Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sermon 8: You need some loving care

When you're down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend

- "You've Got a Friend," by Carole King

"Nevertheless I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubtful matters which a man cannot resolve or find the answer to by himself, and so he takes his brother aside and tells him his trouble. What harm is there if he humbles himself a little before his neighbor, puts himself to shame, looks for a word of comfort from him, accepts it, and believes it, as if he were hearing it from God himself..." 
- Eighth Invocavit Sermon

"Now we have heard of all the things which ought to be considered here, except confession. Of this we shall speak now."

So began the final sermon in a series of eight messages Martin Luther delivered upon his return to Wittenberg in 1522. After a year of exile, hidden safely in Wartburg Castle after his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms, he had come back to his home town. The place had been wracked by strife during his absence. Various leaders in the Christian community had taken his teachings and used them to promote changes and innovations in the religious practices of the church at Wittenberg. This had led to confusion, upheaval, even violence. Luther grew so concerned about the developing situation that he made the decision to leave Wartburg and return home, even though he risked his life by doing so.

Pastor Luther's final sermon is not what we might consider today to be a concluding message in a series, one that might summarize what has been preached to that point and appeal for the congregation to make decisions based on all they have heard. Instead, it takes up one final subject and offers clear, positive teaching that would bring comfort and help to the congregation.

This shows that Luther wisely realized that whatever was going to happen in Wittenberg would be an ongoing process. One week might stop the bleeding, but the work of healing and promoting ongoing health would take time and a lot more teaching and pastoral work.

The subject of confession was another one that had come into play in the previous year. Karlstadt in particular had downplayed its importance and had not required parishioners to make confession before taking the Sacrament in his masses. Luther, on the other hand, wanted to reform the practice of confession, but not eliminate it or downplay its importance. "Thus you see," he said in this sermon, "that confession must not be despised, but that it is a comforting thing." He considered it one of the weapons in our arsenal against the world, the flesh, and the devil. He had found it to be so in his own life, and wished that all of his congregants could find comfort in its proper practice. "We must not allow any of our weapons to be taken away."

Martin Luther's sermon series had ended. For eight days he had spoken clearly and pointedly, urging his friends in Wittenberg to patiently let the gospel work to bring about changes in the Church organically and naturally. Their faith had brought them freedom. Now their freedom must be used faithfully and with love toward others. They must not give the devil an opportunity to bring disrepute upon the reforming movement.

As for Pastor Luther, the end of this sermon series was the beginning of a process of ongoing instruction and pastoral care that would reinforce his gospel-centered message of faith working through love.

  • Stay in it for the long haul. Today's society and many of the churches promote a kind of instant transformation. Those who approach the spiritual life from this perspective often focus on the power of the Holy Spirit and the mechanism of personal decision to bring about dramatic instantaneous change. Highly emotional services with music and preaching that lead to a crisis moment of invitation are believed to be the proper settings for "changed lives." Contrast that with Pastor Luther's decidedly low key but faithful and pastoral teaching of the Scriptures day after day. When the eight days were complete, there was ongoing pastoral attention given to the flock at Wittenberg. Growth took place in a community continually immersed in Word and Sacrament, with consistent pastoral care and encouragement over time. Pastor, take the long view and stay in it for the long haul. A harvest awaits.

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