Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sermon: Illuminating Liturgy by John Nieminen

Sorry that I didn't post this last night.  I got distracted by the American election.  Here is another sermon by Vicar John Nieminen.

Illuminating Liturgy
Based on Ephesians 5:6 – 21
August 19, 2012
            The Apostle Paul uses one of his favorite rhetorical devices in the portion of his letter to the Ephesians we heard this morning – the use of contrasts.  Last week we heard of the contrast between choosing to walk in godlessness and choosing to walk in the way of Christ.  Paul continues this contrast, bringing in imagery of darkness and light.  This is very effective, because we are very familiar with this contrast, and it is used elsewhere by Paul and throughout the Bible.  We know what it is like trying to find something in the dark.  We have a great feeling of helplessness when the power goes out and we have to grope around in the dark, trying to find a flashlight or candle.  Having even a little light is a great help.  So we can visualize the contrast between the darkness of sin that surrounds and the light of Christ.
            Paul writes of the unfruitful works of darkness, and of our tendency to want to hide our sins in darkness instead of exposing them.  When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, Jesus said to him, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” [John 3:20]  While Jesus is not speaking of physical light, one can readily think of evil deeds that take place at night, trying to hide from the light, so as to not be exposed.  The night is when thieves use the darkness of night to hide themselves and steal from unsuspecting citizens.  During the night time, places of ill-repute open up for business.  During the night, people often act in ways they would not during the day for fear of getting caught.  According to a study done at The University of Michigan on street lighting and its effect on crime, simply improving lighting reduced crime on the streets at night-time significantly.  Even the impact of physical light can reduce the evils of darkness where that light is shining.
            But of course the question here is of spiritual darkness, so it is spiritual light that is required.  Doesn’t it make sense that Paul writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them?” [v. 11]  Instead of sharing in the sinful deeds of darkness, we ought to be discerning and condemn them with God’s Law.  If we take part in works of darkness, it becomes harder for us to see the light.  Instead, shining the light of God’s truth exposes sin for what it is, and helps us stay out of darkness.  The Law of God also exposes our sin and brings it to light, so that we can see it and our need for forgiveness.  It is also the light of God that transforms us into children of light, even though we walk in a dark world.
            Why does Paul then jump into talking about the best use of your time and the liturgy?  This may seem like a bit of a leap unless you look carefully.  Paul cites what is believed to be a baptismal hymn, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” [v. 14]  In Baptism, we awaken from our sleep of darkness and death in the light of Christ.  In the Early Church, Baptism was called “enlightenment” or “illumination,” with the understanding that the Holy Spirit is received in Baptism, enlightening the eyes of the heart. [cf. Eph. 1:18]
            Ok, but what about the best use of your time and the liturgy?  Paul goes back to contrasts then, to make his point.  He writes, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” [v. 15]  In his contrasts, being unwise, foolish, and drunk are assigned to darkness, while being wise, understanding, and filled with the Holy Spirit are light.  In calling the Ephesians to be wise, Paul’s earlier words from the beginning of the letter should be kept in mind where he writes of the riches of God’s grace “which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and understanding.” [1:7-8, 17-18]  Paul clearly explains the source of the wisdom and understanding is God.  So this is not so much an exhortation for Christians to smarten up, it is reminding us from where wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment come, and to keep this in mind for how we use our time.
            Well, how do you make the best use of your time?  Since man is fallen, the days are evil.  However, through the Holy Spirit, being united with Christ, you can “redeem” or “save” time from being lost by wisely considering how you walk, in other words, how you spend your time.  This certainly includes avoiding the immorality and impurity Paul discusses earlier [5:3 – 14], but it also includes walking in the Spirit, [v.18ff] especially through your involvement in the liturgical community [v. 19 – 20].
            Instead of spending your time being drunk by being filled with wine, be filled with the Spirit.  Paul calls drunkenness “debauchery,” that is, excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.  Paul is saying, “do not get drunk since it is excessive indulgence, wasteful and reckless,” but also, “do not get drunk since it leads to reckless behaviour, excessive indulgence, and the pursuit of sensual desires.”  Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, be under His influence; walk in the light.  Paul has earlier mentioned that it is God the Father who gives the Spirit [1:3, 17].  Here Paul points to where the Holy Spirit is at work – in the worshipping community.  Thus he writes about “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [vv. 19-20]
            The Holy Spirit is at work where God’s Word is read and heard. [Rom. 10:17, 1 Pt. 1:23]  And we know where two or three are gathered in His name, there Christ is also. [Mt. 18:20]  The words of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are certainly addressed to God, but Paul also writes “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Here he emphasizes the teaching element of the liturgy and hymnody.  What we sing should teach ourselves and each other God’s Word.  Thus we should avoid empty repetitive refrains and choruses that say little, and keep the rich Scriptural hymns through which the Holy Spirit comes to us and teaches us.  Yes, we are to be filled with thanks for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, as Paul mentions.  But the emphasis is not on us or our thanksgiving, but rather on what Christ’s death means for us.  So in our opening hymn we sung of the Word made flesh, who lived among us, asking Him to shine upon our human darkness, piercing the night that shrouds our race.  We recalled the light and life that burst from God’s powerful words, “Let there be…”  We prayed for the healing restoration of God’s image lost by sin. [LSB 914]
            There is a reason why the Divine Service we use is 98% Scripture.  We know the Holy Spirit works through the Word.  With the invocation, we start by calling on the name of God and remembering the illumination we received in our Baptism.  Then we confess our sins – we confess the darkness we have lived in, in thought word and deed, and we hear the words of absolution from the pastor, as from God Himself [Luther, Small Catechism, Jn. 20:22-23].  Through confession and absolution, our unfruitful works of darkness are exposed by the light and become visible [v. 13], and being exposed to the light, they are no longer darkness, but forgiven in the light of Christ.  The absolution also tells us, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” [v. 14]
            In the Kyrie we pray for God’s mercy and peace, for the Church of God, for help, salvation and comfort, [Mk. 10:47] not because God doesn’t know what we need or what is best for us, but to remind us from Whom it all comes.  We sing the Gloria in Excelsis with the angels announcing Jesus’ birth [Lk. 2:14] or This Is the Feast with the angels around the throne and the great multitude at the marriage Feast of the Lamb from Revelation. [Rev. 5:12-13, 19:5-9]  The light of God’s Word shines through the Scripture readings appointed for the day and the sermon, and we respond with Peter’s words from today’s Gospel reading, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” [Jn. 6:68]  In the Creeds we confess our faith to be that of the one true Christian Church, not just around the world, but also through all time, of those already in their heavenly home.  We sing the offertory with the psalmist [Ps. 51:10-12, 116:12-13, 17-19], and the Sanctus, singing Holy, Holy, Holy with the seraphim around the bright glory of the throne of God in Isaiah 6. [vv. 1-3]  We pray the Lord’s Prayer as Christ taught us [Mt. 6:0-13] and remember His institution of His Supper [Mt. 26:26-28, Mk. 14:22-24, Lk. 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:23-25], testifying with John the Baptist in the Agnus Dei that Jesus Christ is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. [Jn. 1:29]  We then receive the very body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins, for the removal of all darkness from us, responding with praising God in the Nunc Dimittis with Simeon, who having seen and held the infant Jesus in his arms, was ready to depart in peace, having been illuminated by the glory of God’s redeeming grace. [Lk. 2:29-32]  We pray a prayer of thanksgiving, and then close with the Aaronic benediction, where God puts His name on us and blesses us, making His face shine on us. [Nu. 6:22-27]
            So you see the Divine Service is about you receiving from God.  It is about you being in the light of His forgiveness and glory.  The forgiveness of Christ’s death on the cross is distributed and given to you in the Divine Service.  Through it all, the Holy Spirit works to shine the light of Christ on you and your life; you are filled with the Holy Spirit.  You are taken from darkness into light.
            This is the best use of your time.  As the writer to the Hebrews writes of worship in the new covenant, right here we worship with angels and saints who have gone before us; right here we worship with our loved ones who have died before us in the faith; right here we worship in the very presence of God.  He writes, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” [Heb. 12:22-24]
            Today, right now, we are part of this.  Heaven has come down to earth.  We worship God with the angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.  We are about to receive the body and blood of Christ which unites us with each other and with Christ Himself.  The light of Christ shines on us, enlightening the eyes of our hearts, so that we know the hope to which He has called us, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints. [Eph. 1:18]  And when we are in the light, as John writes in his first epistle, “we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” [1 Jn. 1:7]  And as Paul writes, “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” [v. 8]  As in the beginning God said, “Let there be light,” [Gen. 1:3] so He “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Cor. 4:6]
            So in contrast to how you could spend your time, spend your time wisely, by being in God’s house.  Here God the Father gives you His wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment, filling you with the Holy Spirit.  Here God forgives your sins and strengthens you to walk in His light.  Here the light of Christ shines on you, raising you from the dead, to live in His light eternally.  Amen.

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