Law-Gospel preaching stands at the heart of the Lutheran witness.
This page offers examples of sermons that illustrate the “law-gospel” style & message
by Timothy Wengart
Sermon Text: Luke 11:1-13
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Christians often say foolish things about prayer. How often don’t people make prayer—one of the best things about the Christian life—into one of the worst. One of the parishioners from Ingrid’s congregation in South Jersey grew up overseas. She told me about a devout aunt who would set her transistor radio at the family altar, tuned to the recitation of the Rosary and go out shopping, sure that she was fulfilling her religious duty. Well, guess what? Prayer is not magic. It’s not about hanging a prayer on a wall. That may save the plaster wall but not you. But then there are those religious hucksters who are only too happy to tell you that if you only pray a little harder and believe a little more, then you’ll get whatever you want. That’s another kind of magic—as if God were a celestial Santa Claus. Actually, it’s worse than that. God becomes a kind of slot machine. If you just throw in enough nickels, you’ll get a payout. Just pray long enough and hard enough, and you’ll cash in.
But misunderstanding or misusing prayer is nothing new. That’s what Jesus and those early Christians had to deal with, too. So Luke does us a favor today and gathers together all of the most important things Jesus says about prayer, all in order to set us straight.
We’ll get to Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer at the end, but let’s start with the guy asking for three loaves of bread at midnight. he point is so obvious, I almost don’t have to say it. God is better than a mean, grumpy neighbor! Now it’s true, sometimes it may seem that God is asleep in bed and can’t be bothered. And it’s also true that even believers ask for stupid things. I was really shy growing up and used to hate asking girls out on dates. So I was forever praying to God that this girl would be the one, so I wouldn’t have to drum up the courage to ask anyone else. Well, God knew better, thank heavens! But the point here is simply don’t make God into the Grinch. When we ask God, God does not grumble or complain about it. God loves to give daily bread.
Next we come to one of the most abused statements about prayer Jesus ever uttered. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Some preachers are more than happy to use Jesus’ words to hit their hearers over the head: “Well, you better ask! You better search and knock! Or else God won’t give you a thing.” You really think God is so stingy? But then there are those preachers who are addicted to prosperity. They take these words out of context—more on that in a minute—and think that praying to God is like using a your Dad’s Visa card. That’s not what this is all about. Our God is the God of the promise. And God’s promises are the opposite of what happens in daily life. Look. How many times have you asked someone for something and not been given it? How many times have you lost something and not found it? How many times have you knocked—or at least called on your cell phone—and no one has answered? That’s life; that’s the human story. But Jesus tell us that things aren’t like that with God. God always answers; always can be found; always is at home. Isn’t that amazing?
One of Luther’s students once asked him about this verse after dinner. He had had some of Katie’s beer, I suppose. “When we ask God, he slinks off somewhere, so you have to search him out. And when you find him, he goes and hides in a closet, so you have to knock. When the knocking is loud enough, he opens up and asks, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Well, Lord, I want this or that.’ ‘Well, go ahead and have it.’ You have to keep at it.”
So, God is not like your grumpy neighbor; God promises to listen, even if he likes to play hide-and-seek; and, third, God as a loving parent is not as evil as we are. This last analogy has a kind of zinger at the end. So, I’m asking? You give your child a snake instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg? Look how evil you are, and yet you know how to do the right thing! Do you think God is worse than you are? God knows what you need. And God doesn’t play fast and loose with blessings. Now I don’t usually get into quite so much detail, but in Matthew’s version, Jesus says: “How much more will the heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” But I think Luke knows better, so he goes right to the top of the list: “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit….” And this gives us the proper context. Once again, it’s all about faith, about falling in love with God. Of course there are all of the other wondrous gifts we receive from God daily, but at the top of the list is God. So God gives God’s very presence, the Holy Spirit! Everything else is just gravy! But, and this is the real point: prayer comes out of a relationship with God, it doesn’t create it. First, first you encounter the God who loves you enough to get up in the middle of the night, the God who promises no matter what, and the God who gives the greatest gift of all, the Holy Spirit.
And how does Jesus summarize this? “When you pray, say Father!” The word in Aramaic is “Abba,” and although the old interpretation was that that word meant “Papa,” is not really true, it does mean “Father.” But, as Martin Luther says in his Small Catechism, “God would by these words entice us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children … so we may ask him with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.” Martin Luther’s oldest child was five when he wrote these words. He knew firsthand what he called the “fatherly heart.” And he realized that’s what the whole Lord’s Prayer was all about. Children running to a loving, heavenly parent, sitting on the lap, and asking for help in every need.
And what would Jesus have us ask for? Not selfish things but what we really need. “Hallowed be your name!” That is, teach us what it means to have you as loving Father and not as fearsome judge. Every time a preacher gets near the pulpit, the congregation should stand up and shout, “Father, hallowed be your name!” Give us your word of grace and mercy in this person’s sermon! Then “Your kingdom come!” That is, send your Holy Spirit with that very word of grace so that we believe it now and in eternity. God’s rule, you see, breaks in on us by the Spirit’s power: in the waters of the font, in the bread and wine on this table, and in the words that fill your ears throughout this service. “Give us each day our daily bread.” Not “give us a boatload of cash so we can live a carefree life!” as some people wickedly think. No! Give us enough for today.
Of course, daily bread, as Luther reminds us, means more than just a trip to the bakery; it means everything we need to sustain life, including home, family, good government, good weather, and the like. Then, in addition to asking God for the Word, and faith, and all our earthly needs, Jesus adds two things: Forgiveness of sins—which is like a child of a car dealer asking for a car! God’s business is the forgiveness of sins. And that forgiveness is not earned by forgiving others; it is rather mirrored in our forgiveness of others. This means if you are uncertain about God’s forgiveness of you, just go out and find someone to forgive and then you’ll be sure of God’s mercy. God forgives you more than you forgive. Finally, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” And the biggest trial happens when we don’t trust God and cannot imagine him a loving parent but only a mean-spirited, evil force. Or when we despair and think we are not worthy of God’s gracious love. In any case, along with the two petitions Luke for some reason leaves out, the whole point is to throw all of your deepest needs before God and trust God’s promise to answer you like a loving parent. Amen.
by Oswald Bayer
Sermon Text: Genesis 32:23-32
Dear congregation, moments ago, we joined in the cry of lament: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” In marked contrast, he is not at a loss for words at all: He, that is, the poet and composer of the trinitarian doxology we heard in the Ephesians reading (Eph. 1:3-14) and which we also sang in the opening hymn (“The Lord, My God, Be Praised” by Johann Olearius, Lutheran Service Book [LSB] 794). This powerfully eloquent poet and composer is able to convey the fullness of God’s trinitarian being in a very articulate manner. He is able to assert the threefold distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while maintaining both their oneness and uniqueness. And he does all of this in the Greek original with just one single sentence: Perfect, complete, lovely, transparent, capturing the totality of it, leaving no question unanswered. On the contrary, all our questions appear to be answered – and fully answered at that: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we? Answer: The Father chose us before the foundation of the world was laid, the Son redeemed us and lavished upon us the riches of his grace, and the Holy Spirit seals us and assures us of the glorious future that awaits us.
Perfect, complete, lovely, transparent, capturing the totality of it, leaving no question unanswered. Should we not take joy in such effusive praise of God?
Even so: “Oh, that we were there!” (“Now Sing We, Now Rejoice,” LSB 386)
But we are not yet there in that bright light. Instead, often enough, we find ourselves in darkest night: Deserted and all alone – like Jacob at the Jabbok. “The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob’ [i.e. deceiver]. Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [i.e. He strives with God, or God strives], for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [i.e. the face of God], saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Gen. 32:22-31 English Standard Version [ESV])
It is an intensely riveting, immensely dramatic story, a story about a life-and-death battle for recognition – a difficult story that in a subtle, even inscrutable fashion speaks about how our life is threatened, but also – thanks be to God! – about how we are saved.
After all, the story of Jacob, the patriarch of Israel, is our own life story – characterized by more or less threatening and perilous transitions: Out of the narrow uterus into life on this earth under open skies, kindergarten, school, starting a career, marriage, childbirth, having our lives interrupted by sickness, by the death of those closest to us, and by whatever other turning points and transitions there may be in our various uniquely personal life stories. At any rate, inescapable and unavoidable for each of us is the final transition – crossing the ford, crossing through the water, perhaps at night, perhaps alone.
That prospect may well strike fear and terror into your heart – especially when, as was the case with Jacob the deceiver, your past catches up with you and you are overcome by fear, yes, when you have reason to fear that Esau, the brother you deceived, will now finally take revenge, that the wicked deed will come back like a boomerang and that as a result of its curse, you will not be blessed, but accursed – that you will not be one for whom the sun rises, but one for whom the sun does not shine and who falls into darkness instead.
That prospect may well strike fear and terror into our hearts “when the foe shall taunt and assail us” (“To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray” by Martin Luther, LSB 768; Rev. 12:10), when the great accuser and killjoy whispers: It was all useless, your life was not worth it. Throw it away!
Do not pretend that you never have such dark thoughts, as if your life is nothing but sunshine and roses and you always come away smiling. None of us can say that. We live in a world marked by deception and fear, by threats, terror, torture, murder, and war, a world in which there is no getting around the question asked in Wolfgang Borchert’s “The Man Outside,” where he returns from the eastern front to a bomb-gutted Hamburg and asks: “Did you dearly love us in Stalingrad, dear loving God, did you dearly love us then, huh?” Instead of God’s clear love and grace, instead of the bright sun of his mercy, a dark, mute, implacable fate seems to prevail. Not a person whom you could address by name, but some nameless thing. And I cannot ignore it or walk on by – it bothers me, badgers me, afflicts me, attacks me. “A man wrestled with him.” Jacob doesn’t know who it is. Yet this uncertainty and namelessness is precisely what makes it so unbearable. Just who is this enemy attacking me? Attacking me with external tribulations, blows of fate, with hostilities, harassments, character assassination? Or with internal “Anfechtungen,” with the guilt and burden of my own past and the fear of my own future? Or is it perhaps – in, with and under these external and internal hostilities – the destroyer of life, the devil attacking me? Or is it God himself, who, as it sometimes seems, does not let his face shine on me, but hides it from me, does not hear me, does not answer me, does not help? As it says in the hymn, “nor to thy supplication an answering voice be found…” (“Commit Whatever Grieves Thee” by Paul Gerhardt, The Lutheran Hymnal [TLH] 520) Or: “God, my God, why, oh why do you not answer?” (“Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen” by Friedemann Gottschick, Evangelisches Gesangbuch [EG] 381)
In the darkness of this tribulation and uncertainty, Trinity Sunday with its clarity and certainty is far away. As we sing, “Oh, that we were there!” (“Now Sing We, Now Rejoice,” LSB 386) Perhaps, in our longing for clarity and certainty, we are there: There at the goal. Perhaps not only in our longing, but already when we lament and cry out: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Let us look to Jacob. What does he do? Does he throw in the towel? Does he give up? Does he grow hard and bitter? Does he become silent? Does he become depressed? Or frivolous? Jacob knows that it’s all or nothing; passionately, he goes for broke: If I die, I die; but first I will fight for my life and defend myself. Jacob wrestles with curses and damnation, wrestles for grace, for a blessing; he wrestles for these things in desperate defiance and wrings a blessing from his enemy: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” If you will not bless me, if you will not turn your face to me, if you will not give me courage and strength, then I am done for. This Jacob is wrestling with a terrible power; he refuses to let go of his enemy, but at the same time, he throws himself at his mercy: Just bless me!
He does bless Jacob. This life-threatening power, the God who hides himself in such terrible ways has allowed himself to be compelled, to be overcome. You, you God-fighter, “you have striven with God… and have prevailed.”
How can this be? How can a finite, mortal human overpower the infinite, immortal God? How can he turn his enemy into a friend who no longer threatens, but actually blesses and recognizes him?
That can only happen when the infinite, immortal God himself places into the hands of the finite, mortal human being the weapon with which to compel him. God allows himself to be overcome. Earlier, he had promised Jacob that he would bless him and his descendants (Gen. 28:13-15; 32:13 et al.). And now, Jacob is able to appeal to that promise – just like we are able to appeal to the promise specifically given to each of us in Baptism. In Baptism, God has promised himself into our power, has delivered himself into the Word of his pledge: “I am with you always: In my goodness I will give you whatever you need; in my mercy I deliver you out of all your troubles!”
And now God stands in the Word; he wants to be taken at his Word, his pledge. You may, yes, you should hold God to this pledge, rub it in his face, as it were, yes, grab hold of him by clinging to his pledge, appeal to it as you grapple with his hiddenness, when he – along with the whole world and your own heart – grows dark before you in the times of transition and crisis in your life, when he hides his face from you and does not intervene. Then, yes, then you must not, may not in any way give in and surrender to defeat and the weariness of the world. On the contrary, you may and you should put up resistance – using precisely that weapon which God himself placed into your hands when you were baptized, or more precisely, which he placed into your ears and heart: His pledge to be there, to encompass you on all sides with his protection, and to hold you in the palm of his hand, in short: His promise to bless you.
This promise God gave to us when we were baptized in his name, when he delivered us from all darkness and uncertainty and placed us before him in the light of his face. The sun shining on us is the Father who chose us in him before the foundation of the world was laid, the Son who redeemed us and lavished upon us the riches of his grace, and the Holy Spirit who assures us of the glorious future that awaits us. So he who is cheerful, as it says in James (5:13), should sing psalms of praise like the trinitarian doxology at the beginning of Ephesians, which is perfect, complete, lovely, transparent, capturing the totality of it, and leaving no question unanswered. But if there is anyone suffering among you, the very same verse of James directs him to lament and pray as he impatiently longs for God to intervene with judgment and salvation: “Give, Lord, this consummation to all our hearts’ distress” (“Commit Whatever Grieves Thee” by Paul Gerhardt, TLH 520)
In the face of the evil in us and around us, the effusive praise of the triune God keeps on sticking in our throats. But even when it is dark and murky around us and we cannot understand why God makes us wait, why he does not take away the pain and suffering, it is then, yes, especially then that God’s baptismal pledge to us holds true, his promise to be with us and to go with us. His promise gives us the strength to hold up in the distress of unanswered prayers, of ongoing illness, and of ongoing disability, and to praise him even in suffering: “Through my crying I will praise you …!” ( German original: “Herr, lass deine Fahnen wehen” by Walter Börner, Jesu Name nie verklinget 1, 82) Then, with God’s unconditional pledge in your ears and in your heart – as you fight the ongoing earthly battle with him, the battle that will cease only at death –, you will ardently, defiantly cling to this promise: “Lord, when the shadows lengthen and night has come, I know that you will strengthen my steps toward home…” (“Lord, Take My Hand and Lead Me” by Julie von Hausmann, LSB 376)
The night will not last forever. Ultimately, enlightenment will come. Full enlightenment. Clarity. The narrow straits will ultimately open up, and it will grow light. At the end of that day, when you will have no complaints left to make to God (cf. John 16:23), when you will no longer need to struggle and to strive with him, it will be said of you: “The sun rose upon you as you passed Peniel,” that is, the sun of Easter. And it will never set again. Your praise of the triune God will not be challenged by tribulation any longer – it will be lovely, and it will be complete. Even so, you will retain some reminder of your striving with God – just like Jacob “limping because of his hip,” and just like the Crucified One who has been raised from the dead and is coming in glory bears the marks of his wounds for all eternity. Amen.
Prayer: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! How often we avoid striving with you and curl up into a ball inside of ourselves instead: Going into depression, or perhaps resorting to frivolousness, to resignation, or to apathy. Assail us when we are apathetic, shake us up when we are sluggish, so that we must run into you, take a stand before you, and – like Jacob at the Jabbok – experience you in tangible ways and be assured of your physical proximity. Lord, have mercy!
Wake us up so that we join in the lament of the oppressed, the homeless, the victims of violence and war, of the children being abused and killed, of all those dishonored and despised; yes, wake us up so that we cry out: Why do you not judge, why do you not save? Why do you allow evil to have free reign? How long will you stand back and watch? (Rev. 6:10) Why so much senselessness, so much madness? So much suffering? So much hurt? So much pain? Why all this ongoing sickness? All these persistent disabilities? These never-ending conflicts? “Give, Lord, this consummation to all our hearts’ distress!” (“Commit Whatever Grieves Thee” by Paul Gerhardt, TLH 520) Lord, have mercy!
And so, in our opposition to the distress of the world, we pray to you for peace in the face of conflict – and not only in Syria –; in the face of shortsightedness and the bankruptcy of ideas in politics and economics, in education and academia, in social institutions and in the media, we pray for responsible – mindful and sustainable – action; in the face of broken relationships in so many families, we pray for people to be considerate and sincerely devoted to one another; in the face of the loneliness and isolation of those who mourn, those who are ill, and the dying, we pray for helping words and hands: Lord, have mercy!
Graciously take us into your care, bless our lives until our last hour comes, and gather us together before your face where you will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and where there will be no mourning, nor crying, nor war, nor pain anymore.
Hear us as we dare even now to address you as our Father through your Son by the Holy Spirit: Our Father…”
Translated by Karl Boehmer