Daily Lectionary – September 25
South Region Pastors’ Conference – Starved Rock State Park
“But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness'” (Mt 3:15).
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Has it ever felt like your ministry is empty? Despite all the work you put in, the tidal waves of failure swell all around you. You preach, you teach, you console, you admonish and exhort—and nothing seems to change. Those damned sinners keep on with their damned sin, and you’re the one who catches grief for it.
The ministry of the Gospel is a ministry of the cross, which isn’t always that pleasing to these old Adams called into this Office. By nature, everyone called into the Office of the Holy Ministry is a theologian of glory—that is, we want to see the power of God at work in the lives of our congregations and people (and in our own lives). But the power of God is so often hidden under suffering and the cross. And we can’t stand it.
There has to be more to this empty ministry of Word and Sacrament, something transformative, something that motivates our people to get out from behind our walls and do some work for the kingdom. And we ministers of the Gospel think we’re just the ones to provide it.
One way to improve things is to pound a bit of discipline into the ministry. If I could just get everyone to start making the sign of the cross, this congregation would have such a greater appreciation for Holy Baptism. If I could train these people to sing more of Luther’s hymns instead of the Baptist drivel they grew up with, then they’d be real Lutherans and all of my troubles would melt away.
But even if you dress it up with a churchy word like catechesis, it’s still merely an attempt to accomplish with the Law what only the Gospel can do. The Lord has established the ministry of the Law to do one thing, and it’s not behavior modification. It’s to kill the old Adam by driving him to repentance; the Law has no power to make a man new.
An alternate way of trying to fill out an empty ministry is by taking a crowbar to the forms mandated by Jesus (that is, the means of grace) and pry them a little wider to fit more in. If Baptism and teaching—the way that Jesus says a disciple is made—isn’t making disciples as quickly or efficiently as you’d like, then it’s time to get creative. A pinch of praise band, a hint of pop spirituality, and a generous helping of relevant preaching (which is code for moralism) and you’ve filled out your very own recipe for successful ministry. If you’re like me, you get emails, snail mail, and phone calls on a weekly basis from someone or another who has the latest program to make your church grow, to make your members more committed, to increase your offerings—and not a one of them focuses on the one thing needful.
What it all comes down to is the desire of every Old Adam called into this Office to insert himself into the ministry. That’s probably why you hear too many pastors referring to my ministry. We want to own it. We want to run it our way. When the ministry feels empty, we want to fill it with ourselves.
But the content of the Holy Ministry is not your teaching ability, your personality, your piety, your winsome attitude, your clever preaching, your program of discipleship. In fact, when you make these the content of your ministry is precisely when it is emptied of all its power.
Yet the Lord continues to call Old Adams like you and me into this Office, so He must have some use for us. One of the most powerful in the history of ministry was that of John the Baptist, he who turned the hearts of children to their fathers and fathers to their children, according to the prophet Malachi. Yet when Jesus came to him to be baptized, John hedged. I need to be baptized by you, he says. Even though John knew the form of the ministry that had been given to him—baptizing—he hadn’t yet landed on its content, that which separated it from any other religious ceremony. Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Profound, Gospel words.
Jesus’ words hinge on the verb “fulfill.” plerosai, to fill up. Thus it is fitting for us to fill up all righteousness. What is it that Jesus fills? The ritual of washing for repentance toward the forgiveness of sins. Baptism. He makes Himself the content of this ministry by stepping into the waters of the Jordan with His own flesh and blood. His righteousness goes into the water and fills it up, tops it off, and makes it overflow. But this wasn’t just a quick dip in the water. In the water with Jesus goes His perfect life, His innocent suffering and death, His resurrection, His ministry. On the other side of the cross, He puts the name He shares with His Father and the Spirit in Holy Baptism—His signature that seals the deal.
The same is true of preaching, Absolution, and the Supper. Christ establishes the form of the ministry with each of the means of grace, and He gives Himself as the content. The hearing and washing, eating and drinking are bursting with Christ’s righteousness. There is no room for more because there is nothing more that is needed to justify sinners and raise up dead Adams to new life.
Christ fills His ministry. Just this past week we were privileged to install a new pastor in our circuit. During the installation, we read again those verses that speak to the establishment of the Office of the Holy Ministry, the power and promises that are attached to it. This is the ministry He gives to you, a minister of the means of grace—not only to administer and carry out, but also to receive. The righteousness of Christ, which fills the ministry to overflowing, overflows to you.
His righteousness will accomplish all that you cannot do. It will justify those damned sinners, raise dead Adams to new life, and make your work in the Holy Ministry a success, even when it appears to all others to be utter and abject failure. Christ fills empty ministries and empty hearts with forgiveness and life. Trust in Him, stick to His Word, for
JESUS FILLS YOUR WORK IN THE MINISTRY WITH HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
VD+MA Rev. Jacob Ehrhard