From "In the Divine Service"...
The last installment considered the seemingly obvious, but often overlooked, concept that Words mean things. The meaning of the words in the liturgy is important because they contain the message of salvation. When the church revises the liturgy, and when pastors choose the hymns for a service, they need to consider carefully the meaning that is there, and neither allow false teachings to come in, nor let important content slip away. What is most meaningful, what most clearly and definitely confesses Christ crucified for our sins, should be our top priority. Getting that meaning across is vital to making disciples; it is not something incidental to and separate from evangelism.
Now we face a similar theme that isn’t quite as obvious to most people: Words DO things. Of course words can have either a winsome or an offensive effect: sometimes the same words do both things to different people. God’s Word, for instance, accuses us of sin and condemns us as such. That’s the Law and it’s hard to take sitting down, especially if you’re feeling good about yourself. It also challenges people to reconsider (and repent of) wrong ideas and false teachings. And therefore the Gospel can either be very comforting news of God’s merciful, free forgiveness for Jesus’ sake...or it can be a slap in the face when the Law hasn’t gotten through.
But God’s Word does things in a more concrete way. For instance, what happened when God said, “Let there be light”? There was light. How about when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!” or “Young man/little girl, I say to you, arise”? Not to mention “Be cleansed” or “Receive your sight” or “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” or “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat,” etc., etc., etc.
Christ’s Word is the very word of God. John even calls Him personally the Word of God. So when He says something, it is so. His speaking has creative power. His promises are true “because He said so.” And that goes also for words that He continues to say through His called ministers. Such as: “I forgive you all your sins” (see John 20:22 f). Such as: “This is My body...This cup is the new testament in My blood.” Such as: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
Words are the levers by which God moves the world. Along with the Sacraments, that combine Christ’s Word with water, bread, and wine to wash and feed you with forgiveness, there is the Word read, spoken, and repeated in hymn and liturgy, by which God chews through the crust of guilt, doubt, and despair to give you forgiveness, faith, and peace. When mere men proclaim the Gospel (the Word of Christ), God Himself turns unbelievers into believers. It is a miracle akin to raising the dead.
Words are the coin of the liturgical realm. With words we call upon God and entrust our needs into His care. With words we enter His presence and leave with His peace. With words we confess our sins and we confess our faith in His marvelous, pardoning love. With words He enriches our knowledge, strengthens our faith, encourages our efforts to serve each other, humbles us when we become proud, revives us when sorrow and trouble drag us down. God is so good at using humble means to do great things that even mere words can make such a difference! But words aren’t the only things that have meaning. That’s a topic for next time!
IMAGE: The Resurrection of Lazarus. Early Christian mosaic. 6th CE. Location: S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Photo Credit : Scala / Art Resource, NY