“The Heart of It All”
Tenth Anniversary of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, Iowa
April 13, 2008
“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 2, 1-5
Paul confesses his weakness and his fear. He trembled before the congregation in Corinth as he declared to them God’s word. Why? Did he fear them? By no means! He feared God.
No man has the right to stand up before others and preach God’s word unless God has put him there to do so. And when God has put him there to do so the people of God listen. They listen as if God himself is talking to them because God himself is talking to them. The fact that God chooses to speak through men does not make it any less God speaking than if he chose to speak directly from heaven. When the man of God speaks for God he does so in fear and trembling because he knows he has no right to stand up and spout off his own opinions or attempt to impress God’s people with his own rhetorical skills. He is there to speak for God. God always speaks with authority.
A few years ago we attended a family reunion on my wife’s side of the family in a little town by the name of McBain, Michigan. We stayed in the home of one of Dort’s cousins and her husband. They had joined the local Presbyterian Church in McBain where they had a woman minister. As we visited in their home, it became obvious that this couple were very conservative when it came to traditional values and the relationship between a man and a woman. They were quite open in expressing their conservative views that the husband was the head of the home.
How could they hold to the view that a woman should not exercise authority over her husband in the home and at the same time regularly attend a church that had put a woman in the pulpit? There’s a very simple explanation for this. They didn’t regard the preacher as having any real authority. He (or she, as the case may be) is there to share or to encourage. He’s not there to speak authoritatively for God.
God speaks through the men he sends. The Apostle Paul knew this. This is why he did not rely on human wisdom. This is why he was trembling with fear. This is why he felt so very weak. It certainly wasn’t because of the great social status of the members of the congregation in Corinth! They had no particular social status. It certainly wasn’t because Paul was afraid of public speaking. He was quite good at it. No, it was because God had sent Paul to preach and Paul knew that of himself he was utterly unworthy to do so.
The world and the false but respectable church despise our claims to the truth. They are positively angered when we claim that our preacher’s voice is God’s voice. They dismiss us as little better than cultists, holding on to religious delusions. Who do we think we are?
And that’s just it. We don’t think much of ourselves. And yet God tells us to speak his words and he promises us that they are his power to bring salvation to the lost and to spark into flame true faith, faith that receives all of the treasures of heaven.
I don’t imagine it is possible for members of St. Timothy Lutheran Church to forget how it is that St. Timothy was first established. Every time you look back and thank God for his blessing upon your congregation over the past decade you are confronted with sin. A congregation fired their faithful pastor. In so doing they denied that the minister who had served them with God’s word was really and truly sent by God. For if a preacher is sent by God only God can remove him. To rescind the call of a minister of Christ for unbiblical reasons is to deny that the preaching office belongs to God. It is to deny that the minister speaks for God. But if the minister doesn’t speak for God, what’s he doing up in the pulpit? Maybe he’s sharing, or philosophizing, or pontificating. But if he’s not put there by God through Christ’s church he has nothing to say to which we need pay the slightest attention.
Karl Heck is only a man. To take away his job may be temporarily inconvenient for him and his family but men lose jobs all the time. It’s the way things are. He can always get another job. The issue for St. Timothy’s when this congregation was founded was not Karl Heck the man. It was God’s institution. It was God’s voice. It was God’s word. And not just any word. It was the preaching of the cross. For the faithful minister of Christ preaches Christ crucified for sinners. That’s what he’s there to do. That’s what God put him there to do.
The gospel doesn’t float around in space and zap us as we walk on by. The gospel is preached. It is a message, a word, a communication, if you will. It is a message with a meaning and its meaning goes against the grain, against the wisdom of this world, and against all human expectations. There is only one good reason to defend the call of a minister of Christ. That is for the sake of the gospel. For if a minister is to be hired and fired by the carnal whim of men there can be no true ministers of Christ. Make no mistake about it. We defend the ministry of Christ for one reason and one reason only: for the sake of the gospel.
You don’t need a pastor to preach or a church to attend if all you’re interested in is learning how to live a decent and respectable life. But if you are a sinner who needs a Savior then you need the preaching of Christ crucified. That is the heart of it all.
God speaks through Isaiah and says:
But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. (Isaiah 43, 1)
He formed us, his holy church. He redeemed us. He shed his blood for us. We belong to him because he has purchased us. As God says later on in the book of the prophet, Isaiah:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands. (Isaiah 49, 15-16a)
Our value before God is not mere potential. It’s not as if God looks at us the way the basketball coach looks at the tall young man who, with some vigorous training, just might become a valuable player. No, our value before God is real. We are inscribed on the palms of his hands. The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus determines our value before God. We are as precious to God as is the blood of his dear Son and this is why he teaches us through his inspired Apostle that he wants to know nothing else among us except for Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This is the heart of it all. You need it in the center of your life, whoever you may be. What did you do yesterday? Think about it. What did you think, say, and do? Did you think, say, and do everything you thought, said, and did in accordance with the standards of holiness that God has set down for you to obey? Did you despise your neighbor and stand in proud judgment of him? Did you take for yourself what you should have given to another? Did you misuse God’s name? Did you neglect God’s word? Did you set your affections on what you have no right to while despising the gifts God gave to you? And if you are guilty of sin, tell me, what is a sinner before a holy God? What does a holy God do to sinners? Or is God too blind to see what you’ve done or too weak to punish you for it?
What do you need? Obedience! But you haven’t done it. Yes, you need it, but you cannot provide it. And your membership in the right church, the church that stands on God’s word, the church that defends the institution and ordinance of God, will avail you nothing when you stand before the judgment seat of God and he sees you as you have thought, spoken, and done.
But what God has entrusted to this church and what your pastor has preached to you in this church does and will always avail before God as God looks upon you. For within these walls Christ’s voice has sounded forth. You have come to church burdened by sins that you cannot undo. You have been told of how Jesus suffered on the cross for you. He suffered on account of your sins. He suffered to bear their guilt. He suffered to placate God’s righteous anger against you that your sins had brought upon you. He suffered to reconcile you to God by washing away your sin by his blood. He suffered so that you would be forgiven. Christ was crucified for you only once. Once was enough. But you need the forgiveness of sins every day. You need this more than the air you breathe.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church has always insisted that at the very heart of the Christian faith is this truth, that God forgives us all or our sins on account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, that God gives us this forgiveness freely without our deserving it in any way, and that this forgiveness is received through faith alone. We call this teaching “justification by faith alone.” And we insist that this is not just a teaching among many other teachings but that this is the heart and soul of the Christian religion. God justifies us. He reckons us to be righteous. He does so on the basis of Christ’s obedience, not our own. And this righteousness of Christ is given to us in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the preaching we hear, and as we eat and drink the body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of all our sins. We Lutherans learned to place justification by faith alone at the very heart of the faith from St. Paul the Apostle who said, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
He didn’t look like much. He was covered with blood. He cried out in thirst. He was publicly shamed as he suffered crucifixion between two criminals. As he was crucified he appeared in weakness as a failure. But he was no failure. There, in his suffering, is the power of God. There is a power that reduces to insignificance the most eloquent and persuasive oratory of man. For there in Christ’s suffering the sin that hurts us, seeks to claim us, and would condemn us was borne. Where Jesus bore our sin there it was that his innocence met our guilt and destroyed it. There our sins are forgiven. There is the power of God.
This congregation is precious before God. She is a pearl of great price whose value is determined by God himself. The grace that has covered you all over the past decade together as a Christian congregation will continue to bind you together as one. For it is Christ crucified for you that defines who and what you are. This is what the preacher preaches. This is what the hearers believe. This is the wisdom and the power of God and this is what leads us to heaven in Jesus’ name.
Rolf D. Preus