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The Word is living and active

A pastor begins work on his sermon. He opens his Bible and reads the passage. And God’s Word goes to work. This sermon will not merely delve into the content of the passage. It will not be just about what the text says, nor will it only be an informative speech.

The Rev. Kenton Birtell, pastor, preaches during worship on Sunday, April 12, 2015, at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Holdrege, Neb. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford
The Rev. Kenton Birtell, pastor, preaches during worship on Sunday, April 12, 2015, at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Holdrege, Neb. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford


No, the Word is living and active. Its intent goes with its content. It seeks to perform in the people what it is informing them of God’s will for their lives. God’s Word does what it says.

The spoken Word, proclaimed as the sermon, is not primarily dispensing information for our intellects to remember, although that is part of the event. It is more. Preaching is bringing the living and active Word to people’s lives so that those who hear this message will have their lives of faith strengthened and encouraged by the Gospel. We preach Christ crucified and risen, and that message changes people’s lives because it is alive and powerful.

Take the Hebrews 4 passage that says, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). Read this and remember you are not hidden. You are exposed and naked before God. You must give an account. The Word goes to work. It frightens and warns. It accuses and condemns. It sends you in prayer for what comes next in the passage.

We have a great high priest named Jesus who sympathizes with our weaknesses. The sinless Son of God gives us confidence to draw near to God’s throne of grace. We receive mercy in Jesus. We find help in time of need. Yes, this Gospel Word goes to work too. It comforts and assures. It invites and strengthens. The Word does its work in our lives.

You may have recognized the distinctive Law and Gospel movement in those last two paragraphs. I hope you even experienced them at work in your life. You simply cannot go to God’s Word without encountering those two activities. But we need to be careful when preaching that we don’t make those two activities too simple.

Dr. Kent J. Burreson, dean of the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, offers Holy Communion during  an Epiphany service in January 2015.
Dr. Kent J. Burreson, dean of the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, offers Holy Communion during
an Epiphany service in January 2015.

Let’s move from the pastor preparing a sermon to a group of students in a classroom. Students in Homiletics 1, the Seminary’s introductory course in preaching, discuss how to preach the Gospel. The professor asks, “What are the functions of the Gospel?” The class is somewhat uncertain. They know the three functions of the Law (curb sin, mirror our sinfulness, instruct the believer). But the phrase “functions of the Gospel” is less familiar to them. So the professor asks the question differently: “What does the Gospel do?” He writes the more familiar answers on the board: forgives and declares us not guilty. But he wants the whole board to be filled, so he lists a couple more answers: redeems and rescues. “Can you think of any more that begin with the letter ‘R’?” the professor asks. A few students venture answers: restores, reconciles, ransoms, renews.

Now any letter. Hands start to rise. Cleanses. Frees. Gives victory. Empowers. Sanctifies. Oh yes — saves! Perhaps your mind is starting to get into the discussion. Can you think of some more?

Soon the discussion broadens to various metaphors for the Gospel. (For a helpful discussion on Gospel metaphors, read Just Words by J.A.O. Preus.) Marriage. Children. Adoption. Inheritance. The “I am” statements from John: Bread, Vine, Life, Living Water, Resurrection, Truth, Good Shepherd and Door go on the board. Citizenship. Light. Birth. Soon the board is full (there are 30 named above!). Time for the point. See what the Gospel does? The Word is living and active. It is alive and powerful. We preach Jesus ­­— Promised, Incarnate, Prophet, Priest and King, One who teaches and does miraculous signs. We proclaim His wondrous works of suffering, death and burial. Even more we proclaim the now living and active Lord, risen from the dead, sending His Spirit into our lives. Don’t stop there.

We announce that He rules at God’s right hand, right now, for us, interceding for us. And wonders of wonders, He will return, and on that last day we will, with body and soul reunited, not just draw near to the throne of grace, but add our voices to that glorious, triumphant choir singing into eternity. Yes, we preach this living and active Word, and we do so with the incredible variety and richness of God’s Word determining which facet of this Gospel diamond to revel in for each particular sermon.

Now back to the pastor preparing his sermon. So what text will be the basis for his sermon? The words of 2 Cor. 8 are beginning to do their work. Which words? The Macedonian church has given money beyond its means to the collection taken for the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem. The Macedonians are in “extreme poverty” themselves, but they are begging to take part in this relief for the saints. Their giving has resulted in a wealth of generosity. They have excelled in this act of grace. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to excel in generosity too. Then come the Gospel words from which this generosity flows: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Students Celiane Vieira and Alexandre Vieira reflect on their time at the Seminary.
Students Celiane Vieira and Alexandre Vieira reflect on their time at the Seminary.

Yes, these words go to work first in the heart of the pastor. He is not just studying these words to preach them. No, God’s Word is studying the pastor. It is exposing his hesitancy in giving, especially looking around at his house and comparing his rich American lifestyle to that of the Macedonians. But the Law effect is not the intention of this passage. Paul is encouraging generosity. He is urging his readers to help those in need, particularly those in the Church. He is proclaiming the poverty of Christ so that we see the riches we have in our Savior. The pastor begins to see where he can be generous. He looks at his own giving. He is encouraged, urged to excel in his generosity. The Word is alive and active, and its performative intent is living anew in the pastor’s life before he even delivers the sermon to the congregation.

Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of Concordia Seminary and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,
in one of his lectures about Law and Gospel, said this:

But when a preacher proclaims what he has often experienced in his own heart, he will easily find the right word to speak convincingly to his hearers. When his words come from the heart, they, in turn, penetrate the heart of the hearers, according to the old saying: “It is the heart that makes eloquent.” This is not the fake eloquence gained in speech class, but the healthy spiritual skill of reaching the heart of hearers.

Now the Word is living and active in and of itself and not dependent on the prior experience of the pastor. However, the pastor who has been acted upon by the Word, who has it living within his heart during the study of the passage, will bring authenticity and conviction, urgency and personal involvement, that same message to the people — where we pray it will do its work on the hearers of the sermon.

And, then, when the sermon is delivered, the Word does its work on the hearers. This time the scene is the professor’s office. He is reading a sermon, not from an introductory student, but from a pastor who is in the Doctor of Ministry program. The story in the sermon goes something like this:

I had an experience recently that I want to share with you. I was making a hospital visit to a member, and while you don’t know all the details, suffice to say that you have experienced something similar. My parishioner is still cognizant of some things, but other things are starting to slip away. Maybe in her most lucid moments she knows, comprehends where she is, but not all the time, and how she got there to that hospital bed was, for the most part, a total mystery.

She was being well cared for by a loving husband and a good nurse, and the husband shared with me an experience of a day or so prior: The hospital chaplain had stopped in and during his visit, he asked whether she had a favorite hymn. Now that she knew. She said it was, “Jesus Loves Me.” The chaplain began
to sing and after only a moment, she sang too. When they finished the first verse, the chaplain went on to sing the second verse. (The hymn is Lutheran Service Book 588 for all who right now are wanting to know the second verse!) As I listened to the chaplain and my parishioner sing, I was sure it was the most beautiful duet ever sung.

The story pauses while the pastor spends time bringing the account of John 6 to life for the hearers.
Then the pastor returns to the story near the end of the sermon.

“Don’t spend your life on things that go away, rather work for the bread that endures forever,” Jesus says, and “I am that bread, and I am that drink.”

“And they say, and we say, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’”

“What’s next?” my parishioner asked. She asked that over and over again in that hospital room. We told her that she would soon have lunch, and said it was important for her to eat and get her strength and on and on we went. “What’s next?” she asked again. And we’d talk about the food again, all the best the hospital kitchen had to offer. And then she spoke a little more, but it was difficult to hear. So we got close, trying
not to miss a thing, wouldn’t want to miss a thing, and what did she say? “I want Holy Communion.”

The professor sits back, with eyes closed, and imagines all the sermons this woman would have heard over the
many years of her life. Clearly, the Word is still alive and active in her, deeply embedded in her faith. The professor is reminded of just how many ways God’s Word powerfully works in people’s lives. Perhaps it is during the hearing of the sermon, with assurance of forgiveness or comfort during grief. Perhaps it is a couple days later when the sermon on excelling in generosity leads a member to buy gas for a stranded traveler. Perhaps it is near the end of life with the words, “I want Holy Communion.”

Yes, the Word is living and active.

Dr. Glenn A. Nielsen is the director of vicarage and deaconess internships at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.