Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sermon: Cantate (Easter 5)

14 May 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 16:5-15 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

We find ourselves today four weeks into the season of Easter, on a Sunday whose introit is the joyful and jubilant Psalm 98: “Oh, sing unto the Lord a New Song!” (which is where this Sunday gets its name, Cantate, Latin for “sing!”). Our hymns still proclaim the joyous resurrection, and our liturgy is bursting at the seams with glorious alleluias.

In the midst of all this joy, singing, and praise of God for conquering the grave and winning eternal life for us, the fathers of the Church have selected John 16 to be our gospel text, in which Jesus is delivering the sad news of his impending departure, and the disciples react with hearts filled with “sorrow.”

Sorrow? My goodness! We spent six long weeks of Lent with somber hymns, no alleluias, focus on the law and in self-examination, exposing (and hopefully confessing) our sins, perhaps even fasting and attending additional church services or taking on works of charity to discipline ourselves – and now Easter is barely a month old, and we’re dealing yet again with sorrow.

Why did the church fathers do that to us?

Well, my brothers and sisters, that’s how life on this side of the grave is, isn’t it? For even as we celebrate the joyous feast, we still have sorrows. Even in this age of grace, we still have aches and pains, family feuds, sick and dying friends and relatives, anxieties about another rapidly approaching hurricane season, money problems, rising gas prices, worries about another war on the horizon in the middle east, and the list goes on and on.

It is interesting that Jesus uses the word “sorrow” here. For “sorrow” is not only sadness. It is a specific kind of sadness, a word that carries with it a sense of regret, of being sorry, of a disappointment that things are the way they are, and not the way they should be. Sorrow is the most natural thing in the world to feel in this fallen world, surrounded by death and disappointment.

For we were not created to have aches and pains, money problems, bickering relatives, and death itself. It is with sorrow that we reflect on these burdens in this life – for these are things that ought not be. We were not created to have regrets, to wish things were different. We were not created to be refugees and patients. We were not created to be divorcees and convicts. We were not created to suffer stress and anxiety. We were not created to be sinners and lawbreakers. We certainly were not created to be on a countdown to our own death.

The disciples experience this sorrow as they face Jesus’ mortality. There is something more than sadness here – there must be a gnawing understanding that something is terribly wrong in the universe when the Messiah, the God-Man, speaks of his own impending death.

But notice that the Lord doesn’t condemn their sorrow. He doesn’t scold them, or tell them to get over it. In fact, Jesus is himself prophetically called the “Man of Sorrows,” who was himself filled with sorrow at the death of his friend Lazarus, and who became “troubled and sorrowful” in reflecting on his impending death as he prayed at Gethsemane.

For sorrow is not sin, but rather a realization of the devastation of sin. Sin is why we must be sorrowful in this life, and sin, our sin, caused all of our blessed Lord’s sorrows.

In response to the disciples’ sorrow, our Lord promises comfort. While he must go away, he promises the Helper – sometimes translated as “Advocate,” or “Counselor,” or “Comforter” – who will come afterwards. Of course, this is none other than the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, of whom the Nicene Creed confesses as: “the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.”

And Jesus outlines the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a very short summary: to convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. He is promised to be with the Church as she carries out the ministry of Jesus, even under the sorrow of not seeing her Lord face to face in this life at this time. The ever-comforting Spirit is promised to the Church, to guide her into all truth. For just as Jesus is God, and yet did not speak apart from the authority of the Father, so too does the Spirit speak with derived authority. The Spirit’s ministry is to glorify Jesus – not himself – and all that Jesus has is also property of the Father – including all of us.

The Holy Spirit is always working humbly in the background as our Comforter, Advocate, and Helper. He comforts us in our sorrow, our continued regretful existence in the sinful flesh, even as he advocates for us before our Judge, and helps us in times of trial and temptation. He continues to point us to Jesus and turn us to the cross, leading us to where Jesus is found – in his preached word and administered sacraments. The Spirit is at work in the Word of God, both in condemning our sins, and in restoring us to holiness.

Some Christians seek the Holy Spirit in signs and wonders – even arguing that baptism is incomplete without being confirmed by some other manifestation of the Spirit – real or imagined. Some Christians turn the Trinity on its head by ignoring Jesus’ words that the Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus. Instead of using the cross or crucifix as a symbol, such churches use the dove as their sign – as though the Holy Spirit’s ministry is ever separated from our crucified and risen Lord, or as if the Holy Spirit ever seeks glory unto himself.

There is a temptation for us Lutherans to resist the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctifying us, perverting the Gospel into a kind of license to sin, and almost boasting of our lack of good works to prove what genuine Christians we are! But the Spirit himself tells us through the very Word of God that this is wrong, and the Spirit convicts us of sin and goads us into the sanctified life – not to earn salvation, but rather as a result of it.

But through all our sins and errors, the Holy Spirit continues to patiently hover over our baptismal waters, lovingly brooding above our altars, quietly emanating from our pulpits, and carrying out the Father’s will through humble physical means. Some people believe the Holy Spirit works like a wizard, or like magic spells and the occult. In reality, the Spirit’s work is often rather “un-spiritual” in a sense, meaning very earthy and physical. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment through the pastoral ministry (as our Augsburg Confession is bold to say), in preaching and in sacraments.

Wherever our Lord is present, there is the Spirit doing the Triune God’s holy work: creating and giving life, justifying and forgiving, sanctifying and fortifying us for the Christian life, defending us against assaults of the devil, and constantly turning us away from ourselves and back toward Christ, the Church, the Sacraments, and the Gospel!

For even as the Spirit turns us from our sins, the Lord’s anger is turned away from us, and we are comforted in our sorrow! This is the Holy Spirit’s work, that we are able to draw water from the wells of salvation! Thus it is that every baptized Christian can indeed praise the Lord, call upon his name, declare his deeds, and sing to the Lord.

It is only by the ministry of the Holy Spirit that St. James can promise us “every good gift and every perfect gift from above.” Only through the Spirit’s work can we “be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” It is only in the sanctifying work of the Spirit that we are freed and empowered to be “swift to hear, slow to speak,” and “slow to wrath,” that we can “lay aside filthiness and overflow of wickedness” in favor of the gift of the “meekness of the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”

Dear Christians, one and all rejoice! Even in our sorrow, let us sing unto the Lord a new song, let our souls praise the King of heaven, let us live boldly in the mystery of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Let us join with the Holy Spirit as he glorifies our risen Lord Jesus Christ, both now and unto eternity! Amen.

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

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