A Sermonic Failure

Last week I prepared my sermon, but there was a structural problem.  (I even put a mark on the paper to indicate “Tie this all together and fix the problem”) By Saturday, i had not fixed the problem.  The Manuscript was ready, but the sermon didn’t work.  I went to bed thinking, Tomorrow, I can fix it before church.  And if not, it should work anyway.

Sunday morning saw an attempt at a fix.  I was content that it was as good as it would get.  I printed it, put it in the pulpit, and greeted people as they came into church.  At 8:55 I pushed the “Eject” button.  I went to the files, found a sermon I had preached at my previous parish, and took it to the pulpit with me when I went into the chancel.

Here is today’s challenge.  I am posting the rejected sermon for your review.  Does anyone think I should have preached it?  Read it, consider, see my reasoning at the end, and then let me know what you think.

All of this, after the jump.

Two men came to church.  One was a long time officer, he was on the local town council.  The other was on the church’s delinquent list.  He showed up on Christmas and Easter – sometimes.   He didn’t pay his debts, and was known around town as a deadbeat.

So, when they both came to church, guess which one was forgiven?  Jesus parable seems pretty unfair.  After all, if coming to church doesn’t count for anything, why bother?

But that’s already the wrong attitude.  You’re asking the wrong question, so you can’t get a good answer.

Coming to church does count for something.  After all, if you are trying to keep the law, then you must keep the third commandment, and that requires coming to church.

But the problem with that is that we are sinful.  Even if we come to church every Sunday, it’s not enough to simply show up.  Coming to church can’t be about marking time.  You have to be here for the right reason.  “Gee it’s a nice day, I hope the service is over soon”  Such a seemingly harmless thought, but it shows a lack of respect for God and His holy Word.  And who hasn’t done that at least once.

In other words, if you are trying to fulfill the law, then you could show up to church every day, and you would still fall short.  And even if you could keep this commandment, there are nine others and you can’t keep them all.

In other words, if you are coming here to earn your salvation, then you are already on the wrong track.  You’re already failing.  And coming here does no good.

Ultimately, while the law commands you to come to church, coming to church isn’t to fulfill the law.

It’s about receiving the gift of forgiveness that God offers freely for Christ’s sake.  It isn’t enough that Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins – you need to hear about it and know of that forgiveness.  That is why God also gives his Holy Christian Church.  So that there would be a place to hear the word of absolution and believe the promise.

You can’t earn forgiveness.  Jesus won it freely for you on the cross.  So your coming here doesn’t earn you anything.  There is nothing here that is given that is earned.  If you try to earn anything, even the things that are given freely are taken away.  Forgiveness must be given to you as a gift.  Just as the forgiveness was won for you as a gift when Jesus died on the cross, so now it must be freely given to you as a gift in the Divine Service (That is to say, in God’s service – he is the one who gives gifts to you in church.)  The problem in the Gospel reading isn’t the background of the two men, or their standing in the community, the problem is their intent in showing up.  The Pharisee came to fulfill the law, to show that he was a good person.  He wanted to earn God’s favor, and you can’t do that.  The tax collector came to confess his sins and hear the word of absolution.  He came because he knew that God had to do it for him.

So, how are we to receive this forgiveness?  Jesus gives the disciples authority to forgive sins when he sees them after the resurrection.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any any, they are retained..”

We sin daily, and surely deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.  And yet, God is faithful, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  In other words, he forgives our sins.  And we don’t need profit margins for that to happen, we don’t need upstanding people, we don’t need any of the things the world considers important.  We need God’s word of forgiveness.  That is why during the reformation, the Reformers kept Holy Absolution.  It wasn’t an attempt to break from the holy Christian church of all times and places, but to remove those things that tried to merit forgiveness with God.  That’s why we read things like, “We keep confession for the sake of absolution.”  First, we confess our sins, and second we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from Christ himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.  Many people are shocked to learn that the Lutheran Church has confession and absolution.  And yet we don’t have it so that penance can be handed out.  We don’t have it as some sort of show of piety, but rather so that those who are sinners can have sins forgiven.  After all, that’s what Jesus told the church to do.  And when you look through the history of the Old testament, it’s what he told the church back then to do as well.  “Against you, you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight, purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

If we confess to receive absolution, then the next question, and the one that Luther answers in the Small Catechism, is What sins should I confess?  Luther answers : Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer (Or one might add, as we do in the confession at the beginning of the service. Luther continues)  But before the pastor we should confess only those sins that we know and feel in our hearts.

Confession exists for the sake of absolution.  Pastors exist for the sake of brining that absolution to you.  That’s why God gives them.  So that there would be someone to bring that word of forgiveness to you.  Not just the general pronouncement of forgiveness, but so that someone can stand in the stead of Christ to hear you confess your sins, and speak the word of absolution to you for those specific sins committed by a specific sinner.  So that you need never doubt when you go home that the forgiveness is given

Which sins?  The ones you know and feel in your heart.  How do you identify those?  Luther continues in SC : Consider your place in life according to the ten commandments.  What offices has God given, what are you supposed to be doing there./  Husband father, wife mother, child worker student, soldier, rancher, whatever.  What are you to be doing in your calling?  Then do that.  And where you fail to do that, according to the ten commandments, confess and be absolved of your sin.

Pastors can not forgive what isn’t a violation for 10 commandment, because that’s not a sin.  Plenty of real sins.

Confess not to earn something, but for sake of absolution.  For forgiveness.  That’s why Jesus died on cross.  To earn your forgiveness, and gives it through word of his servant, who stand s in his stead, and speaks his word of forgiveness to you.  Why Luther adds  this question between confession and absolution : Do you believe my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness.  Because God has sent his servants to speak that word.  Because it is, as Luther says, “As sure and certain in heaven as if forgiven by Christ himself.”


Why didn’t I preach this?  I seemed like two separate, but mostly unconnected sermons.  The final product seemed more an attempt to talk about a certain topic then to preach what was in scripture.  And that’s not what we are to do.  We should preach on the appointed scripture reading.  Any thoughts?

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4 Responses to A Sermonic Failure

  1. Kim says:

    I think you’re right. It has a “feel” of a paper about a topic, even if that topic happened to be the Scripture Reading of the day. For what it’s worth, I think you made the right choice.

  2. Barb says:

    The missing connection? Faith. Faith is integral to the appointed reading and Faith is integral to the role confession & Absolution for the Church. This would have tied the two together in a brilliant Scriptural & catechetical sermon; however, the blessing & benefit of PRIVATE confession & Absolution could have been taught because the benefit of that personal application of forgiveness, and the pastoral role of knowing his sheep is so much more evident. Does the unrepentant person who recites the words of the confession receive forgiveness when the Absolution is spoken?

    • Country Preacher says:

      I wish I had thought of that. Would have made a great sermon.

      • Barb says:

        I read your sermons regularly along with a group of other pastors. It never ceases to amaze me the multi-faceted beauty that each of you bring to the same text. You all truly speak the Law and proclaim the Gospel in a context that is unqiue to your fold and to your individual gifts. And, so you don’t worry, I love my own pastor’s sermons as well and don’t read any others for the week until I have first heard my pastor preach to me. May His Spirit continue to be with you, dear Pastor.

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