Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sermon 3: When you're not strong

Please swallow your pride
If I have things
You need to borrow
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you won't let show

You just call on me brother when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on

...Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend I'll help you carry on

- "Lean on Me," by Bill Withers

...see to it that you can stand before God and the world when you are assailed, especially when the devil attacks you in the hour of death. It is not enough to say: this man or that man did it, I followed the crowd, according to the preaching of the dean, Dr. Karlstadt, or Gabriel, or Michael. Not so; every one must stand on his own feet and be prepared to give battle to the devil. You must rest upon a strong and clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test. If you cannot do that, you will never withstand -- the devil will pluck you like a parched leaf. 
- Third Invocavit Sermon

The people of Wittenberg were running, not leaning. In haste, many of them had followed the voices of those who were urging them to make wholesale and immediate changes in their religious practices. They were stirred up, enthusiastic, ready to throw out bathwater, baby, tub, and all. It was time for the pastor to talk to them about a few specifics.

In Martin Luther's first two Invocavit sermons, the main practical issue he mentioned was the mass and how some had made changes in it without considering their sisters and brothers who were not yet ready for change. However, he did not deal directly with the subject, nor did he venture very far into the other specific changes that were being advocated and sometimes forced upon the church in Wittenberg.

In his introduction to these messages, A. Steimle records some of the innovations that were being promoted, especially by leaders like Andreas Karlstadt:
Carlstadt, moderate at first in his conduct, nevertheless had sown the seeds, in his teaching, which resulted in the bountiful harvest of disorder. Without Luther's clearness of vision and aptness of speech, he likewise failed to discern the pitfalls which Luther so carefully avoided. "In my opinion, he who partakes only of the bread, sins." " In all things of divine appointment, the divine law must be taught and observed, even if it cause offence." ' "The Gregorian chant keeps the spirit away from God. . . . Organs belong to theatrical exhibitions and princes' palaces." "That we have images in churches is wrong and contrary to the first commandment. To have carved and painted idols standing on the altar is even more harmful and devilish." For his Scripture proof in other places, too, particularly concerning vows, Carlstadt drew largely from the Old Testament. On Christmas Day, 1521, he preached a sermon in which he opposed going to confession before receiving communion. Attired in his street garb he then proceeded to celebrate an "evangelical" mass by giving communion in both kinds to the people, placing the elements directly into their hands. Many of the communicants had not previously confessed, nor observed the prescribed rule of fasting. From a denial of any distinction between clergy and laity, Carlstadt finally progressed to a condemnation of all scholarship and learning as unnecessary to an understanding of the Divine Word, since it is given directly from above. 
-  Jacobs and Spaeth, Works of Martin Luther, p. 390
In his third sermon of the week, Pastor Luther began to address some specific practices: (1) the marriages of priests and nuns, and (2) images in the church. As he spoke, he chided the congregation for blindly following the lead of those who were stirring them up to make changes hastily and for turning the liberty of Christ into new laws that all must obey. Simply because God has given priests freedom to marry, he said, this does mean we now proclaim that all priests must marry! With regard to images, while Luther affirmed that it might be better if we did not have them at all, he nevertheless said they exist and some are able to use them without worshiping them and thus breaking the commandment. His counsel was therefore that we should not make a new law banning them completely. Each Christian needed to think through these matters carefully, and not just follow what some charismatic leader had said.

Luther was challenging the members of his congregation to take personal responsibility for their own views and their own actions. As a good pastor, he wasn't interested in producing followers who simply mimic what they see in their leaders. He wanted people to become mature in Christ. He longed that each one might know and understand the gospel and its implications, making informed decisions about Christian conduct in a spirit of wisdom and love. Furthermore, he saw in their actions the human tendency to erect our own laws to control behavior rather than live in the freedom of Christ.
God has made it a matter of liberty to marry or not to marry, and you, you fool, undertake to turn this liberty into a vow contrary to the ordinance of God! Therefore you must let it remain a liberty and not make a compulsion out of it; for your vow is contrary to God's liberty.... 
...And you rush, create an uproar, break down altars, and overthrow images! Do you really believe you can abolish the altars in this way? No, you will only set them up more firmly.
As Martin Luther concluded his message on that Tuesday, he urged his fellow Christians once more to rely upon God's Word to do its work, and not to run ahead of it. Focus on the ministry and not its effects, he encouraged them; be faithful to hear the truth and let the Word and Spirit change hearts, minds, and actions.

As a pastor, he wanted them to be strong; he wanted each one to be able to stand on his or her own two feet. And he showed them the way -- it's only by leaning on the Word that we can do that.

  • Pastors must beware of identifying specific programs with the will of God for everyone. We too live in a day of religious enthusiasm. Mass media makes it possible for religious teachers to spread their programs and emphases far and wide, creating "fads" that various groups take as "gospel." Innovators abound, constantly seeking to provide something new to excite people around the "next big thing." While there is a place for creativity and fresh approaches, we must beware lest we create disciples of ourselves rather than of Christ, substituting our own bright ideas for the gospel.
  • Helping people become mature in Christ is the pastor's job. My duty as a minister is not to please everyone, not to "run the church" well, not to put on entertaining programs, not to satisfy a multiplicity of expectations. In Col. 1:28-29 (JB Phillips), Paul models our task for us: "So, naturally, we proclaim Christ! We warn everyone we meet, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every man up to his full maturity in Christ. This is what I am working at all the time, with all the strength that God gives me."
  • Proclaim and teach freedom in Christ! Gospel preaching sets people free. It does not lead them into new forms of law-keeping. This is hard for a pastor. In today's church, we are usually responsible for an organization. In order to keep it running, we must have the cooperation of our people. In order to keep their cooperation, it is easy to try and control members by setting up various rules and expectations and holding them accountable. Luther does not take that approach at all. He says simply, in the gospel you are free to follow Christ. Luther trusts in the Word's power to change hearts and lives. He encourages them to stand strong, on their own two feet, in gospel liberty. What trust! What love!

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