Last Judgment

Since I moved to Wisconsin from New York 3 years ago, I have served at a church as one of two pastors. This means I don’t preach every week. Because of this, every once in a while I have to preach on a topic that hasn’t come up on “my week” in quite a while. This weekend is one of those.

This coming Sunday we’ll be focusing on Judgment Day. I haven’t had to preach directly on this topic since 2010, which feels like a long time ago at this point.

It strikes me how harsh these appointed readings for this day are. They’re the kind of Bible readings that make you squirm a bit. There’s no wiggle room; no politically correct, everything’s-ok-for-everyone vibe here. <!–more–> 
 
Take the first reading, Daniel 7:9-10. It’s short, but it packs a punch. 

9 “As I looked,   

“thrones were set in place,  

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.  

His clothing was as white as snow;  

the hair of his head was white like wool.  

His throne was flaming with fire,   

and its wheels were all ablaze.   

10 A river of fire was flowing,   

coming out from before him.  

Thousands upon thousands attended him;   

ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.   

The court was seated,   

and the books were opened.  

Nothing cuddly or warm-and-fuzzy to grab on to here. The end is coming. There will be flames and fire. There will be a judge, *the* Judge, in fact. The books will be opened and the judgment will be made. This is the text I’ll be preaching on.

The second lesson, 1 Thessalonians:5:1-11, has a different emphasis, but it also paints our lives now into a bit of a corner. 

4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.

 

1 Thessalonians 5:4-6

It’s easy to think of ways that we haven’t lived like a “son of the light,” but instead like someone who “belongs to the night.” Definitely gives us pause when we realize that the end will come “like a thief.”

Thankfully, though, this lesson also brings the fantastic *gospel* application of Judgment Day in full force. 

9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

The end of the world is scary, but Jesus has already won! This is a reminder I need every day.

Finally, the Gospel for this Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats. In some ways, this reading can be the harshest of all. It *could* lead someone to the conclusion that it is our *good works* that get us into heaven. But the reaction of those who did good works shows otherwise:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

Believers don’t do works to save themselves. They do good works because God has given them faith in Christ. This faith leads us to want to do good works, to produce those works whether we realize we’re doing it or not. We do works because we’re saved, not in order to get saved.

All in all, I look forward to preaching this Sunday. I’m praying I can put Jesus and the comfort of what he’s accomplished for us front and center for this service.

Now back to my sermon work!

 

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Balance in the Work

I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about whether certain tasks were up to me or up to God. When it comes to eternal salvation, this question is pretty easy: God does it all. There is absolutely no effort on my part that earns or secures my place in heaven. That is done in Christ alone.

But other tasks get more tricky to pin down. The classic example for a pastor would be preaching. How much of what goes on in any given sermon depends on my effort and how much depends on what God himself is doing.

The best answer to this that I’ve heard comes from a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Professor Rich Gurgel. Here’s his explanation: In a sermon I use my first article gifts to proclaim second article truths with third article confidence.

This saying refers to the three parts of the Apostles’ Creed, and I actually mentioned it in a blog post here nearly four years ago (which you can read in full here.) Here’s my explanation of the saying from that post:

My first article gifts are the gifts God my Creator has given me. He’s given me skill in writing, speaking, and teaching his Word. The 2nd article truths are the heart of what I want to preach: that God sent his one and only Son to save sinners through his life, death, and resurrection. The 3rd article confidence is knowing that the Holy Spirit will use that Gospel message to work in hearts. It gives me confidence.

Sometimes I need to remember that it’s not me who converts people or directly strengthens people’s faith. But sometimes I also need to remember that I need to use the gifts Gid had given me in the best way possible to carry out the work he has given.

This leads to a balance and a tension in preaching that might seem like a problem, but is actually just a chance for me to let God be God. and let me use my God-given abilities to serve him.

The Catechism and Preaching

Luther’s small catechism is central to my instruction of youth in my congregation. We still have the kids memorize large chunks of it (with varying degrees of success), and we use it to teach the basics of the Christian faith. It is simple, well-done, and after nearly 500 years is still one of the best way of teaching anyone the truth of God’s Word.

I have thought that it might be nice to preach on sections of the Catechism and not just teach about it to young people. The thing is, I’ve never really done that. I’ve never found a way to work it in, in these four and a half years I’ve had in my congregation.

Over at the Blog of St. Mark, I read this quote about the season of Lent:

Lent wasn’t always about commemorating the Passion of our Lord.  It began as the last dash to Baptism and Holy Communion for adults in the early Church.  In later years, when there were less adult converts, the focus of Lent shifted to the Passion of Christ.  Liturgical scholar Frank Senn writes, “Thus Lent became a time when the whole church returned, as it were, to the catechumenate, and in which the whole church, as it were, entered the order of penitents” (Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, Fortress Press, 1997, p11).

(On a side note, Liturgical scholar Frank Senn, was it really necessary to use the phrase “as it were” twice in one sentence? Really?)

The rest of the post talks about a Lenten sermon series on the catechism that will be going on in some of the WELS congregations in Texas. Check it out. I probably won’t be doing that during this Lent, but I’m definitely keeping it in mind for the future. I like the idea!

 

The Purpose-Driven Knife

The sermon I preached this past Sunday was on a text that was almost completely law. Matthew 5:21-37 is a part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount saw Jesus expanding on a few of the Ten Commandments. He showed that God wants us to obey not just the letter of the law, but to obey the law in our thoughts, words, and actions. In some ways, this is a very uncomfortable, even painful, message.

So that’s how I wanted to preach it. I wanted it to be a knife to my hearers’ hearts. After all, that’s what the law is supposed to do. It’s supposed to destroy our excuses, shatter our pride, and leave us defenseless before God. The law isn’t meant to give a slap on the wrist; it’s meant to kill.

Only then do we truly grasp how much we need Christ to bring us to life. Without the full force of the law, the gospel cannot have its full force. Without knowing we are lost and dead in sins, we can’t ever understand how Jesus found us by faith and brought us to life in the gospel now and forever. Without the law killing me and making me see I have nothing to offer to God, I could never see that it’s what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection that counts for me — not what I have or haven’t done.

I guess I can’t say how successful I was at trying to preach the law like this last Sunday. (Though I’m confident that God’s Word was successful!) But I do want to purposefully preach the law like this in the future. Shame on me if I don’t! God’s given me a knife to use to kill the sinful self in all my hearers, so that the Holy Spirit can bring them to life in the gospel. May God help me to do this!

Salt the Whole World!

I mentioned in a previous post that I am preaching for several weeks on Jesus’ sermon on the mount from the Gospel of Matthew. Someone commented to recommend to me there that I read Luther’s sermons on those sections. Wow, am I thankful for the suggestion! There’s great stuff there!

Here is a quote from Luther on the first verse of my sermon for next Sunday, Matthew 5:13.

13. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its salthess be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown down and trodden underfoot by men.
By the word “salt,” as we have said, He points out what their office is to be. Salt is not salt for itself, it cannot salt itself. But it is used to salt meat and other things in the kitchen so that they keep their taste, stay fresh, and do not rot. “So,” He says, “you are also salt”—not the kind that belongs in the kitchen but the kind for salting this flesh, that is, the whole world. This is indeed a splendid office and a great and glorious honor, that God should call them His salt and should tell them to salt everything on earth. But for this a man must be ready, as He has already taught them, to be poor, miserable, thirsty, and meek, and to suffer all sorts of persecution, shame, and slander. Without this the man will never be the kind of preacher who knows how to salt, but will be only a salt without bite, useless.

Martin Luther (AE 21:54)

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit

This last Sunday, when I stood up and walked to the pulpit ready to preach, I got a surprise: the sermon manuscript wasn’t there. I didn’t know it at the time, but the manuscript was still sitting in the sacristy, where I’d forgotten to bring it up to the pulpit. So as the last hymn verse ended and I prepared to preach, I had a bit of panic butterflying through my stomach.

A Pulpit-Eye View of My Church

A Pulpit-Eye View of My Church

I write out a complete manuscript for every sermon. And, though I’ve gone back and forth on this a bit in my ministry, I normally take a copy of that manuscript into the pulpit with me.

I don’t do this so I can read my sermon to the congregation. (Which I think is normally an awful way to deliver a sermon.) Instead, I use my manuscript to read the various Bible passages that I quote during the sermon. Then, as I glance down at those quotes, my eyes have a chance to scan the page to refresh my memory of my train of thought for the rest.

Oh, and let’s face it: it’s kind of a comfort to know that the sermon is all right there if I completely blank out. I’m working with a net.

But that comfort wasn’t there last Sunday. Thankfully, I had attempted to memorize the sermon, I’d practiced it, and I really was ready to go. But still, I hadn’t planned on not having the manuscript. Hence the panic.

But an amazing thing happened: I think the sermon actually went better because I didn’t have the manuscript. I felt freer, more like I was actually preaching and less like I was trying to match what was written on the page in front of me. The sermon I preached was similar, though certainly not identical, to the sermon I’d written. But I think not having the manuscript allowed my delivered sermon to have more immediacy and to come more from the heart than it otherwise would have. (The enterprising reader with plenty of time could check out the written version of my sermon here and compare it with the video version here.)

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the Holy Spirit is the effective one in a sermon. The Spirit alone changes hearts, crushing them with the law and bringing them to life with the gospel. Still, God has given me gifts to use in proclaiming his Word. I think preaching without a manuscript helps me use those gifts better.

One of my former professors from seminary (Prof. Rich Gurgel) has a good phrase for preaching. “Preaching is using 1st article gifts to proclaim 2nd article truths with 3rd article confidence.” I think this quote is fantastic, but let me unpack it a bit for you. My first article gifts are the gifts God my Creator has given me. He’s given me skill in writing, speaking, and teaching his Word. The 2nd article truths are the heart of what I want to preach: that God sent his one and only Son to save sinners through his life, death, and resurrection. The 3rd article confidence is knowing that the Holy Spirit will use that Gospel message to work in hearts. It gives me confidence.

So, anyway, there it is. I survived. And I hope not to use my manuscript again this Sunday!