Sermon 16  

Soar Like a Falcon

Jeremiah 1:8

January 28, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

God wants you to be strong and fly like a falcon – soaring high in the sky. This image of the falcon is Luther’s. In his commentary on Psalm 118 from 1530 he writes: “Let everyone become a falcon and soar above distress” (Luther’s Works 14:60).

But even though this image of the soaring falcon is Luther’s, the idea of it is from the Bible. This note of fearlessness and buoyancy is sounded throughout Holy Scriptures. And so God tells the prophet Jeremiah: “Be not afraid, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8). And to Joshua, the son of Nun, God says the same: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed” (Joshua 1:9). And Jesus tells his disciples: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And under threats from the devil himself, St. Peter writes: “Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9)!


Jeremiah’s Fears

Now why does God admonish us so? Why does he tell Jeremiah, for instance, to quit being afraid? What was the mighty Jeremiah afraid of in the first place? He was favored by God before he was even born (Jeremiah 1:5). God had elected him to be one of his greatest prophets ever. So surely he was safe and secure – protected by God himself. Why then was he told not to fear?

Well, quite simply, because he was afraid – contrary to what we’ve imagined. This protected one of God was actually frightened too. And this was because God had sent him to speak out against nations and kingdoms. And he gave him hard words to speak – words about plucking up and breaking down, destroying and overthrowing (Jeremiah 1:10). And even though God had promised to protect him, Jeremiah was still afraid – supposing some sort of attack was inevitable, given his distressing message.


Being Yelled At

So Jeremiah believed he had good reason to be afraid. Spouting off those four verbs of destruction would surely enrage the people he was sent to warn. They would yell back at him! And who likes that? They might even “grind their teeth” at him, as others generations later would do against Stephen (Acts 7:54). In the face of such anger, it’s indeed natural to be frightened.

            And the anger also is predictable. For God’s words offend us (Isaiah 30:9-11; Matthew 11:6). This is because these words of liberation have restraints built into them. They cut off as well as comfort. They include the Law with the Gospel (Jeremiah 1:10; Isaiah 45:7; John 12:25; Romans 6:4).

And so God’s words go against the grain, or contra naturam, as the old Latin Bible has it (Romans 11:24). They attack our sense of self-worth (Luke 17:10) and inflated self-importance. This is because “God abhors the confidence we have [in] ourselves,” and demands that we be “humbled to the utmost” (LW 3:4, 348).

Because these psychological constructs are so shaky from the start, having been built on mere sand, when they teeter, even in the slightest, we panic. And so we quickly dig-in and erupt in anger to scare off the assailing Word and its messengers. “How dare you!” we cry. “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us” (Psalm 2:3). The great poet, William Blake (1757-1827), gave this indignation a classic rendition [Blake: Complete Writings, ed. G. Keynes ( Oxford , 1966) p. 215]:


And Priests in black gowns

were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars

my joys and desires.


Being Lonely

But Jeremiah had even more to fear than all this anger and yelling. Because he brought such hard words from God, his flock itself was set-up to go against him. They could turn their backs on him, isolate and ignore him. They could throw him into the dungeon of loneliness and shame. With their rejection they could petrify him.

Such unpopularity is a hazard for God’s teachers and disseminators of his holy Word. Whenever that Word is advanced, loneliness and isolation follow quickly. So it’s right to say that “a confessional Lutheran often becomes a ‘lonely Lutheran’” [Robert D. Preus, “Dr. Herman A. Preus: In Memoriam,” Logia 4 (Reformation 1995) p. 57]. For with Luther we are driven to say that the “world is below me, and heaven is above me. I hover between the life of the world and eternal life, lonely in the faith” (LW 14:181).

This is exactly what God’s hard words do to us. It’s the cost we pay for witnessing to them. “I sat alone,” Jeremiah says, “because your hand, O God, was upon me” (Jeremiah 15:17). We fear nothing more than this sitting alone. Being unpopular seems to be a fate worst than death. And so we’ll do almost anything to rid ourselves of it. But against this fear of unpopularity, God tells us to dig in. Be courageous and tough, he says. Don’t be simpering.


Being Snookered

But that’s not the end of it either. Our fear carries us still further. And we find ourselves fearing the sophisticated. We fear those who, with kindness and composure, criticize our faith in God. We fear we’ll cave in to what they say. We fear we’ll give up on the Word of God. We fear we’ll be talked out of pressing God’s hard words on sinners. We fear we’ll be seduced into unbelief.

Ever since the snake in the Garden of Eden talked Eve out of following God (Genesis 3:1-6; 1 Timothy 2:14), we have feared those who question us. We fear being lead astray by their interrogations. We fear being snookered. And so we crawl into a hole and won’t argue with those who want to debate Christianity with us. We cower before the prospect of contestation (contra Jude 1:3). We lose our nerve in the heat of disputation.


Going Against Timidity

But this is not as it should be. Losing our nerve like this is based on mixed-up thinking. We are supposed to fear God rather than people. In fact our fear of God itself is supposed to see to it that we do this. So when you fear God you’re not “merely to fall upon your knees” before him, but you’re also to fear “no one” except him alone (LW 51:139). For fearing God is to change our lives!

So God won’t settle for our lack of nerve. He barges in and fights for us – against us and our fears. 2 Timothy 1:7 says that God replaces our timidity with “a spirit of power and love and self-control.” Ephesians 3:12 says that this spirit is what gives us our “boldness.” So we’re not to be done in by our distress, agony, fear and suffering. Therefore when darkness descends,

do not sit by yourself or lie on a couch, hanging and shaking your head…. Do not… brood on your wretchedness, suffering, and misery. Say to yourself: “Come on, you lazy bum [du fauler schelm]; down on your knees, and lift your eyes and hands toward heaven!” Read a pslam or the Our Father, call on God, and tearfully lay your troubles before Him. Mourn and pray…. God wills that you lay your troubles before Him…. He wants you to grow strong in Him…. Otherwise men are mere babblers [eitel plauderer] (LW 14:61).


In the book of Acts, those preaching in the early church were filled with just this sort of boldness. They didn’t succumb to their misery. They weren’t fauler schelm and eitel plauderer. So neither should we be now. A prime example of this boldness is St. Paul ’s attack on the magician Elymas in Acts 13:10. He calls him a “son of the devil,” an “enemy of righteousness, full of deceit and villainy.” There’s nothing polite or conciliatory in this encounter. St. Paul just lets Elymas have it with both barrels.


Christ Our Torch

Now the Holy Spirit is still at work to make us “defiant and courageous,” like St. Paul (LW 24:117). This is because “Christ does not want to hide in the world, but He wants to be preached… in the world like a torch on a high mountain” (LW 12:383-383). If this means we must at times be confrontational, then so be it. But we should never do so to promote ourselves or take out revenge on our opponents. If we’re being attacked, we should “gladly humble” ourselves and let our adversaries “walk all over” us (LW 23:330). This is part of what it means to deny ourselves, to die to ourselves, not to live for ourselves and even to hate ourselves (Luke 9:23; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; John 12:25).

But if they “tread on Christ or on His Word,” then we must shift gears and become “stubborn and impetuous hotheads,” glad to be called “stiff-necked…. and headstrong asses” (LW 23:330). This is because true disciples of Jesus are “bold and reckless” (LW 23:399). For when Christ is under attack we must not yield “a hairbreadth to anyone” (LW 26:99, 44:93).

Christ is Our Honor

But how are we to manage this? How can we be so strict? How can we tow the line? Now we can proceed methodically, but sooner than we think, we fail. We can get off on the right foot, but before we know it, we fall flat. So we need something more if we’re going to advance at all. And since we fail on our own, we need help from outside ourselves. We need power from beyond us.

Luke 4:32 says that Jesus spoke with authority. The old Latin Bible translates this as in potestate. Now that’s exactly what we need – power from beyond ourselves. In potestate! But how does Jesus manage that? Well, his power for us is there in his obedience to God. As unlikely as that may sound, that’s precisely where his power for us resides. When faced with the worst predicament, he displays his incredible will and personal force. When faced with a gruesome death, he does not back down. Instead, he is “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

In his crucifixion he drains sin of its power over us. This is what’s so powerful about his dying. He does this by having all the sins of the world nailed into his body (1 Peter 2:24). This, of course, takes great internal fortitude. And in this dying we see the very power of God for us (1 Corinthians 1:24). For he could have aborted his crucifixion. He could have come down from the cross before he died. Three times the scoffers ordered him down from the cross. “Save yourself,” they jeered at him as he was dying on the cross (Luke 23:35-39). But Jesus holds firm – refusing to flee from Golgotha . For his purpose in coming was to die for us (Genesis 3:15; Mark 10:45). So he comes to die “for [υπερ] our sins” ( 1 Corinthians 15:3). That Greek word, υπερ, also can mean “conerning” or “to take care of,” as in the phrase “of whom” in John 1:30. And this Jesus surely does for us on the cross, “putting away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).


The Last Temptation of Christ

Nikos Kazantzakis calls these taunts and jeers against Jesus his last temptation – coming from the devil who is finally striking him at the most vulnerable time (Luke 4:13). In his novel he has the devil lure Jesus down from the cross with these words: “Great joys await you… God left me free to allow you to taste all the pleasures you ever secretly longed for. Beloved, the earth is good – you’ll see. Wine, laughter, the lips of a woman, the gambols of your first son on your knees – all are good” [The Last Temptation of Christ (1960) p. 446]. But Jesus doesn’t budge. His face is set like flint to go to his death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) – making his resolve formidable indeed.

In Christ’s death he frees all who believe in him from their guilt. This forgiveness of sins is our freedom. And in this freedom we have the power we need to walk fearlessly. Now his potency becomes our potency. Because of Christ we no longer “need praise and honor among men.” Now he is “our Honor and Glory” (LW 13:354)! Having these come from Christ, which are outside of ourselves [extra nos], they make us strong and “mettlesome” [animosos] [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580, 1959) p. 553]. This is because when the source is outside of us and in Christ, then our discipleship is based on the “denial of ourselves,” which draws us close to him and to his power (Luke 9:23). So when the guilt and shame that we have for our rebellion and disobedience weighs us down, fear not. Though your hearts condemn you, “God is greater” (1 John 3:20; James 2:13).


Our Bag of Guilt

Such dependence does not weaken us. It instead miraculously enable us to do far more than we would ever think. We find ourselves wonderfully going beyond our own capacities. Even so we take no credit for any of this, but give all the glory to God from whom it all comes in the first place (1 Corinthians 10:31).

But our unresolved guilt can still block all of this from happening. Supposing that guilt isn’t a serious problem underestimates our own weakness. For our unresolved guilt deeply damages us. Robert Bly calls it a heavy black bag that we drag along behind us wherever we go. The result of this is that the “bigger the bag, the less the energy” [A Little Book on the Human Shadow, ed. W. Booth (1988) p. 25]. Dragging this bag around with us, then, drags us down, draining us of vital energy (contra John 1:12-13). It robs us of the promised “abundant” life in Christ (John 10:10).

So the forgiveness of sins isn’t at all puny. It’s rather quite massive and filled with delight. It’s true that it requires us to repent and muck around in our shame for a while (1 John 1:9), but it doesn’t end there. It ends instead with absolution and new life through the forgiveness of sins (Romans 6:4). So there’s no need to “invent a special absolution for yourself…. God does not want us to go astray in our own self-chosen works or speculation” (LW 6:128). Only God’s forgiveness can free us (John 8:34-36). In this freedom we acquire the “pitch of peace and poise” we need to rise above our distress and suffering and fear (LW 44:77).


Oscillating & Fragmented

Even though this divine absolution gives us power to “disdain” all misery and shame, and sets us “against all power,” thereby turning us into knights and heroes (LW 24:21), we still, even so, aren’t perfect (Philippians 3:12). And we won’t be until we reach heaven after we die. Our life with God now remains a “militant piety,” and not one of triumph (Kierkegaard’s Writings 22:130).

            In our imperfection we experience oscillation and fragmentation [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols (1951-1963) 3:42, 140]. They mark our life with God. First, then, our devotion to God oscillates. That means some days we’re closer to God than others are. We have our ups and downs. Sin, now and then, has its way with us – like it did with David, Job, Jonah and Peter. And so we too must say, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

            In addition, even our good days are fragmented, fractured and marred. That’s are second mark of imperfection. For when we’re praying as we should, we often lack the required humility, tenacity and clarity (Matthew 6:7; Romans 8:26; Luke 18:1, 11-12). And when we’re helping others, we still think too much of ourselves (Luke 10:40). And when we have the right plan in mind, we often fail to follow through (Romans 7:22-23; Matthew 21:30).

            What this means is that with all of our acquired spiritual power and strength, we must never trust in ourselves (Luke 18:9). We must recognize instead that we can do nothing without God (2 Corinthians 3:4-5; John 15:5; Ephesians 2:8-9).


Food Indeed

So rejoice in Christ and the mercy he brings us. Thank God for his goodness in sending us his Son to save us. And receive him this day in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Come to the Altar of the Lord and bow down. Know that when you eat of the bread and drink from the cup, Christ is truly there to be physically received. He is “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine, consecrated by the very words of our Lord Jesus Christ (BC, p. 575). When you receive him, he promises to “abide” in you that you might “abide” in him and be enriched by his communion with you (John 6:56).

            So this sacrament is for nourishment – therefore we call it “food indeed” (John 6:55). It nourishes our faith that it may “increase,” just as we would want (Luke 17:5). For when you receive it and hear the Lord’s words that his body and blood have been given “for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), you know you haven’t been skipped over because of your sin and unrighteousness. This reassurance is just what enhances our faith in Christ. No wonder these two words, “for you,” are the “chief thing” in this “most venerable sacrament” (BC, pp. 352, 577). So eat and then soar like a falcon!


Love Rejoices in the Good

But faith without works is dead (James 2:26), and so we will leave worship today with good works on our mind. And what good work shall we do? God expects us to love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). So let us rededicate ourselves to being loving people.

And what will this entail? 1 Corinthians 13:7 famously says that true love “bears all things.” This means that our love is resilient and is not frighten off by bad behavior. When the people we love show no gratitude for our caring, we just keep on loving, even in this bad weather. So when your mother or father, children, husband or wife, neighbors or fellow workers hurt your feelings, keep on loving anyway. For love doesn’t require sunny days to shine, it rather clears the clouds away on it’s own. That’s what love does.

But true love still does even more than that. It also refuses to rejoice in the wrong (1 Corinthians 13:6). So don’t you rejoice in the wrong done by the people you love. Help your friend, by all means, if she comes home drunk and sick to her stomach. Even clean up the mess! But don’t tell her you like seeing her incapacitated. No! For love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing. Rather show kindness and then bring corrections and suggestions to bear – and even admonitions and rebukes, if need be (Luke 17:3; Titus 2:15).

Then call on God to bless you, that you might love with kindness and correction as you ought (see Thomas C. Oden, Corrective Love, 1995). May he grant you wisdom (Hebrews 5:12-14; Galatians 6:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1). And may he also grant you compassion so that your love does no harm – harm caused by rejoicing in the wrong (Romans 13:10). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)