Sermon preached for Pentecost 13, Proper 15C, on Sunday, August 18, 2013.
The lessons for today are shocking. God’s Word is like fire. And then Jesus describes this fire as inflicting division. Shocking because the Word of the Lord has become little more than a Hallmark moment – a sweet, sugary, sentimental distraction designed to make us feel better without really doing anything at all. We have take a strong and powerful Word and treated it as if it were merely a good thought to produce a good feeling in good people. If we don’t leave church with a tear in our eye or a laugh on our lips, God’s Word has disappointed us.
From the prophets of old who spoke with fear and trembling "Thus saith the Lord" to the incarnate Word Jesus Christ, God insists that His Word is nothing unless it is power, power like fire, that works both to consume and to purify. The Word of the Lord accomplishes what it says, both to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable – all for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the salvation of a whole sinful world. It called creation into being and delivered into the womb of the Virgin the very Son of God in human flesh and blood.
We are more likely to judge the Word of the Lord on how it makes us feel than what it does. We are captive to our feelings. We judge everything by how we feel. Yet I challenge you to find where God asks us even once, “how does this make you feel?” God must engage us on a more firm foundation than our feelings. God engages us upon the solid ground of His Word, yesterday, today, and forever the same, the Word that does what it promises.
No one remains unchanged by the Word of the Lord. It does not matter if you see any signs of a change in the life of the hearer or they feel a change, no one remains unchanged when the Word of the Lord addresses them. Do not be deceived with your eyes. God's Word is powerful, cutting like a two edged sword, to kill and to make alive. And all of this for the holy purpose of saving sinners captive to death. We know God’s Word works because He promises that it works – it does what He commands it and accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it.
What happens when the Word of the Lord addresses us? The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the leper is cleansed, the poor rejoice, and the dead are raised to life. This does not happen because we see it; it happens because the Word of the Lord promises it. Even when we do not see or feel any evidence, our trust lies in the efficacious Word of the Lord.
The other side of the spectrum of responses is also there. Some are left angry, bitter, hardened in their unbelief, and enemies of the Kingdom. God's Word affects everyone and not merely those who are awakened by the Spirit to faith. God's Word condemns those who refuse the Spirit's grace for faith. Scripture is clear. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. His long memory remembers us in His favor and His long memory recalls those who refuse Him.
There is no middle ground. Jesus says repeatedly either you are with Me or against Me. Revelation tells us that the lukewarm will be spit out of God's mouth on judgment day for their ambivalence. There is no middle ground. His Word acts to create friend or foe. Either He is truth or He is a lie. Either He is Lord or He is lunatic – there is no middle ground of holy man or moral teacher. Christ refuses to be anything but Savior and those who refuse Him as Savior end up apart from His mercy.
The Word of the Lord always brings forth a response. The oral and written Word of Scripture spoken and read, as well as the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. They always act to deliver what they promise, either for the comfort and salvation of those who believe or the condemnation and death of those who refuse Him.
We stand before the Word of the Lord with the fear and trembling of a people who know its power to save and to condemn. The Word of the Lord is like fire. Fire either consumes or it purifies. One or the other. For those whom the Spirit calls to faith and their hearts respond with joy, the fire of the Lord's Word purifies our hearts from sin, leads us to become what He has declared us to be in baptism, and makes us holy and pure in Christ. We know this not because we see it but because this is His promise. Even when we cannot see any evidence of it, we trust in the Word of the Lord to do for us what Christ has promised.
It is the Spirit's fire to burn through the crust of our fearful hearts. As Luther said in the catechism, "I believe that I cannot by my reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith." It is God's work by the Spirit working through the Word that I am a Christian at all.
Hesitant, uncertain, and tentative, our faith is given form in the waters of our baptism, where Christ was sealed to us and we to Him. Weak, youthful, and vulnerable, our faith is fed by the very body and blood of Christ in this Holy Sacrament. And the fruit of the Spirit's fire working through the Word and the Visible Word of the Sacraments is that we trust in the Lord, for this life and for eternal life. But that same fire will consume those who refuse the Spirit's cleansing like the chaff of a field where the harvest has already reaped its fruit.
The sad truth is that we tend to take Tylenol more seriously that God's Word. We take the pill and expect something to happen to our aches and pains. But we listen to God's Word, we recall our baptism, and we come to Holy Communion as if all these have to offer us are feelings, sentimental encouragement, and a happy feeling of something not true or powerless to do what it says.
Don’t get me wrong. Feelings are not bad. But we cannot trust them. God engages us on the plain of His Word, His Word like fire, that consumes or purifies. Let me also say that I do not believe that joy is strictly speaking our emotion or feeling. I believe it is the fruit, the result, of the Spirit opening our heart to His Word. Joy is the response to that Word, created by the Spirit, accompanying faith. So that no matter how we feel or what is happening, faith says “amen” to what the Word says and does and the Spirit leads us to the joy that says “alleluia” in every circumstance – because of what God has done for us by His Word.
Here is where we meet Christ. In His Word and Sacraments. Here is where His Word like fire works in us. Here is where His Word like fire sets us apart for His purpose. No one is left unchanged by Christ. It does not matter what you see or think about what may or may not happen. Baptism works not because we see its effect in the life of the baptized but because Christ says it works. The Lord's Supper works not because we feel it but because Christ says so. The voice of the Word works not because we have evidence but because Christ says so. His Word is fire. No one is left unchanged. It consumes or purifies. For His purpose and for our sake. God grant it. Amen.