Advent Three | Rev. Rolf Preus| December 14, 2003
As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7)
Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2)
Every Advent requires a look at St. John the Baptist. Jesus calls him “more than a prophet.” He is the final prophet of the Old Testament and he is a bridge between the two testaments. Born a mere six months before Jesus, he represents another age. The last prophet before John was Malachi, four hundred years earlier. But the arrival of John was not to bring another golden age of prophecy. Rather, it was to bring all prophecy to fulfillment in the final prophet, the Word become flesh, Jesus Christ.
There is essentially no difference between John and the rest of the Old Testament prophets. He, like the rest of them, preached Christ. What sets John apart is the fact that he lived to see Christ in the flesh. He baptized Jesus. He pointed to Jesus and identified Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. While John is probably best known for his stern and uncompromising preaching of God’s law, he ought to be known as a gospel preacher. That is what he was. It was John who identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It was John who confessed that he wasn’t even worthy to stoop down and untie Jesus’ sandal. It was John who sent his own disciples to Jesus so that they could see for themselves that He really was the promised Christ. St. John the Baptist was the model of all Christian preachers who summarized the attitude every preacher should have about Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
It is appropriate as we consider the ministry of John that we also take a look at the ministry of the word and sacraments that Christ has entrusted to His church on earth. It is among the duties of the pastor to teach what the duties of the pastor are. The Third Sunday in Advent and the Sunday after Easter are the two Sundays of the church year that deal explicitly with the ministry of the word. On the basis of today’s Gospel and Epistle Lessons I invite you to consider with me what God requires of pastors and what every Christian congregation must require as well.
When Jesus asked the crowd if they went out into the wilderness to see a reed shaken by the wind He was asking a rhetorical question. Of course they didn’t. John may have been rather strange, but he was no wishy-washy man-pleaser who was willing to change his preaching to suit the prevailing winds of popular opinion. He was a steadfast preacher of God’s holy word. He refused to veer to the left or to the right. If God said it, John preached it. It didn’t matter what the consequences would be because John wasn’t in control of the consequences anyway. He was given God’s word to preach and so he preached it.
It landed him in jail. It literally cost him his head. He was a victim of state-sponsored murder. When politicians have arbitrary power over life and death and when there is no protection granted to the free exercise of religion, faithful preachers die. That’s the way of this world. St. John the Baptist was only one of the most prominent among them. When it comes to a conflict between king and prophet, the king will invariably threaten the prophet with the power of the sword. The prophet has no such power. His only authority is that of God’s word. And woe to the preacher who backs away from that authority!
It was John’s single-minded devotion to the pure preaching of God’s word that caused such intense loyalty on the part of his disciples. They were devoted to a man they knew to be a faithful preacher of God’s word. Their loyalty to John was in fact their loyalty to the word of God that John preached.
But there is a fine line that should not be crossed. It is the line between the message of the minister and the minister himself. God has always chosen to speak through men. And since He speaks through men, it is not uncommon for people to give their devotion, allegiance, and obedience to these men.
This is what had happened with John’s disciples. Their teacher was languishing in jail. He was in jail because he was a faithful preacher. His disciples knew it. They weren’t ready to abandon their teacher for another. But John did not want their loyalty. He preached Christ. He wanted them to be loyal only to Christ. The spokesman for Jesus is nothing. Jesus is everything. So he told them to go to Christ. He told them to ask Jesus if He really was the Christ. They did. Jesus pointed them to the signs that identified Him as the Christ: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Jesus did what the Holy Scriptures predicated of the Christ. Therefore He was the Christ. The Bible said so. That settled it.
That settles it for every faithful Christian preacher. To preach Christ is to preach the Holy Scriptures and to preach the Holy Scriptures is to preach Christ. To preach Christ is to preach the gospel to the poor. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) The King of the kingdom is none other than Jesus. He, who was identified as the King of kings and Lord of lords was so identified in His suffering. Only in the suffering of Jesus in the place of sinful humanity can we poor sinners find our true spiritual wealth. The incumbents of the preaching office must therefore preach Christ and His suffering for sinners.
Nobody believes in Jesus by his natural powers. By our natural powers we reject Jesus and trust instead in a works-righteous religion. By nature, we reject, deny, and despise the preaching of the preacher who preaches Christ. Still, God sends His ministers to preach what our natural minds think is foolishness. It is through their preaching that God keeps us believing in what we by nature find so unbelievable. Here is how we Lutherans confess the divine institution of this office in the words of the Augsburg Confession:
That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
The preachers are to be stewards of the mysteries of God. That is, they are to preach what is given them to preach and they are to administer the sacraments according to how Christ Himself instituted the sacraments to be administered. It is never by the authority of a mere man that the gospel is proclaimed, people are baptized, and the Lord’s Supper is distributed. It is always by Christ’s authority. This is why the minister of the word must be a minister or servant of Christ before he can faithfully serve Christ’s church.
The ministry doesn’t come from the church. It comes from Christ. So says St. Paul. However, the ministers most certainly do come from the church. They, along with all other Christians, are first born again by the washing of Holy Baptism into the kingdom of Christ. All citizens of this kingdom are identified in the Bible as priests. St. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) As a royal priesthood, the entire church has received the ministry of the word as its own treasure. The mysteries of God – the gospel and the sacraments –do not belong only to the stewards of them, that is, only to the preachers. They are the treasures of Christ’s whole church. It is to the ministers of the word and sacrament that their proper use is entrusted. Since the entire church is God’s holy nation and His own people, all that belongs to Christ belongs to the whole church. This goes for the ministry as well.
This is not to say that every Christian is a preacher. The Bible makes it very clear, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15) Just as Christ sent His first ministers, the apostles, just so the church must send or call pastors who will by means of the church’s call be entrusted by God with that office of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. We call this office the pastoral office, but in the New Testament the incumbents of this office are usually called elders and overseers or presbyters and bishops. The biblical office of presbyter/bishop is identical to the office we today refer to as the pastoral office. Those entrusted with this office have the duties set forth in the New Testament, which are summarized by St. Paul in today’s Epistles Lesson simply as being “stewards of the mysteries of God.”
A steward manages the property of another. The mysteries of God – the gospel and the sacraments – belong both to Christ from whom they come and to His church to whom they are given. The minister’s job, therefore, is to preach faithfully the gospel of Christ and to administer faithfully the sacraments of Christ. As St. Paul reminds us, “it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.”
The Bible nowhere teaches that pastors are to be successful. They are rather to be faithful. There’s a difference. Success is always hidden from the pastor’s sight. Who can see how the word of God is taking root in another’s heart? What pastor can measure the faith or sincerity of those whom he has been called to serve? The pastor can and must judge his own teaching to be sure that it is Christ’s. That he can and must do. But he cannot measure the success of that teaching. As we confess in the Augsburg Confession, the Holy Spirit works faith “where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel.” It is up to the preacher to preach it. But preachers want to be successful. They often trade away faithfulness for success. You can get people to do things – very impressive looking religious things – by means of preaching only the law. The threats and the promises of the law work in changing human behavior. But only the preaching of Christ can turn a sinner into a saint by giving to the poor sinner the wealth of the forgiveness of sins purchased by Christ and freely distributed in the gospel and the sacraments. But to teach a sinner that he needs nothing but Christ will set the sinner free. He will no longer be under any human control. When you are redeemed by the blood of Jesus to live a free life, nobody can put you under the law. Christ Himself has set you free.
To preach the gospel as an unconditional absolution of all sins for Christ’s sake is therefore to say that these sinners who are hearing your words cannot be put under your authority. They belong to the One who set them free. They cannot be manipulated, conned, cajoled, bullied, or in any other way led by the nose to do this or that or the other religious thing the minister thinks needs doing. They can give their allegiance only to Jesus. Only when Christ says it will they listen because He is their Savior, not the preacher, not the church, not the religious know-it-alls who have a list of religious stuff they think you should be doing.
The faithful preacher must direct poor, lost, suffering, helpless, guilty, and self-condemned sinners to Jesus. Yes, along the way, certain stiff-necked hypocrites will distort and twist the gospel message to flatter themselves, but there’s nothing the preacher can do about that. He can only preach Christ and let God take care of the rest. I know perfectly well that when I preach Christ’s righteousness and condemn the doctrine that the righteousness of human works will help bring anyone into fellowship with God that there is a risk. Certain unrepentant sinners may pretend that they are Christians and have the forgiveness of sins while they remain unrepentant. What should the preacher do about this? Stop preaching the gospel? Put a hedge around it by requiring Christians to jump through man-made hoops before they can rest secure in the wounds of their Savior, confident that they are free from all blame and are saints in the presence of the holy God? Shame on such preachers! They have no right to preach. We have no right to speak, as if God Himself were speaking through us, unless we tell sinners that their sins are fully and freely and finally forgiven by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The gospel preacher can never quit preaching the gospel. He can never give up believing in its power to save. It will often look as if the preaching of Christ and His righteousness accomplishes nothing in the hearts and lives of his parishioners because there remains the same old depressing sins so visible and so contrary to the Christian teaching. The preacher might think that what the people really need is less gospel and more law because they obviously don’t know the law well enough to obey it. The faithful preacher will reject this argument and insist that if his people aren’t living the holy lives God called them to live, why then it’s up to the preacher to preach Christ ever more clearly. Nothing else will make us into the Christians God has called us to be than clear Christ-centered preaching, the power of Holy Baptism, and the life-giving body and blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. No preacher can add to what Christ accomplished for us when He bore our sins and our death in His own holy body and destroyed everything that would keep us away from God. So the preacher must preach Christ and let God worry about the success of that preaching in the hearts and lives of His children. Amen.