This is our Christmas Eve service which is largely lessons and carols. The sermon starts about 25 mins. Did you come for nostalgia, or did you come to worship? Nostalgia is a brittle thing. The incarnation, Christmas? Not so. Still the newest thing on this old earth. Worthy of worship.
Biblical Text: Luke 2:40-52
Full Sermon Draft
The text is our only glimpse of Jesus from the infancy narratives until his baptism. This time is traditionally called the silent years. Because this is the only text of that time, it bears a lot of weight. What was important in the silent years? That is what this sermon looks at largely from a devotional perspective. By devotional perspective I mean how can we apply it directly to our Christian life.
And no, I didn’t have a challenge to work Pride, Prejudice and Zombies into a sermon. It just seemed like a good example of a difference between this text and the “childhood Jesus” apocryphal stories. One you can ponder for devotional purposes, the other is just good clean fun.
Biblical Text: John 3:1-17, Athanasian Creed, Baptismal Liturgy
Full Sermon Draft
A one worshipper said, “I felt like I went to church today”. It was Trinity Sunday so we confessed the faith with the Athanasian creed. We had a baptism at the start or service, and we celebrated holy communion. The recording trims most of that stuff, but it is that stuff which the sermon points toward. What this sermon attempts to do is two fold: a) it outlines potential mistakes in how we think about worship and b) it points to the primacy of worship in the Christian life.
The fact is that we were made to worship. Everyone worships. Religious and non-religious. And true worship is seated in the Soul. Situating it in the body or the mind leads to serious problems. The sermon examines those problems and points at the salvation from them. True worship is a gift of God through the Spirit. To worship rightly one must be born of water and the Spirit. True worship, instead of draining us, feeds us. And when our worship is rightly ordered, our lives are on the path to being rightly ordered directed at resurrection.
The specificity of worship
What full blown idolatry looks like (modern context)
The resurrection and the sign and the burden that places on us who have seen
Biblical Text: Matthew 14:22-33
Full Sermon Draft
In this sermon I try to build off of the immediately prior context of parables, explanation and the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has established a rhythm of indirect teaching (parables) followed by direct teaching to the disciples. The feeding of the 5000 is the indirect teaching of the presence of God. We place a sacramental understanding on that. God is present in the bread. The walking on water helps us to grasp just what is on offer in that bread and put the appropriate boundaries on it. God is present and where is his most present, where in fact he is seen for who He is and worshiped, is in the boat.
American Christians has a fondness for talking about Jesus in their hearts. That is not wrong, but it is becoming a very loosey-goosey usage. What is more important that the Jesus in your heart is being found in the midst of His heart. His heart is with his bride, the church. Jesus doesn’t go strolling on the water with Peter after he rescues him. He puts him back in the boat, back in the heart of God.
The Presence of God, The Living Temple/Worship in the Spirit, Christ our Human Likeness Sharing (LSB 847)
Here is NPR’s take on what the church sings.
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.
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.
The posts on the law and on the spiritual practices in some odd ways merge at this point. What we’ve developed out of our look at the law is the recognition that the moral law is the best representation of the sanctified life. It can’t save. After the cross it doesn’t condemn either. But the law has not been done away with. It has been fulfilled in Christ. The life we life in Christ is one of fulfilling the law. And Christ’s summary of the law is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39)
This sanctified life retains its cruciform shape. Because God first loved us we are able to love our neighbor. And it is the love of God in our life that continues to form us and enable us to live lives of service. If all you are doing is attempting to love the neighbor, without a strong basis in the love of God to renew yourself, that love will grow cold. I’m convinced that is what we see today in many neighborhoods. How many neighborhoods today actually are neighborly? We work and we get home and dig in. We erect fences and hedges. We screen in porches. We insulate ourselves. We do that because we know that coming into contact places burdens…burdens of love. And when you are not rooted in the vertical dimension of love for God who is the very source of love, those burdens of love for our neighbor become too great.
The very basic spiritual practices are to make diligent use of the means of grace – word and sacrament, i.e. make it to church. The devil will try all kinds of things to separate you from this most basic lifeline because this is where God’s grace is abundantly present. This is where God himself is present. If our adversary can get you to make less diligent use – the seed just might fall on thorny ground. The cares and worries of this world will look very great compared to something as unnatural as getting out of our carefully constructed and comfortable bubbles. Yes, I’m a minister, of course I’m going to say that. Discount the heck out of it. It still stands – go to church intentionally and with a good mind. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Which Luther explains simply as not despising preaching and the word, but holding it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
The next post – I promise – will start to look at Matt 6, Lenten spiritual practices and the ways we can grow or sustain a gentle piety or loving the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.