The Marks of the Church: Prayer, Praise, and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who pray, praise, and give thanks: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God. God has given the command to pray, and He has given His promise that He will hear the prayers of His people. Thus, the church prays. God has sent His only Son to die for our sins and He gives us eternal life, so the church praises God for His salvation. God has poured out on His church both temporal and eternal blessings, so the church responds in thanksgiving. Therefore, you can recognize the true Christian church by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God.

The church prays. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with lofty words of show. The church prays humbly, but with all boldness and confidence asking our heavenly Father as dear children ask their dear father. We can pray to God with all boldness and confidence because He has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. If even sinful fathers know how to respond to the requests of their children with good gifts, do you think God will do worse? If even sinful fathers won’t give their children things that are harmful, do you think God will give us what is harmful for us? Thus we can pray with all boldness and confidence. God will hear our prayers and answer in the way that is best.

The church praises God. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with empty repetitions of meaningless nonsense. A great problem in Luther’s day was that the church conducted worship in Latin, even though the common people did not know Latin. Even nuns and monks who memorized services never knew what they were saying, so Luther called it droning that is not prayer or praise to God because they could not understand what they were saying and consequently could learn nothing from it.

The church in our day doesn’t have that same problem. Rather, we have everything in our native language, but so much of it is nonsense that it might as well be in a foreign language since we can learn nothing from it. Many congregations have discarded the divine liturgy and replaced it with the weekly whims of a music band. The best hymns that point to Christ and His means of grace have been replaced with empty songs that emphasize feelings and emotions. The best hymns that tell us about what Jesus has done for us have been replaced with songs about us.

We also have not been immune to this, even though we have been working on learning good hymns and weaning ourselves off the empty sentimental stuff, but it is a work in progress. It is an important work in progress, however, because it is important what the church of God sings.

Hymns teach, so it is important what they teach. Our hymns of prayer are prayers to God, and it is important what we pray. Our hymns of praise and thanksgiving are prayers to God, and we need to remind ourselves why we praise God and why we give Him thanks. We need to pay attention to what the hymns teach. Otherwise, with some hymns, we will be tempted to just look at the number of verses and complain that the hymn is too long and it will feel like a chore and burden to sing it.

The church of God prays, praises, and gives thanks. We gather primarily to receive God’s gifts to us in Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar, but we also respond with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. If our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is a response to God’s gifts, it should sound like a response to God’s gifts; it should draw our attention to God’s gifts.

Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is not confined to the Divine Service, however. Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving also take place in the homes of the people of God, in hospital beds, in cars, wherever they are. First Thessalonians says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (5:16-18)

It is not easy to pray without ceasing. John Bunyan said, “Prayer will make a man cease to sin, as sin will make a man cease from prayer.” This is true. Sin is the reason why we don’t pray as much or as often as we should. When we fall into sin, we are hesitant to approach God immediately in prayer because of our guilty conscience. We struggle to pray to God for the removal of sin that our sinful flesh wishes to retain.

However, when we are in a continual spirit of prayer, we are always ready to pray. When good things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When bad things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When temptation comes, our first reaction is to pray. Prayer is critical for our relationship with God because it keeps Him and His will for us in mind, and reminds us that we are His holy people.

Only God’s holy people can pray. Romans 8 says, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” (v.14) How can someone pray to God when they do not know God? They cannot. Prayers to someone out there up high in the sky are not prayers to God. Only God’s children can pray to God.

Prayer is based on God’s promises in Christ Jesus. We can pray to God only through Jesus, because only He has died to forgive us our sins. We cannot pray to God on our own merits. The only reason why God hears our prayers is because our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. God hears our prayers because of Jesus, and only because of Jesus.

Thus, it is a mark of the true Christian church that she prays, praises, and gives thanks to God. These all flow from the forgiveness of sins that God’s holy people have. Because we are forgiven, we pray. Because we are forgiven, we praise God. Because we are forgiven, we give thanks to God.

The Christian holy people is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Where people gather to pray, praise, and give thanks to God according to His Word, there is God’s holy people; there is the true Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

The Giver of Gifts

Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 17:11-19

Dear thankful recipients of God’s gifts: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lepers were the walking dead of the first century. There was no cure leprosy. There was no treatment. For lepers, there was only waiting for death.

In addition to this, a leper was also ceremonially unclean. That means he was excluded from the Temple and from worship in synagogues; seemingly excluded from salvation. He was forced out of his own home, leaving his wife and children so that he would not make them unclean. He was forced out of the city, as the law demanded that lepers live outside the city walls. He had to wear torn clothes and let his long hair hang loose so that he would be recognized from far away as being an unclean leper, as a warning to others not to come closer. And if someone came within earshot, they had to further warn them by shouting out, “Unclean, unclean!” (See Lv. 13 for laws relating to leprosy)

As Jesus approached, the ten lepers from our reading in Luke did not call out, “Unclean, unclean!” Rather, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” No doctor had any hope to offer lepers, but they had faith that Jesus did have something to offer them. They prayed for mercy, trusting that Jesus could and would show them mercy and heal them.

Jesus did heal them. He healed all ten of the lepers from the death sentence of their illness. All ten were healed, but only one returned to Jesus to fall at His feet in thanksgiving.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the other nine healed lepers were also thankful. How could they not be? Do you know anyone who would not be thankful after receiving healing from illness? Who would be thankless and unappreciative of being given a new lease on life, being able to return to their city and family, and no longer being an outcast and exile? The other nine lepers undoubtedly were thankful and probably even gave thanks to God at the Temple, but only one returned to Jesus to fall at His feet in thanksgiving.

This is exactly the goal of all the gifts of God. All the gifts of God are given to bring us to Jesus to fall at His feet for salvation. The gift itself is not the end goal. The healing of the lepers was not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was for the lepers to look past the gift of healing to the giver of the gift and come to Him for salvation.

This is true for all of the blessings you also have been given this past year. Those blessings themselves are not the goal. Rather, those blessings are given by God for you to look past the gifts to the giver of the gifts. Those blessings are given to you so that you will fall at the feet of Jesus for salvation.

Instead of counting your blessings, look through your blessings to Christ. Instead of focusing on your blessings, look through your blessings to Christ who gives you those blessings.

If you focus on the blessings themselves, you do not focus on Christ. If you focus on the blessings as the end goal, then you will not be thankful without those blessings. If you focus on the blessings as the end goal, then you do not recognize your need for Jesus, because “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone even without our prayers, even to all evil people” (SC III.4).

It is true that having great earthly blessings can block our view of Christ, but so can having very few earthly blessings. What if you’re one of the lepers Jesus didn’t heal? What if you haven’t had a good year since last Thanksgiving? What if your harvest was poor because of bad weather, or you lost earthly goods due to tragedy? What if you received a bad diagnosis from a doctor this year? If your focus is on these blessings, you will not look past them to Christ who is the giver of all good things; you will not focus on the greatest gift of all – eternal life.

If you look past the material blessings to Christ, the giver of gifts, you will see that the material gifts are not the end goal, and you will be thankful even without those gifts. If you look past the material blessings to Christ, the giver of gifts, you will see that He is withholding nothing good from you. He has even given His very life for you.

Was there ever a Sunday where He withheld His spiritual gifts from you? Was there ever a Sunday where He did not freely give you the forgiveness of sins? Was there ever a Sunday where His absolution was not freely given; where His body and blood where not freely offered? There is never a day, never a moment when you do not have His Word which gives and sustains faith.

God has eternal gifts in store for you, more wonderful than you can possibly imagine. There is a place promised for you in the Father’s house (John 14:2); a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine (Is. 25:6); a place without illness, without death, without tears (Is. 25:8).

To make sure you get there, God gives you spiritual gifts now. Through Baptism, He has already given this eternal kingdom to you as your inheritance. Through His Word, He gives you the promise of the eternal kingdom so that you would know that it is yours. Through His holy Supper, He gives you a foretaste of the feast to come, strengthening you in your fight against sin and giving you the forgiveness of sins. These spiritual gifts are far greater than any earthly blessings because they give to you what Jesus earned for you by His life, death, and resurrection.

Baptism is a greater gift than having rain when it is needed, running water in the house, or even having water to drink. The Lord’s Supper is a greater gift that the most lavish of earthly feasts and banquets. These gifts are so grand because through these means of grace, God saves you from the death sentence of your sins. Through these gifts you receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. There is no greater gift that you can receive.

Only one leper looked past His gift of healing to Christ, the giver of the gift, and returned to Him, falling at His feet in thanksgiving. The other nine, although they were thankful, looked only at their gift of healing, as if that were the end goal.

Let us learn to be like the one leper who looked past the gift to the giver of the gift. In all our blessings, let us see Jesus blessing us in order to bring us to Himself, to fall at His feet for salvation. His earthly blessings are to demonstrate how generous He is towards us, so that we would place even greater value on the spiritual gifts He gives, the gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.