Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sermon: Laetare (Lent 4)

26 March 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 6:1-15 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old Latin saying: “Vox populi, vox Dei,” the voice of the people is the voice of God.

This is something we Americans really take to heart. We boast about our democracy, and our elections are almost sacred happenings. Indeed, in our Declaration of Independence (a document treated with the utmost reverence bordering on worship), Thomas Jefferson tells us that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are our God-given inalienable rights, and that to secure these rights, we have a God-given right to overthrow the government – but only if this is the desire of “the people.”

There is much wisdom in Jefferson’s document, and the right of the people to vote has been a good thing. But does it follow that the voice of the people is the voice of God?

In our Old Testament lesson, the people were, as usual, grumbling against Moses. Look how fickle public opinion is! When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery. And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom – having to work to eat. They complain to Moses. This is shortly after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy. With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather have died than live hungry in the desert. Had the Israelites had a right to vote, Moses would have been recalled. At very least, he would not have won his party’s nomination in the primary.

And yet, God does not oust Moses. Rather he gives the people that which they don’t deserve – he rains bread from heaven upon them. He preserves them by giving them literally their “daily bread.” Of course, the children of Israel would later complain against God’s generosity by wishing they had more variety in their free meals. Very little has changed among large numbers of evacuees over the centuries.

In our Gospel reading, God provides a New and Greater bread, a living bread from heaven: Jesus. Having given the people signs and wonders, Jesus has developed a following. While some understood the sign: “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,” referring to the Prophet promised by Moses, others, however, have become more interested in the signs than that which the sign points them to. They seek Jesus not for salvation, not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care. The people seek to make him a king. The people have spoken: “vox populi…”

At this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office. His poll numbers are strong, he has momentum, and he’s proven he can deliver on his promises. The politicians in the synod and district would be thrilled with Jesus – look how many numbers he can rack up on the Ablaze website! Can you imagine how happy the Missions Board would be with Jesus right now? He has hit on a successful evangelism program.

All Jesus has to do is ride the “vox populi” to his throne. But what does he do? He goes to the mountains and shuns the voice of the people. For Jesus understands that presidents and prime ministers are elected by the voice of the people – but unless we’re talking about some Mardi Gras krewes, kings are not elected. The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person – regardless of the “vox populi.”

The voice of the people is not necessarily the voice of God – since “we the people” are also “we poor miserable sinners.” There is only one Person whose voice is divine, and that is the voice of Jesus. Maybe we should say: “Vox Jesu, vox Dei.” That really makes more sense, doesn’t it? Jesus is God, public opinion is not.

Public opinion drives us to adopt wrong-headed priorities. We want so badly to fit in that we’ll become poor stewards by wasting money in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Young people live in constant fear of not living up to the “vox populi” of their peers, to the point of paying a lot of money for clothes that don’t fit – pants that are so big that they have to waddle around like ducks with one hand holding them up – all the while, rich corporate executives in three-piece suits who own the clothing companies laugh all the way to the bank. The entire fashion industry is based on convincing us that we need to buy new clothes every year, if not every season, since that’s what’s “in” – “vox populi.”

Christians are certainly not immune to getting caught up in “vox populi.” We try hard to blend in with the world. We dare not be a square peg in a round hole. The Christian world is awash in polls and focus groups, trying to conform itself to “vox populi” from the kind of music sung in church to the way the sanctuaries are designed. Indeed, public opinion is the voice of God when it comes to the megachurch and the Christian bookstore.

This is why we have such a struggle in our church body with open communion. The “vox populi” of our times says we need to be open minded, we need to be inclusive, we need to be welcoming, we need to do what is popular and avoid what will upset the false God whose name is “populus.”

And when a faithful pastor cuts against the grain and preaches the Gospel, placing unrepentant sinners under discipline, refusing to open his church’s altar to people who shouldn’t commune just because that would be the popular and easy way out – the “vox populi” can become a tool of Satan. Such a congregation can simply reject the pastor God has given them by a show of hands, putting their faith in the buildings and political wrangling instead of putting their trust in the one the Lord provided them to give them the very Bread of Life. Indeed, how fortunate for us that the ministries of Moses and our Lord Himself were not subject to the “vox populi” of a voters assembly.

“Vox populi” is such an American institution that we American Lutherans – even in the Missouri Synod – allow doctrinal issues to be settled by voting in a convention. This is how we end up with such unscriptural practices as lay ministers and praying with heathens. But indeed “vox populi” is not necessarily “vox Dei.” For we find the voice of God not in majorities, but in his Word, in his sacraments, in the gospel proclaimed by his pastors. We find the “vox Dei” when we are told our sins are forgiven, that we are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The “vox Dei” doesn’t come from conventions and voting booths, but from altar, font, and pulpit.

The “vox Dei” doesn’t come from the people’s demands that Jesus be enthroned, nor the demands that Jesus be crucified. Rather the “vox Dei” sounds from the Crucified One: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!” For this King was not destined to ride in a plush chariot, but rather a on rustic donkey. This King doesn’t wear golden laurels, but rather a thorny crown. This King doesn’t sit on a pompous throne, but rather a painful cross.

And thank God that his voice trumps the people’s voice. For if the voice of the people was truly the voice of God, that would mean that the people are God. “Vox populi, vox Dei,” as much as we like the sound of it, is really idolatry. We see this sin again and again in Scripture.

In fact, the expression “Vox populi, vox Dei” comes from a very different context. It was coined by the famous Christian teacher and advisor to Emperor Charlemagne back in the 8th century: a scholar named St. Alcuin. Alcuin certainly knew the Scriptures, and he advised Charlemagne: “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying, ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God,’ since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

For Alcuin understood original sin. The mob does not speak with the voice of God, only Jesus does. And thank God for it! For we are not saved from our sins, redeemed, and given eternal life - by the crowd. And thanks be to God that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king. For his kingdom is “not of this world.” And the bread he gives us isn’t merely food for this life, but is truly the “medicine of immortality.”

For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord gives us that which we don’t deserve – he rains bread from heaven upon us. He preserves us by giving us literally our “daily bread.” And he further gives us the Bread of Life, which is his flesh.

Let us come to where we may indeed hear the voice of God. Let us continue to surround ourselves in the Word of God! “Vox populi non est vox Dei. Sed, vox Jesu est vox Dei.” Let us gladly hear and learn that Word of Jesus, that Word of God, now, and unto eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Pastor Beisel said...

Father Hollywood,

Great sermon. Way to give us Christ in all His fullness.