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
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:
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
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
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.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus