Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28)
November 18, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
[Jesus said:] "When they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit."
Mark 13:11 (ESV)
It's a known fact that the person who is the least qualified to evaluate your work is you. I've discovered this time and again through the years with my sermons. Whenever I prepare and deliver a sermon that I think is great, I will receive no comments on it whatsoever. On the other hand, many has been the time when I left the pulpit feeling as if the message that I just delivered was mediocre at best, only to hear from people afterwards how much it was appreciated and how clearly it spoke to them. I guess what it all boils down to is worrying too much. The "bottom line," after all, is not what I think of my sermon or even what you think of it. What really matters is that it clearly presents the message of human sin, which warrants condemnation, and God's redeeming grace in Christ, which bestows forgiveness, salvation, and New Life.
The text before us this morning is one in which our Lord encourages His disciples (including us) not to worry beforehand when we are called upon to bear witness concerning the Gospel. I'm not all that sure that I'd want to make a connection between preaching a sermon and being arrested and put on trial, but the fact of matter is that every last one of us, in a sense, is called upon to preach sermons and every last one of us is on trial. We find ourselves in those two situations every time that we find ourselves in the presence of someone who knows that we are followers of Jesus Christ--especially if that someone is not a believer. It's a frightening thought and an overwhelming responsibility, but it is one that we can handle effectively and gracefully, Jesus tells us, if we only keep in mind that the message that we proclaim (in word and deed) is not really our message, but the Holy Spirit's. Perhaps the best preparation for this responsibility is to simply listen to what the Word of God has to say to us about our inadequacy as witnesses for Christ and about how the Holy Spirit supplies what is lacking in us.
Our inadequacy in proclaiming the Word of God is evident, first of all, from the fact that we are sinners. How can we possibly be spokesmen for God when in fact we are rebels against Him? Sin, of its very essence, is a lie: It is the substitution of our own selfish will for the good and gracious will of God. It is the worship of the creature rather than the Creator. Every time that we sin we are repeating Adam and Eve's very first act of disobedience in the garden, rejecting God and insisting on being our own god. Sin therefore disqualifies us from speaking for God because it places us in an adversarial relationship with Him. By our sin we have made ourselves God's enemies.
But even if we were not sinful, we still would not be up to the task of speaking for God, because even without the problem of sin, we are limited in our abilities to such an extent that we could never be fully prepared to speak God's Word. This is especially true when we are in a witnessing situation. We've all been there, and we all know that there is a certain nervousness--a certain uneasiness that we experience when we are "put on the spot," so to speak. We hem and haw, not knowing exactly what to say or precisely how to say it. And to make matters even worse, the harder that we try to say the right thing and to say it in the right way, the worse it gets--the more we fall short. The eternal Word of God simply cannot be adequately expressed by temporal beings like us.
But all is not lost. God's Good News for us is that His Holy Spirit supplies what is lacking in us as we go about the task of sharing with others the Gospel of His grace in Christ. Sinners though we are, we have been redeemed by our Savior. In His life He has perfectly fulfilled the Law of God for us, and in His suffering and death on the cross He has suffered the punishment that we so richly deserve. These perfect merits of Christ become ours when we become His through the power of the Holy Spirit, who works faith in our hearts through Word and Sacrament. All of this does away with our sin and reconciles us to God. No longer are we His hostile enemies, looking for ways to oppose Him. Now we are His dear children, looking for ways to glorify Him and to share with others the Good News of His grace in Christ. Sure we still fail, at times choosing sin over righteousness, but in Christ we have the forgiveness of our sins and the chance to make a new start as often as we need to.
And there's even more. The same Spirit who creates saving faith within us also causes us to grow in faith and knowledge, using those same means of grace: the Word and the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit's work in us is not just a one-time experience; it's a lifelong process that begins when we receive God's Holy Spirit and His gift of faith (either through Baptism or through our hearing of the Word) and it doesn't end until we close our eyes in death, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and in Him alone for forgiveness and salvation. Each day of our Christian life we become a little closer to what our Lord wants us to be than we were the day before, as day by day the Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. The Spirit's work in us (which the theologians call sanctification) finally reaches its completion at our death, when He makes us perfect. It is this growth in faith and knowledge that makes it possible for us to be faithful witnesses for the Lord Jesus in spite of all of our limitations.
We are all called to preach in a sense--to bear witness concerning the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter puts it this way: "Always [be] prepared to make a defense to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). So what's the secret of this preparation? I'm not so sure that it's a secret. One of my homiletics professors at the seminary told us that the best advice that he could give us concerning sermon preparation is the same advice that he would give to anyone who is preparing to share the Good News of Jesus. And that advice is this: Be so filled with the Gospel of Jesus Christ that it just flows out of you--in your actions as well as in your words. All that is, dear friends in Christ, is letting the Holy Spirit do the talking. He uses the Word that you speak to create faith in your hearers, just as He used that same Word to create faith in you. That Spirit, moving each of us to be in the Word daily, will so fill us with His grace that the love of Jesus will constantly be not only in our hearts, but also on our lips and in our dealings with others. That is His promise--and His promises are sure.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.