Preaching Law, Gospel, & Vocation

Pastor Douthwaite preached a fine sermon on the callings of Isaiah and Peter on Sunday, a model of how to preach the Law, the Gospel, and Vocation. A sampling:

For while Isaiah was indeed unclean, he was not lost. For in the depth of his sin and fear, “one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” ” For the Lord did not bring Isaiah before him in this vision to destroy him, but to save him. And he is saved by the offering upon the altar. When it touches his lips, his sin and guilt and uncleanness are gone. He is given new life and hope.

And the same happens for Peter. He was right in confessing that he is a sinful man, but the Lord will not depart from him and leave him in his sin. Instead, Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid.” Or in other words, do not be afraid of being in the presence of the Lord, for Jesus has not come to destroy, but to save. To save by being the offering that touched Isaiah’s lips from the altar of the cross. To save by being the sacrifice for guilt and the atonement for sin as the Lamb of God. To give Peter – and all the world – new life and hope. And the words that came from Jesus’ lips and touched Peter’s ears did for Peter what they said. They did not inspire Peter to boldness and confidence; rather, they gave him boldness and confidence.

And so it is for you and me. At the beginning of each Divine Service, we take our place with Isaiah and Peter and confess that we are sinful and unclean. We cry out Woe is me, I am lost. A lost and condemned person. We confess that we have no right to be here, and deserve only temporal and eternal punishment. But as with Isaiah and Peter, our Lord comes to us not to destroy or condemn us, but to forgive and save us. And so like Peter, His words: “I forgive you all your sins.” touch our ears and raise us to new life and hope. And like Isaiah, the sacrifice from the altar of the cross touches our lips as we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus in His Supper, and our guilt and uncleanness are gone. Gone, for they are taken by our Lord, and we are given His holiness and life.

And so Isaiah and Peter were mightily transformed. Isaiah’s Woe is me! is replaced with “Here am I! Send me!” And Peter’s Depart from me is replaced with his clinging to Jesus – leaving everything and following Him, to be a fisher of men. Yet this is not the only wonder. For is it not also a wonder that these are the very men our Lord wants to send and use. God does not look for holiest and best and most righteous of men. He does not seek the strongest and most steadfast. Rather, he takes an unknown like Isaiah and an ordinary fisherman like Peter, and uses them to proclaim His Word as prophet and apostle. . . .

And in the same way have you been mightily transformed. For the love, forgiveness, and life of Jesus is not without power. And though you are not the holiest, the best, the strongest, the most steadfast, or the most righteous – our Lord will now use you. He may not have called you to be a prophet like Isaiah, or an apostle or “fisher of men” like Peter. But our Lord has called you to be a father or mother, and speak His Word to your children. He has called you to be a friend and neighbor, to serve with His love. He has called you to be a boss or worker, to provide for others through you. He has called you to be a Christian, to speak His Word of forgiveness. And in these vocations, you are just as important as Isaiah or Peter. And Jesus is using you in ways that are both known to you and unknown to you.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Epiphany 5 Sermon.

Angels and Vocation

Anthony Carter quotes a book quoting Luther on what Mary was doing when the angel appeared to her (Luke 1:26-33):

Quite possibly Mary was doing the housework when the angel Gabriel came to her.  Angels prefer to come to people as they are fulfilling their calling and discharging their office.  The angel appeared to the shepherds as they were watching their flocks, to Gideon as he was threshing the grain, to Samson’s mother as she sat in the field.  Possibly, however, the Virgin Mary, who was very religious, was in a corner praying for the redemption of Israel.  During prayer, also, the angels are wont to appear (from Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed., Nancy Guthrie).

Yes, during prayer and other spiritual exercises, but contemplate that second sentence for awhile. It’s when we are fulfilling our vocations–as spouse, parent, citizen, worker–that angels “prefer” to come to us and that God works with and through us most powerfully.

It’s a Wonderful Life, if you live it for others

I did not realize that Joe Carter is such a perceptive literary critic, but he is. Here is part of his comparison of George Bailey of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life with Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. From The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog:

Howard Roark, for example, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to “struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision‚” by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, George Bailey is an idealistic young architect-wannabe who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. (Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in Bedford Falls.) . . . .

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

Or, to put it in Cranach terms, George lives in vocation, sacrificing himself in love and service to his neighbors, which results ultimately, when he realizes it, in a fulfilled, meaningful life. Howard, in contrast, wants to be served, rather than to serve, and so represents the twisting of vocation into self-aggrandizement. He ends up destroying what he himself had made. But as Joe says, it’s the latter vision of self that we find everywhere in today’s culture.

Luther’s writings on vocation

I have been charged with putting together some curriculum on Luther’s writings on vocation. This teaching, of course, is scattered throughout his voluminous works, but I need to pull together some primary sources. My task is complicated by the habit of Luther scholars of referring to his works by volume and page number from his collected works, often the German edition, instead of by the title of his book or sermon. (Could Luther scholars agree not to do that, or, rather, to give the title of the work, as well as where it can be found in the collected works?)

Anyway, Frank Sonnek put me onto this sermon, which is a good example of what I am looking for and is available online. It’s Luther’s sermon on the NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, preached in Marburg in 1529. Here is a paragraph on vocation. I will also throw in a paragraph on the kingdom of Christ just because it is so beautiful and profound. Both quotes show Luther at his stylistic best:

Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth. . . .

Therefore we are to regard the kingdom of Christ as a large, beautiful arch or vault which is everywhere over us, and covers and protects us against the wrath of God; yea, as a great, extended firmament which pure grace and forgiveness illuminate and so fill the world and all things, that all sin will hardly appear as a spark in comparison with the great, extended sea of light; and although sin may oppress, it cannot injure, but must disappear and vanish before grace.

Now let me ask for your help. What are some other Luther writings on vocation? “Freedom of the Christian,” of course. “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved.” The catechisms. What else? What sermons and postils and commentaries? What is the source of the oft-quoted but seldom sourced quotation about how changing a baby’s diaper is a holier work than that of all the monks in all the monasteries?

Vocation as the priesthood of all believers

John Kleinig inGrace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today understands that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is carried out in VOCATION:

“There are two hidden sides to our secret vocation. First, we stand in for others before God the Father together with Christ. We represent them before the Father by identifying with them and their needs and by praying for them.” (Page 64)

“Second, as holy priests we take God and His blessings with us to every person that we meet. We are, if you like, ‘christophers,’ carriers of Christ, bearers of Him to others.” (Page 65)

“These two sides to our priestly vocation interact and enrich each other. By bringing others to God the Father in prayer, we are equipped to bring His blessing to them as we go about our business. As we engage with people in our work and leisure, we discover their needs and so are prompted to help them by praying for them. Thus we serve as secret agents, priestly people who lead heavenly lives on earth by remaining in touch daily and weekly with our heavenly Father.” (Page 65)

This puts forward a simple spiritual exercise: When you interact with people in your calling–on the job, in your family, in your citizenship (as you read the newspaper, for example)–and become aware of their needs, pray for them. Intercede for them. Be their priest.

The table as altar

Columnist Sally Quinn , writing about entertaining guests, tossed off a provocative comparison:

When you think about it, there is a sacred quality to the sharing of a meal. Just think of Jesus's last supper as an example. The table can be a kind of altar, with a cloth, candles, wine and bread.

This, I believe, is a valid connection. As we exercise the priesthood of all believers in vocation, we serve at different altars, where we perform sacrifices of ourselves in love and service to our neighbors. We present our bodies as living sacrifices at these altars–which may be a computer, a desk, a diaper-changing table–and they are also places where we can offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. But a table is especially a kind of altar, and it is fitting to adorn special meals, such as the Thanksgiving Feast, with cloths and candles and offerings.

In a meal, we receive the benefit of life sacrificed for us so that we may live–the turkey gave its life for us; so did the vegetables on our plate–life being impossible without the sacrifice of other life. Every time we eat a meal, we experience that truth, which points to the gospel of Christ, who, in turn, gives Himself to us in a meal.


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