Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sermon: Rogate (Easter 6)

13 May 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 16:23-33 (Num 21:4-9, Jas 1:22-27)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Figuratively speaking, our Lord wears lots of hats. We think of Him mostly as Lord, Savior, incarnate God, Prophet, Priest, King, the Good Shepherd, the Pastor and Bishop of our Souls, the Lamb of God, the Seed of the Woman, the Son of Man, Emmanuel, the Bread of Life, Living Water, the Vine, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the One who shall come to be our Judge.

Often we gloss over the most common title by which our Lord is addressed: “Rabbi” (Teacher). For our Lord’s followers are called “disciples,” and as my junior high discipuli should know, “discipulus” is Latin for “student.”

Teaching is certainly more art than science. For we aren’t computers. We can’t just run a cable from teacher to disciple and download data. Teachers often have to be clever, persistent, gentle, harsh, shocking, or downright crazy – based on the students’ needs – to make their hearers grasp the lesson.

Jesus Christ is the greatest teacher and storyteller of all time. He teaches us about the Kingdom of God using parables. He uses vivid figures of speech and sophisticated rhetorical techniques to drive His points home. Just as adults must often use colorful illustrations and object lessons to teach young children, Jesus uses figurative language throughout His ministry to bring the Gospel to His hearers.

But as our Lord’s earthly ministry draws to a close, as His destiny on the cross and His victory over Satan looms, Jesus speaks more and more plainly. Sometimes, he is so blunt that His disciples wonder if He means what He says. In today’s Gospel, our Lord looks forward to even more direct talk: “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father.”

Whereas the world was not ready to come to grips with who he was and who sent Him, our Lord patiently spoke in parables and figures. But now, with His disciples, He lays it out for them without flowery speech: “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father.”

As disciples, as students, they no longer need the object lesson. Their Teacher can speak bluntly with them. And this doesn’t get past the often dull and slow to learn disciples: “See, now you are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!”

The effect of the unadorned Word of God is nothing short of a miracle. The Gospel - articulated plainly, without histrionics or a “dynamic delivery,” without regard to the age or culture of the listener, without concern for self-esteem and mission statements – creates belief in the listener. The Word of God creates faith – not the skill of the preacher, nor any technique, gimmick, or appeal to emotion. Look at the confession of the disciples as a result of this plain speaking: “By this we believe that You came forth from God.”

The Word of God is what creates belief, is what nurtures faith, is what delivers life, salvation, and victory over the grave to those who hear and believe.

It is towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, on the night in which He was betrayed, that our Lord speaks the most plainly, without regard to any figure of speech. On Maundy Thursday, hours before His arrest, and one day before His crucifixion and death, our Lord takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to His disciples. He speaks to them without parable, using no metaphor, relying upon no figure of speech, and bluntly says: “This is my body… this cup is the new testament in my blood.” There is no short story beginning with our Lord’s version of “once upon a time,” that is to say: “The kingdom of God is like…” for He is no longer teaching His disciples that way. Jesus says what it is, and then says what it does: “given for you… shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

From the cross, our suffering Lord doesn’t weave together wonderful tales about farmers and seeds, about fishermen and nets, about managers and servants, about lost coins, lost sheep, and lost sons. That time has passed. The Crucified One prays absolution for His enemies, “Father, forgive them.” And as He dies, he says: “It is finished.” The centurion’s very real spear slices into very real flesh. Blood and water issue forth. Even in death, even without words, our Lord’s Word is powerful. For it bears witness to the blood and the water, to the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.

No more must the world pore over the prophets, looking for the key to their understanding. For the Prophet has fulfilled all prophets, and is Himself the Key to all Scripture. No more must disciples of the Psalms furrow their brows and debate over which are “messianic” – for the Messiah has come and claimed all of them for Himself. No more must teachers of the Law debate among themselves about how best to uphold its obligations – for He came into the World not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

We no longer must peer into ghostly, dim previews of Him who is to come, as did the snake-bitten Israelites who were saved by looking to the bronze serpent raised up on a pole, for we look to Him who crushed the serpent’s head, we look to Him who was raised up for all to see, we look to Him whose blood is the antidote to the deadly bite of the serpent, who is Himself the antitype, the fulfillment, of this hazy image of the Old Testament.

And while we don’t yet know everything about the Kingdom of God, though we cannot process its glories with our feeble, sin-drenched brains, though we have not seen, heard, and tasted its magnificence in all of its glory, we do hear the blessedly plain spoken Word of God declaring us forgiven, proclaiming us heirs of eternal life, declaring us to be free from sin and from its ultimate end, death.

For like the disciples, our faith in the divinity of Jesus doesn’t come from scientific inquiry, but rather our faith flows from the reality of who Jesus is and from Whom He comes. Reason seeks proof, but faith grasps what is already known. Science operates by never-ending doubt and is never sure of anything. Even facts become subject to new theories and evidence. But faith is rooted in the plainly-articulated Word of God – the same Word that created all things, the same Word that says: “Let there be…” and there was.

Our response to the Word is likewise no figure of speech. For faith responds in equally plain fashion. For as James exhorts, we are not to deceive ourselves by only hearing the Word, but we are to be “doers of the Word,” rather than people who encounter the Word of God, and simply walk away unchanged.

There are times for illustrations, proverbs, parables, and other figurative speech. And then there are times for candor and bluntness. Today, our Lord speaks to us plainly, without figures of speech. He invites us to do the same, in word and in deed. And with those first disciples, we confess with our faltering lips the belief implanted into our otherwise-broken hearts: “Now we are sure that you know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God.” Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

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