It is painful to listen to a pastor try to find some Good News in Jesus’ words about the camel and the eye of the needle (John 15:24) or the perfection of your heavenly Father (Matthew 5:48). Worse is when a brother gives up searching and just preaches a life of perfect love and goes back to his chancel bench since, “…that’s what the text says.” Whenever I hear the first I give thanks, despite the pain, for Law-and-Gospel homiletics classes because I know what it is like to hear the second and those scare me.
You probably know what sermons I am talking about. We cannot blame their existence on the lectionary. It is not as though the passages are taken out of context. The pericope where Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor is not followed by one where he takes it back as a work of the law superseded by the gospel. Furthermore, when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10), he does not follow it by saying that by “keep my commandments” he actually means “have faith in me”. He does follow it with an explanation, but an affirmation that this commandment is fulfilled when it costs you your life (John 15:12-13). Whenever Jesus explains the commandments they get harder to keep, not easier. The lectionary is not the problem.
So, when they come up, you have got to sweat through them - and that can be just as painful as the sermon gymnastics that sometimes follow. On the one hand, this is great and, if Luther is to be believed, inevitable. You do not interpret the biblical text; the biblical text interprets you. This sweating is what happens when you place yourself beneath the text, instead of over it. True submission to the active working of the Holy Spirit is self-submission, in prayer, to the words and the teaching of the scriptures and it is bound to produce discomfort and make you sweat.
On the other hand, it means these sermons are inevitably hard to prepare. In the midst of a busy schedule, my own eagerness to “wrestle with the text” has sometimes been replaced with more of a “cut your losses” attitude. No time to wrestle! This week I preach the epistle! This is legitimate if preachers are sinners, which will always be true. Better to bring the flock entrusted to you the Gospel from the epistle, then to: 1. Warp the words of Jesus, or 2. Steal their confidence in Jesus’ Gospel by preaching to them, even once, only the Law. It is legitimate to choose a text you know you can preach faithfully. Even so, I want to try and open some of these other texts here and maybe say something about preaching the Law as well.
So here is the guideline: Preach until you find the pain. Or more precisely, preach until they feel the pain. It does not sound very nice, but the fact is the Law is supposed to hurt. It is supposed to prod the care free and self-assured conscience into painfully honest self-reflection informed by divine expectations. It is the Voice of God, eternally true and eternally the proper measure of the lives of your people.
This is what is happening when Jesus tells the young man in Matthew 19 to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. He tried the simple path: You want to know what to do, keep the commandments. But the man had clearly re-imagined the commandments on easier terms. So, Jesus changed the terms and told him what following the Law perfectly actually looks like. It will cost you what you love and if you have not grasped that yet, you have not grasped God’s Law.
Preaching the Law comes up short if people are left like that young man after hearing the commandments - confident they have done a pretty good job and encouraged to go out and do an even better one. The Law presented as something to strive toward is never full strength and so it does not reliably prepare a sinner to receive the Gospel. The Law, contorted in its presentation to the sinner into something to strive for, perverts the Gospel and changes it from a healing balm into an ineffective strength serum.
That is where these texts shine. They do not allow the law to be contorted. So again, preach until it hurts - until it hurts their hearts and they want to cover their ears. Describe what it means to strive to be perfect. You never have to mention their inability, their sin, or God’s punishment to do this. You will find that the Gospel texts I am quoting through this article rarely do either. Instead, you just describe the true divine expectations. What does it look like when you give your life for your friend? It probably does not mean physical death, but it does mean putting him ahead of yourself every single time. It means a life of service and patience. It means that you forgive and forget as many past wrongs as can be committed. If God is forgiving you, you are forgiving others. This will result in being taken advantage of, but God expects that you bear this with patience and forgiveness… like He does.
It is when they finally see that God demands more in the Law than they are willing to give that you stop preaching the Law and start preaching the Gospel. Watching for that moment is a big part of how you keep from mingling Law and Gospel (the chief homiletical sin). The Law’s demands go on forever and it must be allowed to stand as the voice of God. But that is precisely the point. Because it goes on forever and always demands more than anyone can give, it is always at risk of doing more to a person than can be categorized as the “alien work” of God. After it has crushed a person’s false gods and misplaced trust in self, it still stands, but its work in the sermon is done.
This is why the terminological gymnastics that turn love into faith or commandments into a “call to faith” do not get the job done. They undermine the Law by making it into a gospel that could have been said better. It is not even able to do its alien work and that ultimately undermines the proper work of the Gospel.
The Law has no end, but the preaching of the Law should end in the moment when you know it has done all it can do. When they have seen their limits, when they have seen their need for Christ, when they have seen the chasm between who they are and who they should be, that is when the Law is beating a dead horse. At this point the Gospel must be brought - strong and utterly untempered by any continuation of demands. Now you are dealing with the troubled conscience and the task is singularly to console.
And - this is important - this consolation has to let every word that came as the Voice of the Divine Law stand as true. The blades of those words killed your hearers, so it is too late to sheath them. The Gospel is not the recovery of the old heart and life; it is the creation of the new heart and life. So, you let it all stand and then you show them Jesus who, even after he said all those things, gave his life for his friends, sold all he had to redeem the poor, died on the cross and rose from the dead to justify those who otherwise are condemned by the Law.
When Jesus gets ahold of the Law, it gets worse, not better. It gets harder to keep, not easier. The same is true in Luther’s Catechisms. The proclamation of the Gospel does not reconcile a person with the Law as though it makes up for the part of it you could not keep. If that were the case, Jesus would lighten the burden of the Law in his preaching. Instead, he makes it heavier. Or rather, he makes people realize how heavy it already was. This is ok because He brings something totally new. In texts like John 15:9-17 and Matthew 19:16-22, He gives - and you as a preacher give - the hearers a picture of how heavy that burden will get if they try to carry it eternally, but those are the old terms. So, He went to the cross and when you finally get them to give up relying on their works and goodness, that is where you take them as well. After a long, hard look at the Law, the Gospel will really be that much sweeter.