Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thank God for Your Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday as the guest of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in South Central Missouri. The text was Matthew 7:15-29, pretty much all of which is quoted below. The quotes from the lessons were more "abridged" in the pulpit than on paper; I include the fuller quotes from my manuscript here, in order to fill in context that you might miss by not having heard the lessons read.
When I studied the Scripture lessons for today, I thought: “Oh, goody! I get to gossip about the pastor.” I know it’s a vice, but I have been increasingly indulging in it after spending more and more time as a church organist. In the past couple years I have mostly listened to other men preaching, rather than doing the preaching myself. But today I have a rare opportunity to combine my pet sin of gossiping about pastors with the high calling of serving as one. So my joy is doubled. Because today I have the privilege of telling you, as one who spends far more time listening to sermons than preaching them, what a beautiful gift God has given you in the ministry of His Gospel. Today it is my privilege to point out why you should THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR.

Let’s start at the end of the Gospel lesson. This is how Matthew concludes his account of the Sermon on the Mount: "The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." Now you might think, “Gosh, it would be cool to be able to go back in time and hear Jesus preach in person. Assuming I could understand the language he was speaking, anyway. How I would like to experience the same amazement that filled the crowd when the Lord spoke to them!” But actually, you don’t need to go back in time. Matthew has recorded the amazing teaching of Jesus; so have the men who wrote the other books of the New Testament. The amazing teaching of Jesus is yours to read in the Bible, and to hear it spoken by live voices, by men Jesus has called and authorized to speak it.

Since Jesus is God in the flesh, He has the authority of God. What authority? The authority to proclaim doctrine. The authority to make promises that God will fulfill in heaven, and to warn people of dire consequences if they reject His Word. Jesus even has authority to forgive sins. This is amazing authority! In Matthew 9, the people are astounded when Jesus tells a paralyzed man: “Take courage, my son; your sins are forgiven.” But they were even more amazed when Jesus proved that His authority to forgive is real, by sending the paralyzed man home on foot. Matthew tells us that “when the multitudes saw this, they were filled with awe, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Why stop at the authority to forgive sins? In Luke 8, Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves that threatened to capsize His disciples’ boat. Luke tells us they were fearful and amazed, saying to one another: “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?”

Now I wouldn’t count on your pastor to be able to pull that last trick. Don’t expect to be able to pull through a cruise on a storm-tossed lake just by having Pastor on deck. Jesus has not called Him to rebuke the winds and the waves. He has not authorized Him to command the forces of nature. But Jesus has given your pastor the authority, the amazing power even, of forgiving sins and proclaiming God’s Word. Now you might say, “Bully for him! All he needs is more authority, it’ll go right to his head!” But if your pastor uses this authority delegated from Jesus, it is all benefit to you and, in many cases, costly to him. To have such a voice in your midst is a wonderful gift from God. But it is also a grave and solemn responsibility.

Jesus preached with authority, not like the scribes or Bible scholars of His day. Their method of preaching was to cite the authority of previous scholars. “Rabbi Tom said that Rabbi Dick told him that, according to Rabbi Harry…” and so on. In the voice of Jesus we hear God bearing witness to Himself. And you, personally, can hear that witness in the writings of Jesus’ eyewitness reporters – Matthew, John, and the other apostles – and when your pastor faithfully explains them. This is inside gossip here. This is the message of Jesus, who said: “We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen” (John 3:11); “And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man” (John 3:13). This is the ministry that repeats Jesus’ unshakable promises: “I baptize you…I forgive you all your sins…This bread is My body handed over to the torturers for you; This cup is my blood shed on the executioner’s cross to forgive your sins.” Here is the amazing authority to preach faith into your heart and to declare you justified before God.

Oh, what a richness! Oh, what a precious gift! THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR! For when he speaks the Words God has commanded him to speak, you receive all these gifts and promises as if from the hand of Jesus Himself. Jesus has washed your sins away; Jesus has declared you forgiven; Jesus has involved you personally in His perfect sacrifice on the cross. When you hear these promises today, and whenever your pastor preaches to you, this is not just gossip about other people in another place and time. This is front-page, banner-headline news that God’s decision has come back and you, the sinner, have been declared “not guilty” for Jesus’ sake!

But these promises come with warnings. They are like the warnings on the label of a bottle of medicine that your doctor gives you. The medicine is meant to help you, and may even save your life. But the warnings are there because, if improperly used, the same medicine can harm you or even kill you. Hear the warning words of Jesus: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall.”

Jesus’ message is not just one choice among many. It is not as if you can follow His directions; or, if you find someone else whose advice works better for you, you can follow them instead. All paths do not lead to the same place. What is so amazing and sobering about Jesus’ authority is His claim that if you don’t follow Him, you’re toast. You can do ever so many good works; you can even be a prophet or preacher, or do miracles and cast out demons in His name; but unless you heed the Word of Christ, His awful verdict on the day of judgment will be: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” Whatever spiritual house you wish to build – be it a congregation or a cathedral, a denomination or a mission society, a personal ministry or even the temple of your own, private life of holy works – it will not stand up in the hour of trial or in the day of judgment unless it is built on the foundation of Christ’s teaching. And whatever personal righteousness you achieve, by any amount of effort whatever, is as “filthy rags” in God’s sight unless it is founded on Christ’s righteousness.

We heard some of Paul’s epistle to the Romans today, where he makes this key teaching of Christ most clear. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he says, so that we cannot rely on our own works to please God. But we can rejoice and praise God for the ministry of Paul, and of Martin Luther, and of [local pastor's name], who teach in unison that you are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” – that you are “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Where then is boasting? Zoom! Gone! By what are we justified? Not by our works, but through faith, because Jesus died in blood and shame to atone for your sins and get you peace with God. THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR, because through the ministry of this Gospel God has planted faith in you, and “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). And “faith cometh by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).

We also heard selected verses from the eleventh chapter of Deuteronomy. Through Moses, God declares: “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and…you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them…and you shall write them…so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied…See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God,…and the curse, if you do not listen.”

God uses both warnings and promises, curses and blessings, to persuade us to make full use of His Word. He urges us to study it in detail, to learn it by heart, to teach it to our children, to talk about it and write about it, to continually refresh ourselves in it, and to be guided by it in all that we do, say, or think. THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR, because you need such a teacher more than any other treasure in this world. In as much as your teacher has the Word of God impressed on his heart and mind, God will teach you through him and spread the covering of His Word over every corner of your life.

So important is this that Jesus issues this very stern warning at the beginning of our Gospel lesson: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

This is extreme stuff. With such strong words, it is no wonder the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. And it is still a sobering warning for today. We dare not put up with “even a little” false doctrine. We dare not let it stand in our congregation, in our church body, in our mission field, or in our schools. Now you might ask, “Why? What’s the big deal? Isn’t it enough to be 90% right, or 75%? Isn’t it enough to agree on the essential articles or fundamental doctrines?” But think again about what Jesus has just said. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit; a false teacher cannot be of any benefit to us. Even on the points where he is faithful to God’s Word, the false prophet leaves behind a trail of uncertainty and doubt – deadly, faith-destroying doubt – as to whether his promises and official acts are valid. If you end up doubting the wholesomeness of your baptism, or your confirmation, or your weekly absolution and communion, where does that leave your faith? What can you do, but be zealous for sound doctrine, for yourself and your family, as well as for the wider church?

A lot of people don’t think this is so important. In fact, there is even a growing movement that sees too much concern over sound doctrine as harmful to the church. And many of us feel discouraged by how hard it is to wrestle with doctrinal issues and matters of discipline. But what Jesus says is, once again, very sobering. Suppose you had someone cooking your meals for you. And suppose that person, either intentionally or unintentionally, added a tiny dose of poison to every dinner. Even if it didn’t kill you straight off, this poison could make you feel bad – it could build up in your body – it could effect your health more and more – and it might eventually destroy you unless the poison was stopped.

Or suppose your husband or wife, or another loved one, had to take a life-saving medicine. How would you like to find out that your pharmacist was diluting the medicine, and your loved one was only getting a fraction of the effective dose? What do you think would happen? What do you think should happen in a case like that?

THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR, because he feeds you, week in and week out, the Word of Christ. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR, who feeds you with the bread of life from heaven: the body of Christ. Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51). THANK GOD FOR YOUR PASTOR, who treats the disease of sin and death that lives in your flesh, applying the pain-relieving and life-renewing medicine of the Gospel. You have such an amazing treasure here.

Remember Jesus’ horrible warnings about what will happen if this food is poisoned or taken away, or if this medicine is watered down. But also remember God’s wonderful promises that come to you through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. What a joyous blessing is yours. THANK GOD FOR IT, cling to it, run to it, shelter under it, squeeze out of it every drop of wholesome nourishment and medicine you can get, and defend it against anyone that would take it from you.

As the struggling economy daily reminds us, there are a lot of things we can live without. But to be healed of our sin’s guilt, to be comforted in times of grief and illness by believing prayers and the assurance of God’s love, to be strengthened on the threshold of death by the hope of the resurrection and eternal life: why, that is life itself. And I don’t think it is a sin to repeat this gossip from 2 Corinthians 4: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.” THANK GOD for this light, this knowledge, this treasure, and this power, which is from Him and not from ourselves. THANK GOD for His ministry of forgiveness; and God grant that we may enjoy its blessings unto life eternal.

IMAGES: I found most of these at this really neat page.

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