The Lord Who Saves

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13–23
You can listen to the sermon here.

La fuite en ÉgypteWhat’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.

In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.

And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.

It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.

But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.

In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.

Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.

And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.

But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.

Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.

The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.

And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.

In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.

But what has all this to do with you?

Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the  Gradual.

In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.

May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

The extraordinary ordinary

Homily preached at the Lutheran Women’s League of Great Britain Workshop at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
9 November 2013
Text: Romans 16:1‒16; Luke 8:1‒3; 10:38‒42

The lists of names in the final greetings of the New Testament Epistles tend to pass us by in our daily reading. When I first started reading the Bible regularly as a teenager, I was very keen, so I read everything. But after a few years, I began to skip about, to leave out certain bits. And the first thing to go were the lists of names. They just didn’t seem to have any spiritual value, nothing in them for me. Later, at university I learned that they were not entirely without worth: scholars of the New Testament use these lists to cross-reference names in different books to try and get a sense of what was written when, who knew whom, and so forth. Very interesting, if you are into that sort of thing. But still, hardly heart-lifting spiritual edification.

Are you with me?

Well, I hope you are not, because I was just plain wrong. These lists, these names of people about most of whom we know nothing at all except that Paul knew them—they are you and me. Ordinary Christians who were known to the apostle, who had sat in the services where he preached and been members of the churches he had planted. Some of them had served him, or served the churches in various capacities. Others were fellow-preachers, tasked with proclaiming the same apostolic and prophetic message that had been entrusted to the apostles.

Continue reading The extraordinary ordinary

Some thoughts on long hymns

An extract from the Sunday Cantata episode for Trinity 24, first aired on 3 November 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK.

In my life so far, I have been fortunate enough to have lived in a number of different countries. In fact, I have moved around enough to consider myself a bit of a home-grown expert on culture shock. And one of the things I have noticed is that often the experience of culture shock is greatest when the differences are small but significant, rather than really big. So, for example, moving from Northern Europe to East Africa was very interesting in all sorts of ways, but going from England to the Midwest of the USA brought about a much bigger shock to the system!

Going from a church service within one denomination to a different one can also be a bit of a culture shock. Things that you take for granted are missing, or done very differently, and you will encounter things you didn’t expect at all.

So if you engaged in a bit of time travel and went to church in Leipzig in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when Johann Sebastian Bach was serving as the director of music to the main churches of that city, even if you are a lifelong Lutheran, I suspect that you would be quite vulnerable to a good dose of culture shock—precisely in the area where the differences are small but significant. The powdered wigs, the body odours, the strange language—those you would expect. But the three-hour service with its one-hour sermon? That might be harder to take.

But it wasn’t only the sermon that made the services last so long. There was, of course, the church cantata for the day, which would usually last between 15 and 30 minutes.

And then, there were the hymns! Lutheran hymn singing is rarely done these days as it was then. I mean, a first-time visitor to a Lutheran church in England may have a look through our hymnal and think that some of our longer hymns with, say 10 stanzas, are a bit on the long side, not to say heavy in their content. But consider this: many of those 10-verse hymns were originally much longer. Some of the longer ones have been split into two separate hymns with, say 6 or 8 verses each. And some others fell out of use altogether as people grew impatient with three-hour services and 30-minute hymns. The longest hymn I have quoted in Sunday Cantata in the course of the past church year had 32 verses. The longest Lutheran hymn I’ve ever sung has 41 verses of eight lines each.

There’s a very good reason for this phenomenon. In Lutheran theology, hymns serve a wider range of purposes than perhaps in most of the rest of Christendom. All Christians sing hymns that praise God and hymns that are prayers addressed to Him. One of the distinctive features of Lutheran hymnody is that much of it is catechetical, which is to say that it is designed to teach God’s word to the congregation. And teaching takes words, and it takes time. And so, we have long hymns—but we also had congregations who were immersed in biblical doctrine through singing it repeatedly, without a hurry. It’s hard to deny that we have lost out when we have opted to spend our time differently as a church.

The Structure of the Collect

The following was printed in the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 25 August 2013 (Trinity 13). As far as I’m aware, the mnemonic was invented by the Rev. Bosco Peters on the site Liturgy. At any rate, that’s where I learned it.

The Collect always takes the same form. This form of prayer goes back to very early in the Church’s history, and has stood the test of time. Not every Collect has all these parts, but the structure remains the same.

Address: The prayer opens with an address to God.
Rationale: The church’s prayer isn’t based simply on our perception of what we need. Rather, we appeal to something we know about God and His promises.
Petition: This is the gift we are asking for.
Benefit: Here we name what benefit we ask to have from God’s gift.
Doxology: The conclusion, invoking the name of Jesus and giving glory to the Triune God.

A childishly simple mnemonic for remembering this structure is: You-Who-Do-To-Through.

Here is today’s Collect broken down into its constituent parts:
Address: Almighty and everlasting God,
Rationale: omitted
Petition: give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and … make us love what You have commanded
Benefit: that we may obtain what You have promised;
Doxology: through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tip for the day: Try this at home. It’s a great way to give structure to our prayers, and to root them in God’s own promises.

Contented Peace

This beautiful aria was our Communion anthem today at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, from Bach’s Cantata BWV 170, Vergnügte Ruh, to words by Georg Christian Lehms (1684–1717).

Contented peace, beloved delight of the soul,
You cannot be found among the sins of hell,
But only where there is heavenly harmony;
You alone strengthen the weak breast.
For this reason nothing but the gifts of virtue
Should have any place in my heart.

As it happens, this cantata was also the subject of today’s Sunday Cantata. If you missed it, you can catch up by visiting Lutheran Radio UK’s website.

[The singer is Robin Blaze, on Vol. 37 of Bach Collegium Japan’s complete set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Translation: Francis Brown, reproduced by permission of the translator and bach-cantats.com.]

Children in the Service

This is printed on the front page of the bulletin each week at Our Saviour Lutheran Church:

It is a delight and a privilege to have children in the service. Children as much as adults are members of God’s family and Jesus welcomes little children to Him.

There is a Sunday School for children during the sermon. The children leave at the beginning of the sermon and return to church before the Service of the Sacrament.

Please do not worry if your child will not sit still or quietly throughout the service. Most young children won’t manage that! There is plenty of space at the back of the room. If you do need to take a child outside, the smaller room is available for that purpose.

Quick to hear, slow to speak

Sermon on Cantate—28 April 2013
Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, and Oxford Lutheran Mission
Text: James 1:16–21
A recording of the sermon from Our Saviour, Fareham, is available here.

* * *

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.

Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

What starts as a piece of common-sense advice on good manners and a constructive attitude to conversation—essentially: speech is silver, silence is golden—very quickly turns to something a whole lot more serious. St. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, is not writing a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in order to improve their social skills or make them better learners. What he has in view is nothing less than the righteousness of God.

Continue reading Quick to hear, slow to speak

Whole body worship

From time to time, I add a little section called ‘Liturgical Titbits’ to the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church. The idea is that, over time, the congregation’s knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the liturgy will grow—and bring about a growing appreciation thereof.

These pieces are, as the name suggests, very brief, so that people will bother to read them, and have little trouble learning, marking and inwardly digesting them.

Inspired by this post by John Halton, here’s last Sunday’s entry (the longest one yet). I will post others as and when.

P.S. These little snippets are never scholarly and rarely very complete. I hope they are accurate, though. So liturgiologists, don’t nit-pick!

Liturgical Titbits: Whole-Body Worship

Some people have a deep suspicion of any kind of ‘bowing and scraping’. Worship is a matter of the soul and the mind, to be done in words, not gestures.
Though this is well-meaning, it is not how the Bible speaks. The biblical words for “worship”, in both Hebrew and Greek, mean physical postures: bowing, kneeling, prostration.

Just as we were created body, mind and soul, God saves us body, mind and soul (“I believe in the resurrection of the body!”). And so it is appropriate to worship Him with body, mind and soul. At the same time, physical gestures can be helpful ways to remind and teach our minds the meaning of what we speak and sing.

Therefore, you may:

Bow:
* at the altar on entering and leaving the church, to acknowledge its role as a symbol of God’s presence, and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament
* during the doxology at the end of the Psalm (‘Glory be to the Father, etc.’), as a sign of reverence for the Triune God
* during the words ‘and was incarnate … and was made man’ in the Creed, as a sign of reverence for the mystery of the incarnation (but not originally: see next page)
* during the first half of the Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy…’), as a sign of reverence for the presence of God.
In Isaiah 6, where this song comes from, Isaiah didn’t just bow, but prostrated himself at God’s presence.
* whenever we sing of worshipping God (e.g. in the Gloria in excelsis and the Venite in Matins), since that’s what the word ‘worship’ usually means.
Christians throughout the centuries have also bowed their head at the mention of the name of Jesus, on the basis of Philippians 2:9–11. This includes the conclusion of the Collect (… ‘through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord…’).

Kneel (or genuflect) :
* during the words “and was incarnate … and was made man” in the Creed. Bowing (see previous page) was introduced as a less arduous alternative in the 1960s.
* all the way from the Proper Preface (‘It is truly good, right and salutary…) to the end of the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), as a sign of reverence for the great mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Or, at least:
* during the Words of Institution. Or, at least:
* following the consecration of each element, to acknowledge and reverence the presence of Christ’s body and blood in our midst.
* whenever we sing of kneeling before God (e.g. in the Venite in Matins)

Raise your hands: This is the customary stance for prayer. Jewish people have prayed with uplifted arms for as long as we know, and it was also assumed to be the posture of prayer by St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8).

Make the sign of the cross:
* whenever the name of the Triune God is pronounced over, or by, the Christian. This is in remembrance of our Baptism.
* during the announcing of the Gospel and the words of Christ in the Words of Institution. This is to acknowledge that Christ comes to us in grace, as at our Baptism.

God has time

Here’s the audio from last Sunday’s sermon on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. There is no script, so listening is the only option.

Except, of course, for not listening.

Text: Luke 1:57–80 (Acts 13:13–26)

[audio:http://www.oslc.org.uk/audio/2012/oslc-2012-06-24.mp3]

Source: Our Saviour Lutheran Church

 

For His Name’s Sake

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church
Misericordia Domini (Third Sunday of Easter)
22 April 2012
(Audio recording available here: OSLC Sermon Downloads

Text: Psalm 23; John 10:11–16

We are always in danger when we come to texts we know and love well to be lulled into a sense of comfortable familiarity. Today, we are in particular danger, since we have before us perhaps the best loved of all passages in the Bible together with the image of Jesus of which most of us are especially fond. So before we focus on what God’s Word is telling us about the Good Shepherd, we need to clear away some misconceptions.

Most of all, I would like you to forget all those lovely pictures and paintings of Jesus smiling gently with a lamb over His shoulders or, worse still, in His arms, smiling into the distance or in the direction of the onlooker. This romantic Good Shepherd is always dressed in freshly laundered white linen and carefully groomed: He is a comforting figure for children, Jesus’ little lambs, to contemplate, and we adults tend to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when we think of this Jesus. You wouldn’t mind entrusting your sheep to Him, together with your toddler, pet rabbit and hamster.

Comforting, perhaps. But this Good Shepherd would be utterly unrecognisable to king David and to those over ten centuries who sang his Psalm, ‘The LORD is my shepherd’. A clean, tidy, middle-class-looking shepherd is about as realistic as a besuited miner emerging from the pits squeaky-clean. Anyone who lived outdoors and handled sheep on a regular basis would look and smell like someone who lived outdoors and handled sheep on a regular basis. It was a rough job for rough men. The young David had to fight off bears and lion in order to guard his father’s sheep. That made him a good shepherd, but it didn’t make him a poster-boy for chic and serene male beauty. You wouldn’t want him at your dinner table, not before he’d had a thorough bath and a stint at finishing school.

Continue reading For His Name’s Sake