Thursday, November 20, 2014

God With Us

By Larry Beane

Like the word "sacramental," the word "incarnational" has become a kind of hackneyed expression within Christian circles.  When it is used by some - including some Lutherans - we are tempted to quote the line from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

The Reverend David H. Petersen knows what it means.  

The enfleshment of the Son of God for us men and for our salvation is the essence of the new collection of sermons by Father David in Emmanuel Press's new publication God With Us: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Sermons by David H. Petersen.  This latest release is an ebullient companion to Thy Kingdom Come, Pastor Petersen's earlier published collection of Lent and Easter sermons.

This is one of those books in which underlining "the good stuff" just becomes an exercise in futility.  To paraphrase one of the lessons in The Incredibles: "When everything is underlined, nothing is underlined."

Incline your ear as the preacher does not just define, but proclaims, not merely a definition, but a meditation, on what the Incarnation means for us: 

"God is with us.  He has taken up our flesh.  He wears our skin.  He moves about with the muscles, bones, and cartilage of a man, conceived in one of us.  He has a body like ours, taken from the Virgin's womb.  And like our bodies, His body is bruised and dying, indeed, was created for the very purpose of being bruised and crucified.  He has a human soul as well, for He is an actual man.  His soul was created for the sole purpose that it be separated from His body, that He endure physical death in our place and be set Adam-like, dust to dust, into the ground.  He is one of us, in life and in death.  He is with us.  He is Emmanuel who lives our life and dies our death" (p. 52).

In the introduction, the Reverend Michael N. Frese identifies the Incarnation as the very reason, 

"why the Christian Church gathers around preaching and the Sacraments.  That's why books of sermons continue to be published and cherished in the Church.  Christ is present in His body - for us, for forgiveness.  The sermons in God With Us embody incarnational preaching.  Pr. Petersen preaches an ever-present Christ, a Christ for you, a Christ with you" (p. xii).

God With Us contains 58 sermons, covering Thanksgiving, each day in the four weeks of Advent, three Christmas sermons, daily homilies for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany, the five Sundays after Epiphany, Transfiguration, and the various saintly festivals that fall within this period (as well as Pastor Frese's thorough and thoughtful Introduction and a provocative and contemplative Preface by the Reverend Jason M. Braaten).  The book is a treasure trove for private or family devotions, as well as a solid source of homiletical material for daily chapel or Divine Services.  If you are looking for some additional spiritual refreshment this Advent through Epiphany seasons, this is a perfect combination of brevity and potency, of meditation and instruction, but most of all, of our Lord Jesus Christ who has come to save us from our sins!

Those familiar with Father David's writing, teaching, and preaching will find what they have become accustomed to: a use of language that is poetic and yet not pompous, teaching that is pensive and yet not pedantic, proclamation that is ponderable and yet not ponderous.  

Pastor Petersen keeps the material fresh by not following a set order of how he approaches any given text.  Some of the sermons are expository in nature, with succinct explanations such as how Lutheran dogmaticians use words, an explanation of how Greek articles are rendered in English, and commentary on the relative merits of modern English translations of Scripture.  And yet, this is a book of sermons, not a textbook.  The preacher's primary motive is to proclaim the Word of God, to bring the incarnate Word to the incarnate sinner.  Some of the sermons in God With Us are stunningly poetic and crying out to be read aloud.  Some make use of illustrations and observations of ancient fathers in the faith as well as contemporary pastors and scholars (footnoted in the text).  

Contrary to the stereotype of the stodgy black-shirted liturgical preacher who avoids preaching in a way that critics might call "relevant," Pastor Petersen's language and prose leap out in a provocative way that demands and commands the reader's attention while addressing matters in the lives of his hearers that challenge, and even compel, the reader to meditate on the Word of God, and to do so where we find ourselves in this fallen world.  Pastor Petersen takes on the challenges Christians face at the hands of Facebook, Twitter, Photoshop, and the lonely attention-seeking culture of duck-face selfies.  He speaks of God's love for us as as "borderline-erotic" (p. 3), and even describes our Lord as being "a bit bossy" (p. 8).  He does not shy away from the Christmas trappings of eggnog, feasting, presents, and "gaudy decorations" (p. 24), of "dry turkey, missing batteries, and family squabbles" (p. 93), the difficult questions about why God permits evil in the world, and of course, the sadness and depression that is a cross for so many at this time of year: 

"We long for our lost childhood, for the times when we had not so many loved ones buried in the earth; when we had not yet suffered so many betrayals and heartaches at the hands of those we love; when our lives didn't have so much to regret, so many mistakes and selfish acts; when Christmas seemed a time of endless possibility and magic.... The best answer to seasonal depression is the voice crying in the wilderness" (pp. 61-62).

The sermons are driven by the texts of the church's lectionary, including the Introits and Graduals used in the Divine Services.  This liturgical element of preaching draws Father David into the discipline of obediently treating the holy texts regarding Sts. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Zechariah, the prophesies of Isaiah, the doubts of John the Baptist, the Canaanites, the Exodus, the Passover, the Scapegoat, the shepherds and the magi, the prophet Malachi; Sts. Andrew, Nicholas, Lucy, Peter, the Holy Innocents, and others.  In these pages, you will find both the manger and the cross, the womb and the tomb, the Law and the Gospel, and the oft-repeated call to "Repent!"

If you are expecting a naive view of the world into which our Lord was born, and in which we Christians find ourselves in the twenty-first century, you will be delightfully surprised.  Pastor Petersen invites you to confront the mysteries of the Incarnation, of God With Us, in ways that reflect the shocking nature of what this means for us in our fallen world.  "What kind of God is this," asks the preacher, "who suffers violence, who makes Himself weak, who is born out-of-doors and judged by unjust and petty rulers?  What kind of a God takes all the devil's violence unto Himself and doesn't lash out in righteous vengeance and anger?" (pp. 32-33).  Concerning St. Joseph: "the dirty minds and petty men of this world snickered at him and his bride all of their days.  They called the Son of God a bastard" (p. 81).  Concerning our liberty: "The Lord is a lover, not a rapist" (p. 89). Concerning the magi: "They were magicians, pagan (that is, Gentile) astrologers.  They looked to the stars for answers and are something akin to palm readers or strippers.... Ouija board-using addicts" (p. 127). On our Lord's first miracle: "He gave good wine to drunks" (p. 135).  

Pastor Petersen is not afraid to say, "Repent, O Lutherans" (p. 128), and to target those of us in the Lutheran tradition for our own pet sins and iniquities: "There is a pretend piety for those who claim they have a passion for the lost, and there is a pretend piety as well for those who claim to love doctrine and the liturgy.... One is not better than another, and do not think that God will wink at yours or not mind it as much as another's.  Repent" (p. 52).  I don't believe that Pastor Petersen's mention of Lake Ponchartrain (p. 144) was intended to see if I actually read all of the sermons.  But if that were the case, I am happy to report that the reference did not go unnoticed, and at very least I won't be called to repent for not reading the book closely enough.  There are precious few opportunities to wiggle out of Pastor Petersen's numerous calls to repentance.

Most importantly of all, at the center of each and every one of these sermons, leaping out triumphantly on each and every page, is Christ: Christ the incarnate, Christ the crucified, Christ the victorious, Christ the risen, Christ the Savior, Christ the coming-again.  As with all good Christian preaching, this collection of sermons isn't about pithy sayings, trenchant soundbites, insightful teaching, poetic turns of phrase, profound exegetical insight, but rather it is all, first and foremost, from Alpha to Omega, about Christ and the Gospel that He, our Emmanuel, our God With Us, bears to us in His very Body and in His Word.  Preaching is all about heralding the Good News and filling our very ears and souls with our Lord Jesus Christ unto our justification and everlasting life.

In case I have not been clear: in the sermons archived in God With Us, the Reverend David Petersen preaches the whole counsel of God in Christ Jesus: the Law to call us to repent, and, most emphatically, the Gospel to deliver unto us forgiveness, life, and salvation.  And that is simply what it means for preachers to preach, and for hearers to hear, incarnationally.  And the Reverend David H. Petersen knows what it means.  

I will leave you with one more passage:

"Nothing can ruin Christmas.  Not sticks, not stones, not broken bones.  Not lies or false names, nor cruel words, nor even divorce.  Not war.  Not hunger.  Not drunkenness, nor neglect.  Not old grudges.  Not fresh wounds.  Not bad news from doctors, teachers, or the stock market.  None of that.  And if none of that, then certainly not dry turkey or boring presents or disgruntled children and boorish guests.  Nothing can ruin Christmas.  Not even death" (p. 104).

Amen!

God With Us: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Sermons by David H. Petersen (Paperback, 186 pp., 9″ x 6″, 2014 ISBN 978-1-934328-11-8) is available from Emmanuel Press for $20.00.

2 comments:

  1. "Nothing can ruin Christmas." This is eternally true; yet gross attempts will still be made by elements of so-called Lutheranism, blind to or ashamed of His Body and Blood. This will come in the form of manipulating Christmass: perhaps for the sake of achieving numbers, but certainly to "avoid offense" towards the curious and/or the romantic stranger.

    Admittedly, I love romance. Troubadours are A-Okay, in my playbook. In archetypal Viking-haunted dreams, I myself (with braids and mustache and automatic battle-axe flying) have sacked thousands of castles and monasteries (and other things, too). I acknowledge that Lutheran church interiors often put on quite a show, now, whether it's glorious Christmass or penitential Advent (because we can't wait). And everyone short of the Grinch loves a baby; or at least, that Target terrier with the Santa hat. So why not take advantage of the situation, strategically speaking? Just follow these cook-book counselings to win friends and influence people.

    Suggestion #1: "Be nice to the stranger. Ditch the crucifix and the hand-movements. (whatever they are). Oh come on, it's Christ[stage mumble]!"
    Suggestion #2: "Don't give aid-and-comfort to the Anti-Christ! (see #1) "

    The truth is, St. Paul agreed (in writing, so honest was he) that the cross was offensive to the world of his day, but he proclaimed it nonetheless, and with remarkably inspired vigor ... and thus the Holy Ghost conquered the pagan paradigm. Now we have "Lutherans" pandering to the world and its sensibilities, seemingly ashamed or unaware of their doctrine and practices, things so clearly testified to in both Scripture and Confessions.

    For "Lutherans" to willingly abandon their flocks on Christmass by withholding the Mass from them, in the "greater" interest of appearing warm and extroverted to the neighbors, is short-sighted, pessimistic, and ahistorical. If preached towards properly, the Mass can direct even the non-communicating stranger's mind to a vital truth: the end of the manger is a cross ("This do, in remembrance of Me") ... and thus the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Ceremony teaches, say the Confessions. So does no ceremony, I should think. To have Christmass without the Mass, without acknowledgement of all of Emmanu-El’s servings in the Divine Service, is to declare to the man on the street that the Mass really doesn't mean THAT much ... but especially is optional for the Lutheran "communicant" brother, a brother we pray that the stranger will eventually become. What kind of thought-disordered, illogical Lutheran witness is this?

    The servants of God preach their flocks towards the Mass, where God amazingly promises to be in the form of body of blood; they don't hide it. We have a miracle in our sanctuaries, by the grace of God. Why should Lutherans choose to ape the non-denoms' disbelief and scorn?

    What the WELS' "Institute of Worship and Outreach" has accomplished, in these most wretched beginnings of our 21st century A+D, is yet a third category of Lutheran clerical behavior in the administration of the Holy Supper, viz., 1) closed/"close" Communion, 2) open Communion and 3.) no pen-Communion; i.e., no celebratory Mass for the flocked-believers (together, with other saints residing in heaven and on earth), this Christmass.

    There are consequences, depending on choice. Resort to the second option will assuredly lead to severe Godly judgment, of some sort; while option 3 will inexorably induce a spiritual anorexia and starvation, if its advocates are consistent in their pet cogitations..

    After all, why potentially risk “offending” the suburbs on ANY given Sunday, much less on those high ecclesial festivals like "Mother's Day" – this, a special concern of both IWO and Hallmark alike).

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor

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