This was our reformation celebration. I love preaching on what is the alternate Gospel Text for the day. It offers for me an image of both the law and the gospel in John the Baptist and Jesus.
We all have compressed images of truth. The sermon looks at some of our I think. Some compressed images linger after we’ve forgotten what they mean. Others are “eternal gospels”. They speak to all times and places. The reformation has an image. Luther with a hammer nailing his theses to the door. The question that the day brings to us is if this is an eternal image, or a temporal one.
I happen to think Luther is a dramatic icon of the gospel, akin to the icon Jesus paints in the text for himself. I think Luther is an eternal truth. But the question is really to you. Do you still get the truth of the image. Are you willing to dance? Or has it become a dead image.
There is always a mystical element in Christianity, “My sheep hear my voice.” Not that there isn’t a lost history of proof behind that voice, a history capture in the Scriptures. Abraham in that sense ends up being THE man of faith because he heard the voice without any real history. But we are all a bit like Father Abraham. The shepherd calls, and we hear the voice and follow to a good land.
Jesus parable here in John is help for Christians. There are always three types of voices. And Jesus tells us how to tell the difference. That is what this sermon is about. How do we sore out the thieves, the gatekeepers and the shepherd? It is surprisingly simple, and the highest art in the faith, listening for law and gospel.
The text, a quick read, is the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And these are such clear and tender pictures of the grace of the gospel, a preacher might be doing injustice to them by preaching anything but their simplicity. That is my request for a bit of grace at the start. Because that simplicity is there, but I push a little bit beyond that simplicity here. And the reason is that our context has changed. And I think that we as Christians need to change the context in our heads when we hear these parables. We need to be a little wiser in regards to law and gospel and ears to hear. So jumping off of a Luther himself sermon, this sermon looks at just who are the lost sheep, as well as the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, and the sinners and tax collectors, both those who come to hear Jesus and those who are riotously secure in houses on the sand.
There is always a bit of a frisson when I have a text with Satan in it. Giving Satan a voice from the pulpit always feels like crossing a boundary. There is a bit of that in here. But the main contemplative point is how Law and Gospel are connected with an “and”. In this world you don’t get one without the other, although that is always the temptation. Satan’s temptations are to break the relationships that bind and order our existence. Sometimes that temptation is straight up to our sinful nature. Sometimes that testing is to the power of the ring. But however they express themselves, they are always a rebellion against both the grace and the order of God. He has a way that He desires us to walk. When we tell the Spirit, sorry, I don’t like that desert or those 40 days, we’ve gone off the path. This sermon meditates on how Jesus walked it for us (hence the closing hymn), and bids us to follow.
The day was the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The Gospel text is Zechariah’s song which is what the Baptist’s father said after his tongue was loosed. And what a good portion of that song amounts to is a job description of a prophet. What this sermon does is compare that description with the modern popular conception of a prophet. It then moves on to why one of those is just as important for us today as it was for ancient Israel. It then ends with a recent example of prophetic work according to the Baptist’s model. The world would like us to dismiss or make silly the prophet, the biblical definition is our daily bread.
Whenever Christmas is on a Sunday there are a bunch of minor holidays of the the life of Christ that are also observed because they fall on a Sunday. A couple of them come right away. January 1 is the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus – 8 days after the birth. This sermon tackles that subject.
I hope the really bad joke at the start cleared the air for a stronger consideration of the day, because as I hold in the sermon I think the Circumcision and Naming is a deep strain of the gospel. If we weren’t able to contemplate the day because of snickering, we are missing something that stretches from Abraham to the Eschaton. I’d invite you to listen.
Part of the sermon is the example that prior generations have left us in the hymns. I left in our three hymns today. The first two are referenced directly: The Ancient Law Departs LSB 898 and Jesus Name of Wondrous Love LSB 900. I also left in our concluding hymn, O Sing of Christ LSB 362. The words are modern and the tune is familiar (Forrest Green, the Fancy O Little Town of Bethlehem). That combination makes for a surprisingly good 1st Sunday after Christmas hymn. It moves on from the simple fact of the incarnation to ponder it along with John 1 but including the themes resonant with the Circumcision and Naming – the frailness of the flesh and the wealth of the Name.
It is Reformation Day. The Lectionary gives us an alternative gospel text and I tend to take it. There are a bunch of reasons. The sermon puts forward a couple of reason. But the deepest reason is simply I like it. And I like it because it captures a gritty and real moment. Jesus, John the Baptist, the crowds and a confrontation of a sort. What did you think the Kingdom was? What are you going to do now?
Individuals of every age might have to answer “who do you say that I am,” but not every age gets confronted with a dramatic prophetic call. That is what John the Baptist was. That is what Luther was. Whose works and wisdom do you trust? Your own, or God’s? What this sermon is, is my pathetic attempt at proclaiming what a new Luther or a new Baptist would be saying to this generation. “To what shall I compare this generation?” My simple answer is that we lose that gospel because we dismiss its specific nature. We dismiss the specific law of the people of God defined in the Decalogue. And we glide over the body of Christ, the form of the gospel. We believe that god loves us, but we do so in a generic way such that the god who loves us is not Jesus Christ, at least not the one of scriptures, but one that looks more like ourselves. A recovery of the gospel today would be about its specific-ness and peculiarity – Jesus Christ, friend of sinners. It would be a recognition of the body in Word and Sacrament in our midst.
Worship note: I left in a little more music than normal. I left in stanza one of our opening hymn, Salvation Unto Us has Come (LSB 555). Our choir sounded great this morning in liturgical duty. I didn’t leave their Introit, but you can hear them in the gradual (between the First lesson and the epistle), and in the verse with the Alleluia before the gospel. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, LSB 657, was our closing hymn. We tend to sing the Bach arrangement, but most of the LCMS uses a LSB 656. A Mighty Fortress ends up being “the reformation hymn” but if you asked pastors they would probably give you Salvation Unto Us has Come. It captures the teaching of the Reformation clearly. A Mighty Fortress is a great hymn, but its popularity stems not so much from its teaching but from a later political-theological rallying cry.