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Today on Christ the King Sunday (a day of the Church Year that was not commemorated in Bach’s time), we present a magnificent chorus from Cantata BWV 43, Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God has gone up with a shout), which was written for Ascension Sunday.
Since the gospel message is “How God Became King” (N.T. Wright), it is right and fitting that we should end the Church Year and our presentation of Bach’s cantatas with this jubilant chorus of praise to our risen and ascended Messiah, Lord and King of all creation.
God goes up with jubilation
and the Lord with bright trumpets.
Sing praise, sing praise to God;
sing praise, sing praise to our King.
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SERMON: Celebration (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
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We conclude our sermon series from 1 Thessalonians today. We have been considering this letter from Paul, drawing out several themes that Martin Luther and the other reformers emphasized in their effort to restore the Church and bring her back to the Gospel during the Reformation. Thus far, we have considered:
- CONVERSION: As people created anew by Christ, we are ever growing and changing by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, dying to the old life, and walking in newness of life
- REVELATION: It is through the power of God’s Word that God creates faith, hope, and love in us. His great and precious promises in Christ sustain us in our journey of faith.
- RESURRECTION: God’s ultimate goal for creation is that all will be made new in a world of righteousness and peace. Even we ourselves will be raised from the dead and made whole, reunited with the faithful departed. Heaven will come to earth. Death, sin, and evil will be banished, and we will be with the Lord forever.
- EDIFICATION: In the meantime, God calls us to lives of service and pastoral care — faith working through love — reaching out to our brothers, sisters, and neighbors with Christ-like love and encouragement.
- VOCATION: Each of us has callings from God that he graciously gives us to fulfill. As we do, God works through us to show his love and care for the world and all creation.
Today, we will talk about one final theme that came to the fore during the Reformation. We’ll call it CELEBRATION. One of Luther’s great concerns was to reform the Church’s worship services so that they would be centered around the gospel and give people opportunities to participate in celebrating Christ.
If you had gone to a worship service in Luther’s day, you might have heard a service in Latin, and not in your native language. The sermon might have been weak and legalistic. There would have been little congregational singing. When you came to take Communion, you would not have been allowed to take the cup, only the bread. The mass would have been understood as the actual sacrifice of Christ and participation in it a good work that earned salvation. Martin Luther and others sought to restore the gospel message to the worship service by focusing more on the word of the gospel and the participation of the people. He also allowed more freedom for pastors and congregations to adapt the liturgy.
But Luther didn’t change everything. Worship didn’t become a free-for-all. It still followed the same basic pattern and maintained its dignity and focus on Christ through the Word and the Table.
Our text today encourages us to rejoice, to pray, and to give thanks. As those who practice our faith in the Lutheran tradition, we think that our rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks is best practiced by following a certain order when we gather together for worship. We call this “liturgy,” which, in its original language refers to “the work of the people.” Liturgy is led by a minister, but it is work that we all do together. The liturgy invites us all to participate in responding to God’s grace in Christ with rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving.
The liturgy follows a certain basic pattern. It is designed to enable us to meet with God and focus my attention on Christ and the Gospel. Let me try to explain in a simple manner why we worship in the way we do.
If I were to receive an invitation to a banquet at a king’s palace, there would be a protocol, set up by the king’s staff, for guests to follow. We would enter the palace and show our respect and gratitude for being invited. We would be introduced to the king and he would address us as his citizens. We would sit down at the banquet table and he would lead us in partaking of the feast prepared for his honor and our blessing. We would be dismissed in peace to go and live as his loyal subjects.
The same pattern would hold if my wife and I were invited to the home of dear friends. When we arrived, we would be greeted at the door and as we entered we would say, “Thanks for having us over; boy, that sure smells good; I love what you’ve done with your house” — we would offer words of thanks and praise. Before dinner was served, we might sit down in the living room or out on the deck together. We would catch up with one another through conversation. Then, summoned to the table, we would sit down as guests and enjoy the meal our friends had prepared and served us. Finally, after more conversation, we would bid them goodnight, saying, “We must do this more often. We’ll be in touch.” We would go home, hearts warmed after a time of renewing a special relationship and hoping to strengthen those bonds in the days to come.
Do you see the four-fold pattern?
- We gather.
- We exchange words.
- We share a meal.
- We depart renewed.
This simple pattern that can be worked out with as much or as little fanfare as a congregation desires. It can contain any style of music, any number of creative elements, and it can fit any cultural setting.
It’s the way we meet with God. It’s the protocol of having an audience with our King. It is the pattern of enjoying table fellowship with Jesus and with one another. There is a gathering, a sharing of words, an invitation to the table, a sending back into the world and into our daily lives. Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers, described this pattern way back in the 2nd century:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (Justin Martyr, First Apology c. 150 AD)
And this is still the way we are meeting with God together today. I like to call it our “Sunday Dinner” together as a church family. We gather, we hear and share the Word, we come to the Table, we leave to live and serve in newness of life. Amen.