Four Branches November 2017

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Exegetical Theology: The Text Shapes You

The text shapes you; you don’t shape the text.” And even though that truth had been repeated so much in Senior year homiIetics I knew it by heart, I had no idea how to carry it out. My early years as a pastor I ended up shaping the text to fit my pre-designed outline. The law has to come first, the gospel second. Insert exposition here, application here. The result over several years was that the sermons ended up all sounding the same—not in their words or even in their application, but in the shape of sermon delivered to my people. That’s where “excising the extras” and “finding the structure” becomes our good friend. When we strip away the chapter, verse and Eusebian apparatus sections, it clears the way for God’s Word to shape us, rather than us trying to shoehorn our text into an ill-fitted boot. This applies to both the shape and sound of the sermon. The tension of a Markan sandwich will come across differently than a didactic section from Paul – and not just in the arrangement of thoughts. It will also come across differently in the expression of those thoughts. When the text shapes us there will naturally be more variety in our sermons.

But there are objections. I remember asking, “What if the sections starts with gospel and ends with gospel.” His response was to urge us to preach such precious gospel at the beginning of the sermon because the text does. And then, you can always bring in a law application by asking the question, “But do we really appreciate this as we should?” Notice his point: we are the ones that change and be flexible, not the text.

Or again, we asked, “How do I bring in sanctification preaching into this sermon?” His response was to say that not every pericope urges us toward application. Some simply lead us to say “amen” in humble worship (appropriation). If so, he encouraged us to not force or coerce application where the flow of the text urged us toward appropriation.

What if the section is too long? It’s hard to preach on the three “lost” parables in Luke 15 even if Luke lets us know that they should be taken together by naming them all one parable. If the section is too long, preach the other part of the text the next Sunday.This might mean picking out different hymns and selecting different readings on that second Sunday. But it will give you the privilege of preaching through a whole unit in its context.

Excising the extras and finding the structure, over time, can be our friend. It can give us sermonic variety and your hearers a new appreciation both of God’s Word and your preaching. With this, I encourage you to take Professor Gurgel’s “Imitating Scriptural Variety in Sermonic Form and Structure” class offered online Spring 2018. For what I gloss over here, he goes through in such beautiful detail.

Rev. Steve Bauer serves as pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Chaska, MN.

Systematic Theology: Vocation – Its Purpose

The Reformation returned the church, and the teaching of God’s Word, back to its original form. And the result of preaching the pure gospel? “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (1 Corinthians 5:15).

The doctrine of vocation is a radical message for North American thinking. In a society that so values happiness and self-realization, vocation teaches that what we do is done for the sake of my neighbor, not myself. My good works are the expression of love which places another’s well-being above my own self-realization. Think how the simple institution of marriage has the outcome of driving you to work for the good of another. It’s designed to be a mirror of the Christ who is self-sacrificing for His bride.

By the power of the gospel, the transformed “you” embraces your station in life and your purpose shifts from “me” to serving others. But this service has no relevance the moment it claims to be a condition for God’s forgiveness. There is no place for vocation to be directed “upward;” only faith may enter there. But vocation does have relevance down here, where my neighbor needs it. “To each a different work, in a different place, at a different time, and before different people” (Luther).

Don’t complain about your station if it is lowly, or be puffed up if it is lofty. Luther did not advise anyone to give up a lofty office in order to teach himself humility. If you hold a high office, it means that you have more people to serve than a man who holds a lower office. If you want to be humble, fill the office which God has given you, as long as you have strength to do it.

“Each is to do his own work, without eyeing others or trying to copy them.” Be uniquely what you are within the vocation which God has placed you, Luther stressed. Observe today how North American culture imitates its super heroes, fashion heroes and sports heroes – and people wonder why they have a sense of emptiness. The motive of imitation is not to serve others and lose oneself in that work, but to be just as “holy” as somebody else one knows. Imitation steadily centers upon oneself, and not your neighbor.

If you’ve hung in there for this long, a reading of Luther’s A Treatise on Good Works would expose you to what is considered his best work on this topic. Vocation is also well addressed in the Fourth Commandment section of Luther’s Large Catechism. Consider leading your flock through a bible study on vocation. Professor Ken Cherney’s My Vocation in Christ is available from NPH.

Pastor Harland Goetzinger serves the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Ottawa, and is the president of WELS-Canada.

Historical Theology: Luther: Man between God and the Devil

To round out our discussion of biographies of Luther, we do well to end with a classic, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Written by perhaps one of the most preeminent Luther scholars of recent history, Heiko A. Oberman, the book strives to place Luther within proper theological, religious, social, cultural, and historical context. Luther was very much a product of his times and experiences, even as many of his positions and actions influenced changes and transitions into a new age. He was both medieval (more medieval than many realize) and a force in the development of early modernity. While not a new biography, Oberman’s monograph has aged well and stood the test of further research.

One reason Luther is a particularly helpful biography for pastors, especially having read the other two books discussed earlier in this series, is because Oberman does dive more deeply than many into the philosophical and theological influences that shaped Luther, noting where more background and nuance is necessary to properly understand Luther’s positions. Oberman takes time with complicated matters, for instance, like the bondage of the will or Luther’s relationship with nominalism and the via moderna. Oberman also captures Luther’s very real sense that he, and all mankind, lives between God and the devil, acted upon by both, belonging to one or the other through faith or unbelief. This both drove his convictions and evidenced itself in tentatio throughout his life. He saw God very much at work in history and in his time, through him, and by the message of the gospel. Moreover, he saw God at work in the daily, temporal lives of people as well, in the market, field, and the home, for instance, through their vocations—horizontal, civic righteousness at work, for the Christian, motivated also by the free gift of divine righteousness through the gospel.

Luther is not a difficult read, although at times the reader does well to step back and ponder. It is certainly not a mere collection of dates and persons and places, either. It seeks to bring together a wide array of forces and factors, to step out of the rigid periodization that too often hamstrings historical study, and to take Luther’s religious views and experiences seriously. In this way, perhaps better than any other, Oberman treats Luther for who he was, as a person, as a product of his age, as a believer and intellectual, a father and friend—as best, at least, as we can do so across the span of five centuries. There are plenty of Luther biographies to read in this Luther Year, even as Reformation Day has passed, but I think Luther provides an excellent way to round out the readings suggested in this series and to spur interest in further study through the many lenses, angles, and avenues Oberman employs and opens up in studying the great reformer.

Rev. Wade Johnston serves as an Assistant Professor of Theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College and received his Ph.D. from Central Michigan University and Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.

Practical Theology: How do you talk about the Public Ministry? (Part 2)

When people hear us talk about the public ministry, what impressions do they get?

Last month we took note of a potential pitfall in how we describe the public ministry: prideful condescension. This month, another way we can inadvertently mislead people about the full-time ministry: Humblebrag Martyrdom.

Merriam-Webster now has a definition for “humblebrag”: to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.

It sounds like a complaint: “I have no life. I just run from one thing to another.” But really, it’s saying, “Look at me! See how busy and dedicated I am? See how much I’m sacrificing for the ministry? And if you don’t see… well, you should!”

Of course, there might be some truth in our complaints! We might be running from class to hospital call to sermon prep to soccer game to meeting night. We might be running on fumes. When someone says, “Pastor, could you do this one small thing for me?” we might have two dozen other “small” things already backlogged on the to-do list.

But be careful. Are we giving people the impression that we’re competing with them for busiest and most stressed, and that we’re obviously winning? Are we, without knowing it, slighting other people’s work and effort by assuming our work is more important and our effort is more intense? In reality, there may be many members of our congregations who work longer hours than we do and receive less compensation and support than we do. And their vocations are valuable in God’s eyes.

We need to ask the Lord’s forgiveness for making ourselves martyrs when no one asked that of us. From time to time it’s good to see what really drives us—is it gratitude for the gospel, or is it self-pity that fuels us?

Our Lord forgives us, wiping away the guilt of our selfishness and clothing us with the perfect work he accomplished. Then he leads us to make adjustments. May I suggest some? They’re not magic wands that can be waved, but they can help.

  • It can help to say, “What opportunities has God given me to serve today, and how can I use the resources he’s given to do that?” I can focus on my calling instead of constantly comparing myself to others (“Must be nice to have to work only certain hours. I’m on duty all the time.”).
  • It can help to ask, “Are there changes I can make that can reduce stress?” Maybe there aren’t immediately. Maybe for this day, this week, this month, you have to push through with the Lord’s help. But is there a possibility I can change my situation, even a little, in the future? Can I talk to a trusted friend? To a congregational leader? Can I make small adjustments so I can serve with more joy?

Extreme busyness is sometimes an inescapable part of the public ministry. But instead of turning to self-pitying humblebragging, let’s explore other options so we can honor the Lord and serve his people—even serve with gladness.

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Pastor Jon Micheel serves Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, UT.  He also serves on the Rites Committee for the new hymnal project.