Friday, June 8, 2012

Some thoughts on preaching

by Pastor Larson
Perhaps, listening to preaching is the most counter-cultural activity we do all week.  There is no tv blaring.  The ipod is off.  There are no video games.  There is no cell phone to answer (hopefully not!)  We are not racing around town or running errands.  We are doing something quite against the grain of a normal activity.  Sitting, listening, thinking, and receiving the Word of God.  But what is the point of preaching?  What’s the point of listening to a sermon?
The task of all preaching in the Church is to preach Christ, “The Lord our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6), by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-47).  The sermon is centrally located in the Divine Service because it links the Gospel for the day with the Words of Institution: “This is My body which is given for you, This cup is the New Testament in My blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  Called ministers preach repentance, faith, and holy living, that the sinful heart might be converted again and again.  In the words of St. Paul, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1st Cor. 2:2)     
Preaching is not for entertainment.  It is not primarily about anecdotal stories about life on the farm.  Sermons are not aimed at making folks feel good, nor are they aimed at being inspirational.  Sermons are to be expositions of Holy Scripture for the sake of preaching the full severity of God’s holy law and exposing our desperate need for a savior.  Preaching ought to expose our sin – our unbelieving hearts, our laziness, the spiritual neglect of our children, our lustful and deceitful hearts, our adultery and unfaithfulness, our gossiping lying lips, our greediness - habitual covetousness and discontent with the gifts the Lord gives us.  True apostolic and biblical preaching exposes our sinful hearts in a way that causes all of our excuses and self-deceit to stop.  Hear the words of St. Paul: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). 
The preaching of God’s Word does not fall in line with our likes, dislikes, and personal preferences.  When David is concealing his sin of adultery before Bathsheeba, Nathan points his finger at David and says “You are the man!”  You are guilty!  St. Paul writes “you dead in your offences and sins” (Eph 2:1).   
Because of our sinful hearts, we naturally do not want to be exposed as sinners.  We would much rather hear a cute story and a feel good message instead of being called to repentance, faith, and holy living.  Before God we are exposed for what we truly are, so that we may pray together in truth and sincerity, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserve your eternal punishment.”
Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church Missouri synod writes:
“Preaching is a finger-pointing business. It takes courage to stand in the pulpit and let fly, accusing full-on with all the force of the damning Law. “The Law is to be preached in its full severity” says CFW Walther. It takes even more skill to preach the full and sweet Gospel to sinners accused. Yet the Bible is packed to the brim with Christ’s full and free forgiveness, ready to be dished up and delivered by the lips of the preacher. “By killing he makes alive,” Luther emphasized again and again. And so our preaching must kill the old man, damn him thoroughly to hell and raise him up again with Christ and His free forgiveness.”
Therefore, preaching both kills and makes alive.  The preaching of the law puts the old Adam to death and calls forth the new creation in Jesus Christ.  The sinner is trapped and exposed before God.  There are no excuses and nowhere to hide anymore.  In the words of President Harrison this is a ‘finger pointing business.’  Just listen to Saint Peter’s Pentecost sermon:
“Men of Israel . . . you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (Acts 2). 
No fluffy feel good message here!  After Peter preached his sermon of both law and Gospel “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:37-38).  Did you hear that?  The people were “cut to the heart.”  No feel good message here!  The people were convicted in their hearts.  They were exposed, “cut” before God as poor sinners facing the threat of eternal death. 
Missouri Synod's (LCMS) director of Worship and International Center chaplain, Rev. William Weedon on preaching:
"The pastors of the LCMS need above all to attend to this: the preaching of the Word entrusted to them. The preaching of God's law in such a way that the sinner is not merely irritated but slain; the preaching of the Gospel in such clarity that the slain are raised from the dead by the life-giving Spirit. I have said for many years that what we face in the Synod is not so much a crisis of liturgy as a crisis of preaching. Lutheran liturgy tends to take care of itself when the preaching is strong."
Listening to biblical preaching is not entertainment.  It’s not Oprah.  It’s not Joel Osteen.  It’s not motivational speeches.  It’s the preaching of the Law in its severity, and the preaching of the Gospel, in its sweetness.  Or as Scripture clearly teaches the law kills but the Gospel makes alive (2nd Cor. 3:6).  This is the way St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and C.F.W. Walther speak about preaching. 
If sin is just a small matter we make Christ and the Gospel into a small matter.  Jesus did not come to suffer and bear the entire fiery wrath of God’s hatred against sin because we said a naughty word or made a boo boo.  He came to die for real sinners who were damned to hell without him.
Then enters the Gospel!  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).  Jesus says “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).  This is truly good news, for God is a God of love who lays down his life that we might live a new life.  In the Gospel, the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ, God gives forgiveness, life, and the power to please Him with good works. 
Begin cultivating in yourselves and in your children the discipline and skill of listening to sermons.  Listening to sermons is a discipline that takes work and our full attention.  For example after church, ask “What was the Gospel text today.”  Ask “In what way was the law preached?  Did the law accuse you?  How?  What sin was talked about this morning?  How does Jesus’ work on the cross save us from our sins?  How should we amend our sinful lives in order to increase in faith toward God and service toward our neighbor?”
We pray in the Small Catechism to the Third Commandment “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  In summary the Small Catechism summarizes the distinction between the preaching of the Law and Gospel as follows:
The Law teaches what are to do and not to do; the Gospel teaches what God has done, and still does for our salvation.  The Law shows us our sin and the wrath of God; the Gospel shows us our savior and the grace of God.  The Law must be proclaimed to all people, but especially to impenitent sinners; the Gospel must be proclaimed to sinners who are troubled in their minds because of their sins (Question 85, p. 101).   
The crucified and risen Christ is present in His preaching and Sacraments to bestow His gospel gifts on His gathered people in the Divine Service.  The Law kills but the Gospel gives life.  As Christ serves us with the fruits of His cross, we have life in this dying world.