Jeremiah 6 / 1 Peter 2 / Mark 16 - Our Great Heritage: Lutheran Worship - December 3, 2017

I.                    The Historic Voice of the Church


New and novel. The latest tech and the most innovative ideas. That’s what our culture craves, right? The newest, more sure-fire diet plan. Cars that don’t need you, because they drive themselves. New medicines and medical procedures to enhance and extend life. Is that always true? When diet plans are reviewed by actual doctors, a shocking number are found to be ineffective or unhealthy. How comfortable would you be letting your car merge you onto the Beltline or drive you through the UW campus? How would you feel if your doctor walked into your room and said, “Well, we’ve never tried this before, but we’re pretty sure it’s going to work.”  If we are hesitant to place our health and safety in the hands of unproven technologies – how should we feel about the care of our immortal souls? Would you rather put your eternity in the care of something brand-new, that is constantly evolving or something that has been tested and proven over the course of hundreds of years? If you fall into the latter category, then you just might be a liturgical, confessional, Lutheran.


Did you know that Martin Luther never wanted his followers to call themselves Lutheran? He understood that if they did, they would be accused of being rebels rather than reformers and be labeled a faction rather than a continuation of the church founded by Christ and his apostles. He was right. Luther was frequently labeled a radical heretic by his critics – but that doesn’t mean their criticism was true. In 1524, Luther wrote “We teach nothing new. We teach what is old and what the apostles and all godly teachers have taught.” [1] Near the end of his life, Luther said “we can prove that our faith is not new and of unknown origin, but that it is the oldest faith of all, which began and continued from the beginning of the world.” [2] Luther never wanted to revolutionize the church. He wanted to reform it – by getting rid of the corruption and returning to the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)


But neither did Luther insist on tradition simply for tradition’s sake. When it came to reforming the worship service, Luther faced a choice: should he innovate or stick with the worship history had handed down? In a similar way, Israel was at a crossroads when God sent them the prophet Jeremiah. On one side stood the Lord and his prophet. The Lord had promised that Jerusalem would fall at the hand of the Babylonians. Jeremiah warned that the only way to spare their lives was to repent before God and surrender to the Babylonians. (Jeremiah 6:1-15) On the other side stood the false prophets. They preached a message of peace, even though God guaranteed there was no peace in their future. (Jeremiah 6:14) They tried to convince Judah’s leaders to ally themselves with other nations against the terrible Babylonians. Jeremiah pleaded with the Israelites to consider the past, to learn from their forefathers that the path to true rest is in heartfelt repentance and faith in God’s love: this is what the LORD says: stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But the ‘new’ innovative way of the false prophets would lead to nothing but death and destruction.


How does this apply to the way we worship today? For many years now there has been a ‘worship war’ in the Christian church. Some have asked “why do we insist on using an ancient liturgy, a hymnal, songs and confessions that are hundreds of years old – when the fastest growing churches have cast those aside in favor of something new and innovative?” One important reason is that the historic Christian liturgy has been proven to offer rest for struggling souls over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. When we read the poetry of King David; when we beat our chests with the tax collector, begging God for mercy; when we sing the hymns of angels; when we use the confession taught by the apostles; when we pray the words our Savior taught and listen to his institution of the Lord’s Supper; when we leave with the same blessing God gave the Israelites 3500 years ago – we don’t do it simply for the sake of tradition. We do it first as a way of recognizing that there is only one “holy Christian and apostolic church.” We don’t stand on our own but side by side with and on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us. With the prophets, apostles, and reformers we throw ourselves on God’s grace and place our trust in his unchanging Word. Like Luther, we appreciate that under God’s guiding hand, time has acted like a filter for Christian worship: it has removed the impurities and preserved the pure, life-giving Gospel.


And yet, we also acknowledge that the style and format of worship is adiaphora (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). [3] We don’t condemn those who choose to worship in a different way – as long as law and gospel are properly divided and the Sacraments are properly practiced. And when new hymns and new ways of worship are created that proclaim Christ and give God glory – we are open to implementing them. But until something better comes along, we are thankful to stand with the prophets, apostles, and reformers in worshipping our gracious God in a way that is tried and true; which has been tested by countless Christians before us who found rest for their souls in these words and hymns and songs that proclaim God’s grace and love for sinners. May God grant you that peace as we sing a song written by King David: Psalm 24.


II.                  The Participation of the Congregation


Do you consider coming to church more like going to a movie or going to meet friends for dinner? There’s a difference, right? When you go to a movie, you are a passive spectator. When you meet friends for dinner you are a participant in the meal, the conversation, the fellowship. Which situation better describes going to church? In 16th century Germany, it was more like going to a movie – if that movie was in a foreign language and you were promised that by simply showing up and paying for the ticket your sins would be forgiven. In Luther’s day, worship was conducted in Latin – a language that few average people understood; the songs were sung either by the priest or a choir of monks; and the only active participation expected from the congregation was that they drop their money into the offering plate. This didn’t happen by accident. It was (and is) part of Catholic doctrine that you don’t need to know or believe what you are doing – as long as you are going through the motions – because only the priest can speak for and to God on your behalf. At the very least, medieval worship was very condescending – in essence, people were told “you’re too stupid to understand any of this, so just shut up and listen.” But what really horrified Luther was 1) the elevation of the words of a man (the pope or priest) over the Word of God; 2) the teaching that faith didn’t matter as much as going through the motions; and 3) that only a priest or saint could go to God directly.


That horrified Luther because God’s Word says something much different: As you come to him, the living Stone you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. While in the OT God did mandate that the people of Israel could only approach him through a mediator – a priest – when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world – the curtain of sin that separated us from God was torn in two. Jesus has opened the way to God – not just for priests, but for all believers. Part of our Lutheran heritage is that when you come to worship God in his house – you are an active participant. It’s not a device to keep you awake. It’s not a way to give these vocal chords a break. We don’t sing and speak and pray together because we have to. We do it because we can! Because Jesus’ blood has paved the road directly from you to your God. Luther put it this way: “Every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination…but because Christ himself has begotten him as a priest and has given birth to him in baptism.” [4]


This aspect of congregational participation still separates Lutherans from the majority of Christian churches today. Strangely enough, much of what passes for worship today is very similar to worship in the medieval Catholic church. Only the preacher can possibly understand God’s Word and you need him to tell you what it means – because he has a special connection to God. The band on the stage praises God for you, and while you may be invited to join in, you don’t know the song, can’t see the notes – plus, if you were any good, you would be up on that stage with them! What you do (serving or giving offerings) is still more important than believing the Word of God. That’s not the way Peter or Luther saw it. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. You don’t need any mediator other than Jesus – whose blood has opened God’s throne room to you. No one stands between you and the body and blood your Savior shed for your forgiveness. We all participate in declaring the praise of the one who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. So please stand as we confess the one, true Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.


III.               The Predominance of the Gospel


What should be the main focus, the central objective of the church? Everyone has their own idea. There are those who think that the church should basically be a community service organization – like the Salvation Army. There are others who think that the church should be a legislative body – writing laws and enforcing morality. Still others want the church to be a divine babysitter – to provide daycare and recreational opportunities and singles mingles – because that’s what people want! The church, like our government, is the object of many “special interest” groups – who want it to do their bidding. Is there a problem with that? Yes. Because the church does not belong to you or me or any special interest group. The church belongs to God and Jesus is its only CEO. And he has given his church a very clear and simple mission.


He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον “Preach the good news.” God instituted the government to rule and protect and punish. (Romans 13:1-7) God created the family to provide for our physical and emotional needs. (Ephesians 6:1-4; 1 Timothy 5:8) The church’s mission is to preach. Preach what? The good news. Is the good news the secret to a happy marriage or a healthy lifestyle or an early retirement? No. The good news is that God has made the unconditional offer to the world to forgive their sins and give them eternal life in heaven – based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the good news Christ commissioned his church to proclaim to all creation. You may leave here without a better idea of how to make your life easier or your money grow – but God forbid you ever leave here without being told that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Because without that good news, nothing else matters. That’s why everything in our service – from the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon, to the church architecture (pulpit / altar / font) – centers on what God has done and is doing for us in Christ.


The medieval Catholic church – like many churches today – abandoned Christ’s commission by changing the emphasis from what God has done for us for what we must do for God. In other words, they have exchanged the law for the gospel. Luther was taught that he had to fast and pray and do penance and become a monk in order to please God. It drove him to the brink of despair. Many people today are being taught that they have to contribute 10% of their income and make a decision for Christ and change the world in order to please God. And it’s still driving them to the brink of despair. There’s no comfort or peace in do and don’t do. The only comfort we have before a holy God is that because of Jesus everything necessary to please God is DONE! Don’t misunderstand, the law has its role. The law shows us our sins, restrains wickedness, and serves as a moral compass in an obviously morally confused world. But its primary job is to serve the gospel – to make us despair of ever doing anything to earn God’s favor so that we place all of our trust in what Jesus has done for us.

So we pray for the government to wisely rule and govern. We equip and encourage families to provide for physical and emotional needs. And we demand that the church carry out her Lord’s commission: κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, preach the gospel. One of the most important tools to help us do that consistently is our heritage of Lutheran worship. Worship which respects and treasures the experience of the believers who have gone before us – who found rest for their souls in Word and Sacrament. Worship which invites every believer – from the 1 year old to the 100 year old – to participate because we are all priests in God’s eyes whose worship and praise he welcomes for Jesus’ sake. Worship which holds strong against the temptation to change the focus from what God has done for us in Christ (the Gospel) to what we must do for God (the Law). As we continue our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation – give thanks to God for the gift of Lutheran worship – and its focus on Christ crucified – and ask that he would preserve this precious heritage for generations to come. Amen.  


[1] Plass, What Luther Says, 861

[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 860

[3] Formula of Concord: Thorough Declaration, Art. 10:9

[4] Plass, What Luther Says, 1139