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Message on 25 September

Heavenly Host, 2016                            

“The Power of the Gospel Delivered”


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This is the third sermon in this series, the Power of the Gospel.  We’ve already heard how the Gospel has the power to save and in its saving reorders our lives by its power.  Today the same major theme applies, the power of the Gospel, specifically, the power of the gospel delivered.

You may or may not think of it this way, but the pastor, specifically the pastor in the act of preaching is delivering the gospel.  Most everyone here knows that Lutheran Christians insist on the external and objective justification of the sinner before God on account of Christ Jesus’ death on the cross.  Jesus died on the cross to bestow forgiveness on sinners, on us.  That’s the Good News.  As we heard in the first message I preached in this series, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  No other message has the power to free a sinner from the chains of sin.  Certainly not any of the false gospels “do your best and God does the rest” or anything less than the free and full forgiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross.  In our Lutheran confessions, Article IV of the Augsburg Confession puts it clearly and succinctly, “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith,

2 when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.[1]

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  That’s the singularly powerful message of the Gospel.  Paul knew it which is why his letters to the Romans and Galatians are so precisely clear about all this.  From Romans 4, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”  That’s it.

But there’s another Lutheran distinctive besides our insistence on the clear word of the Gospel and it’s clearly biblical because it’s the subject of Paul’s letter to Timothy we hear this morning about overseers and deacons.  These people are charged with the administration of the Gospel.  Immediately after Article IV in the Augsburg Confession is Article V, which reads, “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments.

2 Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.[2]

The God who acts powerfully to save and reorders our lives in the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, also provides for the administering of this Good News into the ears of those He saves.  I’m not sure we really think about faith in this way.  We think of it as far more mysterious, far more mystical.  We think of faith as something like an Indiana Jones movie, were people have to slogging through swamps and hacking through jungles to ancient temples to find the real deal.  But God doesn’t play tricks on us like that.  The Gospel is not hidden away.  The singularly powerful message that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners is proclaimed from this pulpit every week.  God has instituted it.  He has called a man to proclaim His powerful, saving Word to His people.  God has acted to save and to ensure the saving message is proclaimed.

But people being people, what do we do?  Are we here to listen to that message or for some other mix of motives?  Why do we operate the school?  Is it for the sake of the Gospel or is it for some other set of reasons?  I ask these rather pointed questions because they are in the front of my mind these days.  We’ve had three installations of new pastors in our circuit this summer and the fourth is today at Trinity in Columbia.  And every time I go to an installation I hear these words about the Gospel and the office of the Holy Ministry and these very words from chapter three of First Timothy are read.  And the new pastor makes his vows and the congregation makes their vows to want to hear the Gospel.  And I think it’s a good thing we do this because it doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes it’s the pastor.  He cannot live up to what’s required of him in this office for whatever reason, many of them not his fault.  After nineteen years, I’ve seen many of the brothers I went to seminary with undone by factors beyond their control, and of course it’s just as bad if they succumb to their own weaknesses too.  But more often, the case has been the congregation who say they seek a pastor, a Gospel office man, and yet they want very little to do with the Gospel.  These congregations are not built on the foundation of the Gospel but are more like civic organizations that have an array of activities but can’t be bothered to attend to the Gospel message.  A sad story that stays with me was about a church that had a supper club that met on Thursdays and when that holiest of Thursdays rolled around they decided to continue to meet rather than attend the Divine Service.  And they didn’t even understand why their pastor was shocked.

What do we expect of our pastors?  I’m including myself in this because I need a pastor too.  Eugene Peterson is a pastor and scholar I’ve turned to for years.  His many books and articles have served as a surrogate mentor pastor for me because mentor pastors are harder to come by than you might think.  He tells a story that is particularly appropriate to our discussion this morning.

A number of years ago, I injured my knee. According to my self-diagnosis, I knew all it needed was some whirlpool treatments. In my college years we had a whirlpool in the training room, and I had considerable experience with its effectiveness in treating my running injuries as well as making me feel good. In my present community, the only whirlpool was at the physical therapist’s office. I called to make an appointment. He refused; I had to have a doctor’s prescription.

I called an orthopedic physician, went in for an examination (this was getting more complicated and expensive than I had planned), and found he wouldn’t give me the prescription for the whirlpool. He said it wasn’t the proper treatment for my injury. He recommended surgery. I protested: a whirlpool certainly can’t do any harm, and it might do some good. His refusal was adamantine. He was a professional. His primary commitment was to some invisible abstraction called health, healing. He was not committed to satisfying my requests. His integrity, in fact, forbade him to satisfy my requests if they encroached on his primary commitment.

I have since learned that with a little shopping around, I could have found a doctor who would have given me the prescription I wanted.[3]

The connection is clear in my mind, most of the time anyway.  We should insist that our pastors not merely give us what we want or even what we think we need, but that they be committed to the Gospel which is one thing and is not so many other things.  It’s a noble task to bring others into great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Peterson goes on in the article to ask these rather pointed questions.  “Is our talk of citizenship in a kingdom of God anything that can be construed as the “real world”? Or are we passing on a spiritual fiction analogous to the science fictions that fantasize a better world than we will ever live in? Is pastoral work mostly a matter of putting plastic flowers in people’s drab lives-well-intentioned attempts to brighten a bad scene, not totally without use, but not real in any substantive or living sense?”

The answer to these questions is the singularly power message of the Gospel.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  I realize in the drab world these words can sound like just words but because they are proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit they are not just words, they are “justifying” words, saving words.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to save us, to save you.  He has done it.  Amen.

[1] Tappert, 30.

[2] Tappert, 31.

[3] This story appeared in Peterson’s article “Lashed to the Mast” in an issue of Leadership Journal, Winter, 1996.

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