In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings show forth remarkable parallels, two cases of what a friend of mine called “The Politician and the Prophet.” In the Old Testament Lesson, the prophet is Amos, a man called away from his regular jobs by the Lord God to prophesy to His people Israel, and the politician is Amaziah the priest of Bethel. Amaziah had the king’s ear, and he tickled the people’s ears, authorizing the worship of other gods alongside YHWH, the true God. Amos stuck faithfully to the Word the Lord had given him to proclaim, the Word calling Israel to repentance of its idolatry and its “multicultural” worship. Amaziah was in truth a politician in priestly garb, and he feared Amos’ threat to his power. In today’s Gospel the politician is King Herod Antipas, and the prophet is John the Baptist. John called Herod to repentance for the king’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife. Herod feared John, and had him imprisoned, yet kept him safe, “knowing that [John] was a righteous and holy man” (Mk 6:20).
Politicians and prophets. Politics and religion. Church and state. We’ve been hearing an awful lot lately about divisions in both realms, dire predictions of dark and troubling times ahead. I’ve heard that some folks have declared, “We are more deeply divided than ever before in our nation’s history!” Really? Didn’t they ever hear of the Civil War, the War Between the States (when we were legally divided)? Church bodies are in turmoil, struggling to avoid splintering apart over various issues involving doctrine and practice. At different times I’ve heard people say, “This congregation is divided.” Even now. In half. So, what are the two halves? Font side and pulpit side? How deeply do the fault lines run? Whatever the issues may be—some are no doubt real, while others are illusory, or misunderstandings—we know the cause of the problems: sin, our sin, our fault, our flesh, our Old Adam, wanting to have his own way, his complete self-satisfying self-love and self-worship, and his utter contempt, fed by the devil, for the ways of God. Our Old Adam, our sinful, fallen flesh, can be quite subtle in the ways we sin. Our lips honor God, and in our hearts and minds we really want to be set to hearken to His Word; but, this world tugs at our hearts and seeps into our minds. The division isn’t just outside of us; it’s inside of us, too. In fact, that’s where it starts, in the human heart and mind divided from the God of life by sin and death. Thanks be to God for His grace toward us in Christ Jesus, through whom He has poured and still pours upon us every blessing of the Holy Spirit, binding back together the heart and mind and life torn asunder by sin!
The Apostle Paul dealt with division and disunity in the churches which he served and to which he wrote some of his epistles. Now Paul makes it clear that, while all are sinners who need to repent of any wrongs they have done, not all are wrong in what they teach or do. Indeed, he said to the Corinthian Christians, “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be manifested” (1 Cor 11:19). If one says, “Good works are necessary,” and another says, “Good works are necessary for your salvation,” they’re very similar; but, one is right, and the other is dead wrong. Good works are necessary, because God has commanded them, for the benefit of our neighbor. The Work of Christ alone is fully sufficient for our salvation, our redemption from sin. Paul personally confronted divisions in the churches at Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus. One threat of division among the Ephesians was between Jewish and Gentile believers. (Now that was a real division!) Paul writes to them “like a father intervening in a dispute between his children, firmly but lovingly drawing them back together.” How does he do that? What is the medicine that can heal the sickened, weakened church?
He brings them back to where he started them—or rather, where God started them through Paul’s ministry: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” And: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.” He begins with the Triune God, the God who saved us by His blood, the God in whose holy name we are baptized, born again from above. He begins with a doxology, a song of praise, a prayer of blessing singing the praises of this God for His grace and mercy and love and purpose to save us.
It has been widely noted that this passage is actually one sentence in the original Greek—one really long sentence! It has been called “a grammatical monster.” Paul seeks to overwhelm us, not with his skill, but with the glory of God and what He has accomplished for us. God is the subject of almost every verb, the doer of every action, in this sentence, this doxology. Paul breaks into a type of prayer familiar to him and to every devout Jew, the Berakah, the Blessing. We tend to think of petitions as the heart of prayer; but, this prayer has none. Instead, it speaks of God, usually in the third person, and proclaims His mighty, saving deeds. Another New Testament example familiar to us is the Song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the canticle known as the Benedictus, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” St. Paul starts with the Trinity, and he keeps going on and on about God! So often we like to talk about ourselves, or about other people. Can we go on and on about God as Paul does? He blesses God the Father for His election of us in Christ Jesus, and then he blesses God the Son for His redemption of us through His own blood, and then he blesses God the Holy Spirit for His sealing of us as heirs of salvation.
You and I were chosen, elected, by God the Father in eternity, before creation, to be His sons, His heirs, in Christ His Beloved and Only-Begotten Son, “to the praise of the glory of His grace,” and we were purchased and washed clean, without blemish, by Christ Jesus’ holy, precious blood poured out on us lavishly through the washing of Holy Baptism, “to the praise of His glory,” in which we are sealed with the Holy Spirit of the Promise, and He keeps us in this Faith, this Promise, this Gospel, as we continue to hear His Holy Word and read it and pray it and sing it, “to the praise of His glory.” One of our Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord, Article XI, refers a lot to this doxology in the doctrine on election, the “doctrine of God’s purpose, counsel, will, and ordinance concerning our redemption, call, justification, and salvation, as St. Paul treats and explains this article [in Ephesians 1:4ff] and as Christ likewise does in the parable [of the wedding feast], namely, that in His purpose and counsel God has ordained the following:”
- That through Christ the human race has truly been redeemed and reconciled with God and that by His innocent obedience, suffering, and death Christ has earned for us ‘the righteousness which avails before God’ and eternal life;
- That this merit and these benefits of Christ shall be offered, given, and distributed to us through His Word and Sacraments;
- That He will be efficacious and active in us by His Holy Spirit through the Word when it is preached, heard, and meditated on, will convert hearts to true repentance, and will enlighten them in the true faith;
- That He will justify and graciously accept into the adoption of sons and into the inheritance of eternal life all who in sincere repentance and true faith accept Christ;
- That He also will sanctify in love all who are thus justified, as St. Paul says in Eph 1:4;
- That He also will protect them in their great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh, guide and lead them in His ways, raise them up again when they stumble, and comfort and preserve them in tribulation and temptation;
- That He will also strengthen and increase in them the good work which He has begun, and preserve them unto the end, if they cling to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in the grace of God and use faithfully the gifts that they have received;
- That, finally, He will eternally save and glorify in eternal life those whom He has elected, called, and justified.
Paul’s prayer of blessing, his doxology in praise of the Triune God and His mighty, saving deeds, reminds me especially of the Athanasian Creed. I even thought about using it for this morning. Like Paul, that Creed goes on and on about God, repeating who He is and what He has done for us. So should we! What will be the content of our conversations? I know that I can easily fall into chatter about worldly matters, things that have no lasting value, even here in this earthly life. Shall our lips, and hearts and minds and lives, be filled with blessing our gracious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for His great goodness, praise for who He is, and blessing Him for what He has done for us? Shall the words we speak be His living, active, life-giving, sin-forgiving, dead-resurrecting Word? Look at the bulletin cover. What do you see? A man in prison, behind bars and chained: John the Baptist. What’s the caption? “Herod feared John.” How absurd is that! A mighty king fears a lowly prisoner. What power does John have, that Herod should fear him? None in himself, only the power of the Word of God! The Word of the Law showed Herod his guilt; but John also spoke the Word of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus! This God and His Word are the only remedy, the only cure, for division, sin, and death, everything that ails us, that ails His church. Certainly whenever we read and proclaim His Word, whenever we hear, pray, or meditate on His Word, we are going on about God. When we speak of Creation, the Ark, the covenant with Abraham, the Exodus and Sinai, the covenant with David, the Incarnation, the Cross, Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, we are speaking of His mighty, gracing, saving acts! Let us conclude with a prayer, the final words of Article XI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, on our Election by God:
May Almighty God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ grant the grace of His Holy Spirit so that we may all be one in Him and steadfastly remain in this Christian unity, which is well-pleasing to Him! Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.