus layer so beautifully. They are stories of incense and pride. They are stories of desiring to see God in His essence, and missing God in what He has done. The year Uzziah dies, is the year we can see God. This sermon helps us see that.
Why does faith feel attenuated or faint today? What is different today than even say 100 years ago? It is a question that I find myself asking over and over. And I think that that answer is what we refuse to take seriously. We will take faith itself seriously, sometimes so seriously it is just “the big lie” or maybe the necessary lie. We take works deadly seriously. Well maybe not Christians as much catechized on grace, but the world right now is all about justice which is nothing if not a demand for good works. But what we do not take seriously, as something worthy of contemplation in itself, in Himself, is God. The ground of all faith and works, the precursor to these things, is God. We are invited to abide in Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches. That is not an image of faith, but of union. And we feel that ache of desire without understanding what it is pointing at. We always get turned inward which finds nothing when the object of desire is outside of us.
This Easter Day sermon picks up from the Good Friday one. One of Good Friday’s ponderings was on the Cry of Dereliction – “My God, Why have you forsaken me?” We probably all hear that in a certain way. This sermon attempts to point out the history of why we do, and why that history is wrong. Easter is the answer to the challenge of that cry. Easter is the eschatological inbreaking of the Kingdom, the first day of the new creation. This sermon proclaims what that means and what it asks of us.
The text is Jeremiah’s invoking of a new covenant. The sermon attempts to think about what we are talking about when we say the word covenant. What a covenant is is the Hebrew answer to the question: “How does God interact with man?” There are a bunch of other answer to that question. The sermon starts out cataloging some of them and how they came about. But the Hebrew answer is unique. And the Christian answer is the Hebrew answer.
The trouble that Jeremiah is experiencing is similar I think to what we might be experiencing today. Just how good does the answer of the covenant fit with how we experience God? A big part of the word covenant is simply a way that God binds himself. If the covenants appear to be failing, as they could appear to Jeremiah, in what way is the God who bound himself actually God? Jeremiah’s prophecy is “the new covenant”, not a breaking of the old ones, but their fulfillment. And that fulfillment is in Jesus Christ. Christ has always been the fulfillment, but in the new covenant we have the greater revelation written on our hearts. It is no longer blood on the external posts and lintels, but blood taken in. The fulfillment is no longer an external obedience, but the obedience of the heart through faith.
Biblical Text: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22 (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
This sermon might be a bit intellectual, but it is lent which is a season for some challenging fare. The challenge here is to think about what does the cleansing of the temple of our body. Our first answer is always the law. We think that we can control the passions. We think that our heads control our hearts. After that falsehood breaks, I think we often pursue some “middle ground”. We want to build a temple or sacred booth in this world. We clear out a bit of the world. We put our hope in something like “beauty” or “the arts”. And it is not that the law, or “the arts”, or any of these things are wrong. It is just that tomorrow, all the money changers are back anyway.
Our hope isn’t in anything in this world. Not in the law which is written on our stone hearts, although that dead thing can’t follow it. Not in the prettiest work of human hands, even though those might move the heart occasionally. Our hope is in faith in the cross and resurrection – the work of Christ – alone. We need a new heart, a new want-er. And that only comes about by the foolish work of the Spirit.