Epiphany 4b

Preached: February 1, 2009

Due to the special nature of this service, some of the hymns and liturgy are also included in the audio file. Press the the arrow key below to listen. The portions of the audio read or sung from the Bible are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (R). NIV (R). Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

The Liturgy: Why We Do What We Do

Dear friends in Christ,


1) What are the four points to keep in mind as we think about the Liturgy?

Today we want to reflect on the Liturgy, so the service will be conducted a bit differently. We will more or less follow page 15, so you can turn there. But instead of a regular sermon, throughout the service I will be explaining a little bit about the Liturgy and why we do what we do.

Now the Common Service is very similar to page 15 in the old hymn book which came out in 1941. Many of you grew up with that. Much of what will be said you may have heard before, but might not have thought about recently. It's good to review and reflect on why we do what we do. And maybe there will be a few new things you learn along the way. My prayer is that what is explained today will help keep the Liturgy from becoming a mindless, rote habit and rather that the message of the Liturgy and its symbolism move your hearts closer to your Savior.

Although the Wisconsin Synod has widely used the Common Service only since 1941, its roots go much farther back than that. And I'll mention some of that as we go along today. The Liturgy connects us with faithful Christians throughout the ages, across time and space. But that's really a secondary point. Rather I would ask you to keep in mind four key points, four reasons why the Liturgy is a treasure for us to hold dear.

Point One: The Liturgy centers on Jesus Christ. Rather than blown around by fads or the latest gimmicks, the Liturgy focuses our minds and hearts on the only One who meets all our needs no matter the current situation. To use a fancy word, the Liturgy is Christocentric, centered on Christ, our Savior.

Point Two: Through the Liturgy God serves us. He serves us the banquet of his Word and Sacrament. The two high points, or peeks, of the Liturgy is when God comes to us in his Word and when he comes to us in his Meal, the Lord's Supper. This reinforces point one, for the Word and Sacraments (both Baptism and the Lord's Super) center on Christ. The German calls worship Gottesdiesnt, which can be translate divine service or God's service. We too call worship a service. When you hear that remember first of all God's services to us as he comes to us in Word and Sacraments to feed our faith with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior. If you want a fancy word here, the Liturgy is sacramental. God serves us through Word and Sacraments.

Now if you picture point two as an arrow from God to us as he serves us through Word and Sacrament, point three is an arrow from us to God as we respond. Or to put it another way, point three is: Through the Liturgy we serve God. We respond to his Word and Sacraments with our prayers and praise, with our thanks and offerings. We give him our time, our attention, our gifts, our talents, our best as we participate in the Liturgy. So even if you can't sing well, just give your best and it is wonderful offering to your Savior. A fancy word for this point is sacrificial. Through the Liturgy we offer God our sacrifices of thanks and praise.

Point four, the last point and this one really sums up the others as well: In the Liturgy the Gospel predominates. The Gospel is the controlling principle. Remember what the Gospel is. It is the Good News of what Jesus has done to save us from sin and death, what Jesus has done to win forgiveness and eternal life for us. It is the Good News of Jesus' life and death for us and his triumphant resurrection and glory. In the Liturgy the Gospel predominates. That's how Christ is kept at the center. That's why the Word and Sacraments are the high points or peeks, for that is how the Gospel comes to us. The Law's purpose is to serve the Gospel, for the Gospel predominates. The Law convicts us as damned sinners so that the Gospel can pardon us with Jesus' sacrifice in our place. And the Law can guide us for a devout, god-pleasing life only if the Gospel has first changed our hearts, making us alive in Christ, so that his love for us motivates, empowers, compels us to live for him who died for us. There's a fancy word for this point as well, but you need to understand it correctly since so many use it as a denominational name today. But the Liturgy is evangelical, properly understood. Evangelical comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, which means gospel, good news. The Liturgy is evangelical filled with the Gospel so that the Good News of Jesus predominates to bring us real comfort and strength.

So keep these four points in mind as we reflect on the treasure of the Liturgy today. The Liturgy is centered on Christ. God service us through his Word and Sacraments. We respond with our best. And the Gospel predominates.


2) What does the Invocation remind us off?

The Liturgy begins with the invocation, and the congregation responds with “Amen,” which says, “Yes, this is true. I believe it!” So say and sing your “Amens” throughout the liturgy with that firmness of faith. But back to the Invocation. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NIV). These words of the invocation bring you back your Baptism. Remember the promises God made to you through the water and Word of Baptism. You have been reborn by water and the Spirit, reborn into God's family. He has placed his family name on you. You are a child of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. As his dearly loved, baptized child, come and worship him. We continue with the Invocation.

Confession, Kyrie, Absolution

3) Why do we begin the Liturgy with the Confession of Sins?

Think of Jesus parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee thanked God for what a good person he was so much better than others. The tax collector wouldn't even look up to heaven, he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13 NIV). Jesus said that that tax collector went home justified. He went home with God's verdict that his all sins had been fully paid for.

So also, we come before the holy God humbly confessing our sins. I turn toward the altar and join you in confessing. For I too am a sinner who needs forgiveness, just as you do. We sing words going back to the Greek language, the language of the New Testament. Κύριε, ἐλέησον (Kyrie, eleison). Lord, have mercy. Lord, you who have ransomed us to be your own people, Lord, see our pitiful, wretched condition, our helplessness, our hopelessness, and act according to your kindness, good will, and love. Lord, have mercy

Then the Gospel predominates as we hear the Good News that our sins are forgiven, washed away, absolved. For Christ Jesus has paid for them by his death on the cross in our place. God's baptismal promise of cleansing still holds true. Your sins are washed away. You are absolved in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as our risen Savior, Jesus gives each of us that right and authority to forgive one another. When he appeared to his disciples, he told them, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20:23 NIV). So when you hear those words of absolution, words of forgiveness, spoken by me to you each week, know and believe that they are valid and certain in heaven as if Jesus himself spoken them to you. Let us now confess our sins.

Gloria in Excelsis

What good news and glad tidings of great joy! Our sins are forgiven because the Savior has come. In the next song of the Liturgy we join the angel choir in praising our Savior-God. Remember those words from the Christmas Eve program that you memorized long ago, the words the angels proclaimed to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men”? In Latin the opening word begin Gloria in Excelsis, just as we sing in the song “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Even as begin our worship, we go back to the birth of our Savior in Bethlehem and praise our glorious God. And what is his great glory? That the Father gave his only-begotten Son. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the word and receives our prayer, Jesus Christ, our exalted God and Lord. All glory to God in the highest! We continue on page 16 with the Gloria in Excelsis.

The Word

4) What pattern do the readings from the Gospel follow throughout the year?

The Greeting between pastor and people: “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” has its origins in the very early worship life of the Christian church. It along with the Pray of the Day marks the transition to the first high point of the Liturgy, where Christ, our Savior, comes to us through his Word.

The public reading of Scripture actually goes back before the days of Jesus. In the Jewish synagogues each week there would be readings from Moses and the Prophets. Jesus himself worshiped at these weekly services. Today we read not only from the Old Testament but from the New Testament as well. Usually we read from one of the letters, called Epistles, that the Apostles wrote and also from one of the accounts of Jesus' life recorded in the Gospels. We use a psalm as well, for the psalms was the Old Testament hymnbook.

Now what reading is read is usually not at the whim of the pastor. And that's good so that pastors don't end up dwelling on a small set of passages that focus on their own pet peeves. The series of readings tries to touch on the whole counsel of God. You have them all listed for you on pages 163-165 in the hymnbook.

But why follow readings like this? Most importantly because they take us through the life of Jesus Christ, our Savior, each year. The reading from the Gospels especially brings our focus to what Jesus said and did. That's why we stand for that reading in respect to Christ our King. During Advent the Gospel uses the preaching of John the Baptist to prepare our hearts for the coming Savior. At Christmas the Gospel proclaims the birth of our Savior. During Epiphany the Gospel makes Jesus known as our God and the Savior for the world. Epiphany begins with the coming of the non-Jewish Magi, the Gentile Christmas, and continues with Jesus' Baptism where we see him step to our side as our Savior and hear the Father proclaim that Jesus is his Son. Many of the Epiphany Gospels tell us of Jesus miracles that show his divine power and saving love.

Then on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, we transition to Lent seeing how Jesus hid his divine glory to humble himself for us, in order to save us by defeating Satan and his temptations, conquering sin and death. Lent brings us to Palm Sunday and then Maundy Thursday, Good Friday as the Gospel shows the Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world.

But Easter comes. And the Gospel proclaims: He is not here! He has risen! On that day and the Sundays following, we see our risen Savior showing his disciples his hands and side. He has truly risen. He is the Good Shepherd who not only laid down his life but has also taken it up again to care for you his sheep, to nourish you, to pray for you. For he is also your ascended Lord and King who reigns over all for the good of you his people.

Then comes Pentecost as Jesus pours out his Holy Spirit on his people. So we see the work of the Triune God in the first half of the year: At Christmas, the Father sent his Son. The Son laid down his life and rose again. The Holy Spirit points us to the Son. During this season the readings from the Gospels often present Jesus' words and example to encourage and direct our Christian living. The Season of Pentecost closes with End Times reminding us to be watchful and ready for our Savior's return.

The Hymn of the Day also often comes from an assigned list. The hymn was chosen to reinforce the reading from the Gospel and because of the richness of its text. This helps familiarize us with a beautiful range of sound, Scriptural hymns, rather than only repeating a few favorites.

We also use the Creeds during this section of the service. For the Creeds clearly summarize the key teachings of the Scriptures, written by those who have fought the good fight long before us.

The content of the sermon usually flows from one of the readings. The sermon convicts our hearts with the Law, comforts us with Gospel forgiveness, admonishes, exhorts, encourages, instructs, guides. There's only so much that can be said in that fifteen to twenty minutes. But we want all the sermons based on Scripture, centered on Christ, with the Gospel predominating.

Following the sermon, we respond to our gracious Lord who has spoken to us in his Word. He has come to us through his Word, so we respond with our offerings, prayers, and praises, giving him our best.

Please give your attention now to the Word section of the Liturgy to the readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.

Instead of the assigned hymn of the day, we will sing the hymn on the insert to turn our minds toward the Lord's Supper that is to come.

The Sacrament: Preface

5) What tone does the Liturgy strike as we prepare to celebrate the Lord's Supper?

As we move toward the second high point of the service, pastor and people once again exchange the same greeting that introduced the first high point when our Lord came to us through his Word. Now these three pairs of responses called the Preface, which introduces the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, they go back to some of the earliest liturgies of the Christian Church.

What tone and emotion do you see as you think of the words here? Notice the tone of joy and thanks in these responses. That is something I think that we pass over too quickly. The Lord's Supper does have an aspect of somberness and solemnity as we remember our Lord's death. But it is a celebration as well. For our risen Lord comes to meet us with his body and blood in this Supper. He brings us his gracious, bountiful gift of forgiveness and eternal life. This is the feast of victory. What joy! What thanksgiving! What celebration! Remember that as we continue on page 21.

The Sacrament

6) What connections are there between this Liturgy and Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday)?

As our God comes to us through the Sacrament, we stand in holy awe and wonder even as Isaiah of old. “I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory'” (Isaiah 6:1-3 NIV).” We join these angelic seraphs as we too sing “Holy, holy, holy” in the words of the Sanctus, which is Latin meaning “holy.”

And we join the Palm Sunday crowds as well, calling out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” For just as Jesus road into Jerusalem on a donkey to offer himself for the sins of the people, so also he comes to us through the bread and wine to forgive our sins with his body and blood.

With the Words of Institution we move from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus was betrayed. With these words, Jesus makes this eating and drinking not just any meal and not just a ceremonial act. He makes it his Meal, his Supper. Here he gives you his body to eat and his blood to drink for the forgiveness of your sins, just as he says.

Then we move from the upper room to Calvary and see the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb, sacrificed to take away the sins of the world. We sing the Agnus Dei, which is Latin for “Lamb of God.” What powerful words! They strike the very heart of our salvation. “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.”

We continue on page 22.

Thanksgiving & Blessing

7) Where does the closing blessing come from?

Now that our Savior has come to us in his Holy Sacrament, we respond with thanksgiving in song and prayer. We sing the Nunc Dimittis, which is Latin for “Now you dismiss.” This is what Simeon said as he held the baby Jesus in his hands when his parents brought him to the temple at the age of forty days. Just as Jesus came to Simeon in the flesh, he has come to you in his body and blood. Just as Simeon was ready to face anything even death itself now that he had seen his Savior, so also Jesus prepares you to face whatever life brings even death, for your eyes have seen his salvation. His light brings you eternal life.

We give thanks to our God in prayer as well, and then close with his blessings. These closing words of blessing are the most ancient part of the liturgy. They go back about 35 centuries to the days of Moses. For these are the words that the Lord himself gave for Aaron, the high priest, to use to bless God's people. The same Lord God, who has faithfully kept his promises and given you the Savior, the same Lord God places his name of blessing on you. We continue on page 22 with the Song of Simeon.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313