Taking Creation, Scriptures, and the Saved Seriously: Pulling Things Together
Editor’s note: Professor Glenn Nielsen is on a partial sabbatical this year, maintaining his vicarage/internship responsibilities, but catching up on reading and writing occasional reflections on those readings. This is the seventh of these reflections.
My last essay ended rather abruptly. It was going long and I decided to do a final essay that brought the three previous essays together by returning to a promise I made in the second essay about taking the Scriptures seriously when it comes to the intent of the text. This essay flows from the previous one in writing style but will seek to incorporate the first one on taking the first article seriously along with the other two. I’ll also work with a biblical text as an example.
So, I need to return to some unfinished business from my last essay in which I encouraged taking the Scriptures seriously, particularly the intent of the text. The Bible has content, but also intent(s) for our lives. It not only says something; it also does something to us. In addition to the text informing us, it also performs some action(s) in us. When we take the Scriptures seriously, we craft our sermons with that textual intent in mind. True, all of Scripture is written to bear witness to Jesus. Ultimately, God desires for us to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. But in specific texts, the particular actions that are intended can vary widely. I’ll list a few from the Gospel side of things: comfort, redeem, encourage, save, enable, strengthen in faith, strengthen us to love our neighbor, reconcile, spur on to be rich in mercy, grow in wisdom, grow in grace, grow in the fruit of the Spirit, trust more firmly, live the new life more obediently, hope, increase in joy, lead us to thank and praise our gracious God, find peace in the promised resurrection from the grave. Just a few. The Scriptures are rich and vibrant in the actions God wants to perform in our lives. Immeasurably rich—when we seek to preach the whole counsel of God based on the text of Scripture given to us.
Perhaps an example will help here. Consider Phil. 4:4-9:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Let’s say you are coming at this with A Lutheran Primer for Preaching’s pre-determined lens and typical structure (which I’ve discussed previously), whether that be a simple first Law then Gospel structure, or the expanded “five pages” advocated by Grimenstein. You latch onto the words “always,” “anything,” and “everything.” You quickly see a way to do the accusing Law. We don’t always rejoice and you come up with times we don’t. We are anxious about many things. We live in a scary world. And praying in everything—most of us barely have time to squeeze in a few minutes of prayer. Then it’s mostly requests for help, not much along the lines of thanksgiving. We certainly fail in so many ways and fall so short of what Paul describes here. (This could go on with the rest of the text: we don’t have peace, we don’t think about what is true and excellent, etc.) The first half of the sermon falls into place quickly. Then it’s time to turn to the Gospel. The Lord is at hand. He is the forgiving Lord, who on the cross, brought forgiveness for the lack of joy. Indeed, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross for us (Heb. 12:2). He is with us to give us his peace. What joy we have in his salvation. Then, perhaps, a call to give thanks in prayer and supplication finishes the sermon. Maybe the final verses are used to say we think about what is true and excellent when we are thinking of what Jesus has done for us. Sound familiar? Could be, because that was how last week’s sermon approached a text, and the week before that, and the week…, especially if one were to follow the instruction in the Primer.
But now step back for a minute. Take off those lenses that have pre-determined how you will look at this text. What is Paul doing here? What is his intent? Is he accusing the Philippians of anything here? He is not. He is urging them to rejoice. He calls them to not be anxious. He wants these believers to think on what is honorable and lovely. He is encouraging them to offer up prayers with thanksgiving. So I ask you: how best would we preach on this passage if we want to treat the text seriously, as Paul intended it to be used? How would the Law be used if we wish to make use of this text so that it retains its performative integrity? I would posit that a sermon on this text would have far more instructing, encouraging, urging use of the Law than accusation. Would I still include a section that convicts us? Yes, because the Law always does that and those “always,” “anything,” and “everything” words certainly show that we are far from Paul’s exhortations. But it would be a small piece compared to the positive use of God’s Law for the baptized gathered to hear what God’s Word has to say to them—and to do to them. Which means I would also be taking my hearers seriously too.
And notice the Gospel. The cross isn’t mentioned. It’s not a forgiving, or even saving, emphasis. The Lord is at hand is a resurrection proclamation. The textual note in The Lutheran Study Bible puts it this way:
“The Lord is near to give you patience, wisdom, and help. The Lord is near in coming for you. This is life from a resurrection and eternal perspective.”
The risen Christ is near. The final resurrection brings joy and peace. And more, God’s peace which passes all understanding will fill us. The resurrected Jesus in the Upper Room, says “Peace be with you.” We rejoice because of Easter. Our anxieties fade because of the hope of what’s to come.
A sermon on this text needs to exude the joy of the Epistle itself. Almost 20 times Paul refers to joy. Paul loves these people, and the congregation is one of his favorites. It should sound different from the harsh tone of something from 1 Corinthians. Here is a pastor writing a warm and encouraging letter to people he sees as fellow citizens (3:20).
How might I structure this sermon? Let’s focus on the first verse as a goal: that my hearers are more joyful in the Lord. One possibility is to begin by naming why Paul can be so joyful even though he is prison, and to do so in such a way that it becomes the basis of our joy as well, making use of the verse “The Lord is at hand.” Here could be a retelling of one of the resurrection stories, what the final day of resurrection looks like, how the support of the Church, as the body of Christ, was such a source of joy for him.
Then may come a brief series of moments when joy is so elusive in our lives and peace disappears. It would be a time to identify what happens in our lives that make this passage difficult to envision, with enough description that the people can live in that description and experience the Law’s convicting power.
But then the verse returns: “The Lord is at hand.” Our future is in his hands. And so our requests are made known. Here I would envision a positive, encouraging set of exhortations, along with stories of God’s people rejoicing, to help the people see how our lives can be more filled with God’s joy. Perhaps: how someone in the congregation approached death with peace because the Lord was near…a celebration of the congregation…a piece of news that shows God’s work in this world…singing “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” in October, not just on Easter day…recalling a prayer answered. As these are told, I might weave the words of vv. 8-9 about how these moments are pure, commendable and worthy of praise. Then conclude with a final paragraph that integrates the opening verse and last verse: Paul urging us to rejoice with the peace of God being with us.
That’s just one way it could be structured, but I believe it takes the text seriously by doing what Paul is doing. What’s more, it also takes the people seriously by having God’s Word given to them as the baptized people of God, saint and sinner at the same time, who need to be instructed, encouraged and even exhorted to live what God’s Law has revealed is good and right in his eyes. Finally, it takes into account how God has created these people to listen to a sermon by the use of story.
Well, this ends these essays reflecting on Edward Grimnstein’s A Primer for Lutheran Preaching. Once again, it was good to read his strident emphasis on the heart of preaching: God’s Law and Gospel for the salvation of people. His conviction about the Scriptures and God acting through them is needed exhortation for preachers. His goal that people hear of Jesus and him crucified so that they may believe and have eternal life grows out of the Bible’s clear testimony of Christ’s own words to us. But I wish he had moved to the whole of preaching as well: taking God as Creator seriously in how he has created the listeners as listeners; taking seriously the Scriptures in their fullness and rich variety; and taking the hearers seriously as God’s baptized people, both sinner and saint, who need to hear God’s instructing, encouraging and exhorting Law too. Nevertheless, he made me reflect on the preaching task and write some things down too. That was a good thing too.
 I decided to end the sentence as it is written above, but what was originally intended was a concluding thought that goes like this: and not just the Law accusing us once again followed by the Gospel forgiving us unto salvation in much the same way, with the same structure, with little emotional variety over and over again.
 (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009), 2038.
 It’s what came to mind as I wrote this essay. A week later I may have focused on a different verse, with a different structure and some other stories of application.
 The reader may note that I haven’t addressed another aspect of taking the people seriously: their local, congregational and cultural contexts. I’ve focused on much more on the theological identifications of the hearers in terms of how we are created, that we are the redeemed and baptized people of God, and finally our lives of sanctification. Much could be written about “exegeting the congregation” as well. Except for a couple brief mentions, this doesn’t occur in the Primer. And that would be the topic of a different reflection on my part. But suffice it to say, we take our hearers seriously when we know our people well, the history and life of the congregation, the local community’s issues, history, and make-up, the larger culture’s influence on them, and so on.