Sexagesima Sunday Sermon, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11
When Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” He was addressing every Christian. Faith does not require sight. The Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1) says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We do not see in order to believe, but we believe in order to see. An article of faith is something that God has taught us to believe. When God says it, that settles it. Faith listens. It does not look. Faith hears. It does not see. As St. Paul writes, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) True, the deaf hear only by seeing, but when they look to read lips or to see someone signing words they look with fixed attention.
Looking puts the one looking in charge. You flit your eyes here and there, picking out whatever details strike your fancy. You pass by this and you focus in on that. The eyes pick and choose. But the ears can only take it in. An unsightly or ugly scene can easily be avoided by glancing away. An annoying sound can’t be ignored without plugging the ears or going somewhere else. The word of God is meant to be heard.
That’s not to say that the gospel truth cannot be illustrated and depicted visually. Pictures of the Lord Jesus carrying a sheep in His arms, struggling in prayer, or dying on the cross can powerfully convey Christ’s compassion and suffering. One of the most powerful symbols of Christ’s love for us sinners is the crucifix. The bare cross reminds us of how Christ died. The crucifix places Christ on the cross before our eyes and brings home to us the concrete truth that He was crucified for us. I have a habit of pointing to the altar while I am preaching. I got into this habit because for years I preached in churches that had a crucifix in the middle of the altar. There is a popular notion that a crucifix is a Roman Catholic symbol. That is as true as that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Roman Catholic doctrine. Roman Catholic is not necessarily wrong. Using a crucifix to display before our eyes the crucifixion of Jesus complements our prayer that this image will always be imprinted on our hearts as well. The fact is that using a crucifix in worship is a Lutheran custom. It was the Reformed churches that got rid of the crucifix because they regarded it as a graven image prohibited by their Second Commandment. It is only natural that the Reformed churches would not want a depiction of Christ’s body on their altars. After all, in their teaching on the Lord’s Supper they deny that Christ’s body and blood are ever on the altar, or in the hand, or in the mouth. The crucifixion of Jesus has never been the central event in the popular religion of our country. It is not surprising that the American religious culture takes the crucifix off of the altar.
As important as symbols are, however, a symbol is only a symbol. We need more than symbols. We need substance. We need more than pictures to express our faith. We need the words from God that establish our faith. We need to hear God’s voice.
The word of God has always been spoken. In the very beginning, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. When Jesus healed lepers and cast out demons he always did so by speaking. Jesus speaks His word and the elements of the Lord’s Supper are consecrated. By Christ’s word ordinary bread and wine are no longer merely bread and wine but His very body and blood by which He made full satisfaction for all our sins. Jesus Himself is called the Word. He is the eternal Word become flesh. St. John writes of Jesus in the prologue of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (St. John 1:1-3)
The reason the eternal Son of the eternal Father is called the Word is because everything God has to say to us is centered in Him. Jesus rebuked the devil by saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” The reason we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is because every word that proceeds from the mouth of God points us to Jesus. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39) God’s written word is the standard for God’s preached word. Unless the preachers preach in agreement with the Holy Scriptures, they are not preaching God’s word. And whenever preachers preach in agreement with the Holy Scriptures, they preach Christ. So-called “Bible-believing” preachers who do not point sinners to the suffering and death of Jesus for their forgiveness and salvation are not Bible-believing preachers at all. The Bible is not just a list of religious principles or moral precepts. It is written, as St. John said of his Gospel, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31) St. Paul reminded Timothy, “from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15) The purpose of the Bible and the purpose of all biblical preaching is faith.
Does it work? Does the word of God produce faith? Or must something be added to God’s word to make it effective? Does the Holy Spirit hover nearby when the word of God is proclaimed debating whether or not He will enter into that word to give it the power to create faith and to save sinners? No! The word of God always has the power of Almighty God. The word of God cannot be void of power because it is God’s word and God chooses to exercise his almighty power through His word. It is the very voice of the Holy Spirit whom we rightly confess to be the Lord and Giver of life. How does the Holy Spirit give life? Through the word!
Over the years there have always been those who have denied the inherent power of God’s word and have tried to supplement what they thought was lacking in it. So, for example, during the 19th Century revivals that swept throughout this nation, preachers relied on what they called “new measures.” They would try to rouse the crowd into an emotional state that would supposedly make them more receptive to the word of God. Music that pulled on the heartstrings combined with urgent and emotional appeals to give yourself over to God. It was as if the word of God could not win over the hearts of unbelievers unless first the unbelievers were emotionally primed to listen. The American tradition of revivalism accounts for much of the emotionalism and lack of sound teaching so prevalent in the church today. People who don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is always powerful and active in His word tend to rely more on manipulating people emotionally than in teaching God’s word to them. But the only hope we sinners have to hold on to Christ in firm faith and to live Christians lives worth living comes to us from God’s holy word.
Is it possible for the rain not to make the fields green? Have you ever seen a winter that did not bring you spring? I know it’s hard to believe on a day like today when everything is white and frozen. But we know by our own experience that the snow will not leave without causing the crops to grow. That’s the way it works. And that’s the way God’s word works. God Himself intends that the rain and the snow will cause the seed to bud and the crop to grow. God Himself intends that His word accomplish that purpose for which He sent it. We cannot improve on God’s word. We can only proclaim it. When it is faithfully preached, taught, and confessed it will remain God’s power to save. When it is watered down, denied, and covered up with human opinions and false teachings, it will cease to be God’s word and it won’t do anything at all.
Now there is a bit of a paradox about the power of God’s word. The very center of that power is the gospel. Yes, God’s law has power, too, but the power of the law is destructive. The law cannot create any good in us. When God tells us that we must love Him with our whole heart, strength, and mind and that we must love our neighbors as ourselves we receive no power from that command to obey it. On the contrary, God’s law accuses us. It judges us. It condemns us. Have you loved God more than your family, your friends, your job, your money, or your home? No, you have not and God’s law tells you this. The law is no friend to a sinner.
The paradox comes in when we consider the power of the gospel. People by nature consider it to be foolishness, yet it has within it the power to bring those who hear it to faith. A sinner who needs the gospel does not naturally believe in it. The word of the gospel is the word of absolution. God speaks to us words that give to us the forgiveness of sins. That’s what an absolution is. It is words that convey God’s forgiveness. This forgiveness comes only from Christ. The reason the minister has the authority to absolve the penitent is because he does so “in the stead and by the command” of Christ. Christ has loved God with the pure heart with which no other man, woman, or child loved. Christ bore the sin of the entire human race. He personally bore in His body the judgment of God’s law against all sinners. As Isaiah writes concerning Him:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
The word of the gospel is the word of the suffering of Christ, our Substitute. It is the suffering by which God made peace with us and forgave us. Just as surely as Christ lived the righteous life we failed to live and did it for us, in our place, so surely does the gospel of Christ give Christ’s righteousness to us. And this is what gives the gospel the power to save. As St. Paul writes in Romans 1:16-17,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
The very words that the world thinks are irrational and just plain wrong are the words that carry within them the power of God to convert us and to keep us in the saving faith. When sinners hear the gospel, God is at work. His word will not return to Him void or empty. The good and gracious will of God is done.
But you can see the green fields in the spring. You cannot see faith. You cannot see what faith receives. We confess that we believe in “the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” We believe because God’s word tells us so. But we do not see.
This is why we take great care and persistence in seeing to it that only the pure word of God is proclaimed among us and that the sacraments are administered rightly. This is why we attend only those churches that are publicly committed to the true gospel and sacraments of Christ. We need the word of God – nothing more and certainly nothing less. Having it, we will remain steadfast in the true faith until our end.
This is also why we never give up on the souls of loved ones who deny the faith but we keep on confessing God’s word to them. We keep on telling them the gospel. We know that faith comes from hearing God’s word and that the bitterest enemies of God’s truth can and have been brought to faith even when it appeared impossible. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Amen.