The toughest part of writing my sermon each week is getting my first line down on paper. I love when I have a good joke that works... although some of my critics will say I never have a good joke. I chose to explain this part of the process of writing my sermon because in my research work this week, I ran across an important question. “What is the point of the Sunday morning sermon.” Not a particular sermon, but sermons in general. Some ideas given were that the sermon conveys biblical doctrines, or teaches theological facts. But the fact of the matter is, in the early church, sermons were not emphasized in worship but were used as a way to bring converts to the church. So why preach to believers from the pulpit on Sunday mornings? A dangerous question for a pastor to ask. Before I try to answer it, I want to look at our two bible passages today. I think they both have something to say to this question, but in particular the letter to the preacher Timothy.
I titled my sermon The New Covenant. We hear that term most often during our communion service. But a promised new covenant was a part of the historical Jewish teaching. And we get that in today's Old Testament lesson that Ruth read. It really is two parts, both parts introduced by the phrase, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” The first part, a reminder of what the nation had gone through; the Babylonian exile. “I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil....” It was a time of doubt and fear, suffering and death, grief and pain. The Lord did tell them through the prophets that this was a time of judgment for the sins of the nation. But God next promises that this judgment is not the final word. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Jeremiah brings hope to the people languishing in a foreign land. We have an understanding of the new covenant being brought in by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Lord distinguishes this new covenant from the old, “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke.” As you study the Old Testament you can't help but note how the Israelites continually failed to live up to the covenant God made with them through Moses. It was a covenant that called for obedience in the matter of the Law by the people. They failed to perfectly obey, as we would too if we lived under that covenant. But this new covenant is different. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The new covenant is not about rule keeping, it is about our hearts. And what goes in our hearts... we learn from scriptures, the subject of the epistle.
“from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Our verse doesn't stop there but let's pause and look at this section. The key is instruction for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. It doesn't give detailed instructions on how to vote, how to find a job, how to throw a curve-ball; the scriptures primary purpose is teaching us salvation in Christ. The Old Testament, the New Testament; about salvation in Christ. We don't always recognize this purpose and it is easy to get bogged down in details and questions. But salvation is in and through Jesus; the way, the truth and the life. Jesus, the gift of God. God's only begotten Son given so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
That verse goes on, “All scripture is inspired by God...” This is one of those details we sometimes get bogged down about. Just how is scripture inspired? Did God moved the pen of the men who wrote scripture and there is none of their humanity in it? I don't believe so. I think we see time and again the personality of the writers. God somehow inspired, a better translation for inspired might be “God-breathed,” God's word breathed into human beings who then wrote our bible. Primarily to show us Jesus, but there are other ways God's word works in and for us as Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We are taught truths about God's love and grace. We may be reproved, challenged, corrected by the word of God when we are on a wrong path. Righteousness; we don't achieve righteousness in and of ourselves, it is the work of God. But God sanctifies us as we follow the scriptures. Our own level of righteousness, even as God works in us, does not bring us salvation. That, as is made clear in scripture, comes by God's grace, God's mercy, God's forgiveness.
“so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” As part of our relationship with Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbor, to do good work in this world. Scriptures instruct us in this as well, describing the life of Jesus as servant. Scriptures give us a pattern of right living, examples of right living. It does not provide easy yes or no answers to every question, every situation we may run into in the course of living. The gray areas give us pause and even the giants of the faith have struggled with answers to life's most challenging questions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged the power of the third Reich and his writings tell of the tremendous struggles he had in finding his basis in scriptures. But the overriding theme of justice and righteousness gave him the strength to go on. Bonhoeffer paid for his defiance of Hitler with his life. Martin Luther King, Jr. was another who left us record of how he gained direction and strength to challenge the status quo from his understanding of God's word. Neither man had clear answers, not spelled out, but both found the truth and guidance needed to work for justice in this world as they studied God's word. We don't always get clear cut answers but we are always to work for the truth and for justice.
I want to share these insights on this passage from Dirk G. Lange Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations of The Lutheran World Federation Geneva, Switzerland. “The teaching, admonition, and training lead us somewhere beyond the use of Scripture or tradition as merely identity markers, boundary keepers, and, ultimately, means for self-justification. The proper use of Scripture and tradition leads us to “every good work.” It leads us to a life that is lived in remembrance of Jesus Christ, a life that embodies this remembrance. The warning is against those who take Scripture... and turn it around to suit their own desire. Here is the greatest temptation for it can pass by unrecognized and lead many into error. The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”
He ends where I began. Salvation through faith. That is the New Covenant. That is the focal point of all of scripture; and the best focal point for our lives. There are lots of promises in scripture and lots of mystery. In our Tuesday morning bible study, we acknowledge this mystery often. There is so much in here that we just don't understand fully. And it is easy to get sidetracked on the question of who actually wrote what book or what the proper translation of this one word is. But our message this morning is that we should be spending time in this book. That it is there to guide our lives. That it is part of those coming days Jeremiah wrote about. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Putting the law within our hearts is not something God imposes upon us. It is what God offers us, and our hearts and minds receive it most efficiently through the scriptures. I don't discount the Holy Spirit's work but experience shows that the Spirit speaks most efficiently through the bible as well.
Jeremiah's passage closes with this good news, “and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.... they shall all know me... says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That is the message of both the old and new covenants, but only fulfilled by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We live in this new covenant, a covenant of forgiveness, of grace, and of the gift of life.
I began today's sermon with a question I found about the purpose of preaching. I share with you now the answer given in that article, “Yet, while theology is an inseparable and important part of the point of a sermon, both of these phenomena exist primarily to bring us to the real point of preaching, namely Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus Christ, the death of Jesus Christ, and the articulation and exhortation in the way of Jesus Christ is the point of preaching.” And we learn through preaching but more critically, through God's word. We know Jesus best by knowing God's word. God's plan for your life may be revealed by reading and studying those wonderful words of life. Amen.
Hymn: Wonderful Words of Life 222 HLC