Sunday, December 4, 2022

Different times, the same Word...

Some years ago Prof. John Pless did a continuing ed class on Hermann Sasse.  For those of you who do not know who Hermann Sasse was, either Google him now and come back to read or visit another blog and skip mine.  But it is not particularly Hermann Sasse I am talking about.  It is about the timelessness of God's Word.  

In that class, we read two sermons of Sasse while he was serving a parish.  They were both Advent Sunday sermons -- one while the Nazis were on the ascent, doing well politically and militarily in Hitler's quest for supremacy at home and in the world stage.  The other was when the war was not going well and it was clear that the Nazis were failing in their political and military campaigns at home and throughout the world.  What was stunning is that the sermons preached the same call to repentance, the same warning against trusting in earthly rulers or kingdoms, and promising the same forgiveness and love of God as their hope and shelter.  What was even more stunning is that both of the sermons could be preached today without much change -- different times but the same Word that endures forever.

It amazes me how we work so hard to find the word for the moment, the word for the times we are in, when the Word speaks clearly and consistently the same truth for all times.  We seem to be more cognizant of the moment than God is and this is not a good thing.  What we preach is not a particular word for a particular moment but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Of course, I am not saying we should be oblivious to the times but neither do we need to search the Scriptures for what we think is the right word for this moment and be preaching faithfully the whole counsel of God's Word all the time.

When we approach the Scriptures, the preacher's task is not to decide what Word needs to be heard but how to preach the Word that God has spoken.  The familiarity with the people of God is not primarily a benefit to figuring out what they need to hear but knowing how to apply that Word and how to speak it to this particular assembly of  hearers.  In this respect, the lectionary is a tremendous benefit.  Whether one year or three is less critical than the idea that the hearers hear the full exposure of texts, authors, and subjects.  This is and should be a discipline for the preacher -- use the texts assigned!

I will admit that I grew up in a time when the lectionary was heard (minus the Old Testament reading, of course) but was almost never the basis for the homily.  There was a system of preaching texts which was used as the primary text of the sermon and the pastor would read this as the introduction for his sermon.  My brother and I would opine on how much shorter the whole service would be if the preacher just skipped the pericopes assigned and read his preaching text alone.  Some have forgotten about this tendency that was common before the 1970s for the sermon to be completely unrelated to the lectionary readings appointed or the season of the day.  In fact, these were assigned more doctrinally than seasonally to fit the Church Year.  We inherited this from our German ancestors and it was a practice still in use in the SELK today (though perhaps less universally).  While it is not the worst thing in the world, it is not a good practice either.  At least it is a foolish one.  And it proceeds from the false idea that the preacher knows best which word to speak as well as being under orders in his office to preach the Word faithfully.  Honestly, I am sure that more preachers choose texts on the basis of what they want to preach or what they find easier to preach than on the basis of what they think the people need to hear.  Preach the lectionary.  What is so hard about that?

Sasse preached the lectionary and that sermon could be preached today almost word for word and was appropriate for a time when the world around those Lutherans was changing under the rise of a fascist dictator and when it was changing even more as the German war machine was being overcome by the Allies.  Yet there in the pulpit, even under the duress of a state sponsored system of spies, that Lutheran pastor preached the Word in season and out, so that the people of God might know the basis of their hope, their peace, and their security.  I wish it could be said about us today as clearly as I saw it witnessed in the 1940s in the sermons of Hermann Sasse.  Different times, the same Word.

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