A sermon from June 8, 2014
A lecture on the sufficiency of Scripture from October 25, 2009
Nothing is so powerfully effective against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts as to occupy one’s self with God’s word, to speak about it and meditate42 on it, in the way that Psalm 1[:2] calls those blessed who “meditate on God’s law day and night.” Without doubt, you will offer up no more powerful incense or savor against the devil than to occupy yourself with God’s commandments and words and to speak, sing, or think about them. Indeed, this is the true holy water and sign that scares the devil to run away.43
42 Luther’s word translates as “thinking,” without necessarily implying a methodological contemplative prayer-reflection used in monastic life or specific spiritual practices. Here Luther presents an invitation for the ordinary Christian to learn a habit of prayer and in faith engage the word as the compass in one’s life.
43 In Luther’s medieval world, it was common to use “holy water,” das rechte Weihwasser (Ger.), aqua illa sancificat (Lat.), or “sanctified water/water that sanctifies” in, e.g., exorcisms to drive away evil spirits.
Kirsi I. Stjerna, “The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther,” in Word and Faith, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, vol. 2, The Annotated Luther (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 292.
(Photo by Øyvind Holmstad)
The second volume of Richard Sibbes collected works contains a series of 20 sermons on Canticles, better know as the Song of Solomon. The title of this work is called “Bowels Opened”, which is rather unfortunate to our ears. It means the depth of compassion which was believed to be in the gut. A Greek word for compassion or mercy was “σπλάγχνον”, which means the gut or heart (I have no idea what the word would be in modern Greek).
While these sermons are textual (they are based upon the text), they wouldn’t sound much like a modern expository sermon. Sibbes reads the text in an allegorical manner, but I’m not precisely sure that allegory really covers his understanding.
He takes a text, draws a generally allegorical reading — and then he proceeds to consider the way in which a image or theme is developed in Scripture.
For instance the first sermon begins by developing this text:
‘Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits,’ Cant. 4:16.
He first draws out a general basis for the allegory, Christ and the Church. And then he asks questions about the “wind” and the Spirit. He meditates upon the garden and spices. He considers the pleasant fruits. The structure is different than what one would learn at a seminary which would still hold to the Gospel which Sibbes preached and which still held Scripture to be inerrant and sufficient, as Sibbes did.
What is quite remarkable in this methodology, is the profundity of Sibbes’ understanding and exegesis. Although he has a generally allegorical reading, he never wanders off into nonsense or speculation.
And while I am not completely comfortable with an allegorical reading of the text (this being my own admitted prejudice here), I do believe that there is a deep structure between divine and human love — because human love in marriage between a man and woman was given as a basis upon which we could begin to understand divine love. And while there is certainly no identity between the two loves, there is an analogy which makes the one comprehensible in terms of the other.
Another thing about Sibbes’ sermons must be noted: the sheer volume of insight and beauty he mines and reveals. Spurgeon’s comment on Sibbes is certainly true, “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time, he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”
Sibbes begins his discussion of Canticles with the general observation that the book concerns the most profound love between Christ and the Church. He deals with the obvious topic of a prurient reading of the text (as was infamous done by a preacher of some note who has taken up shop in a new city and of whom I will nothing more to say).
He then comes to the purpose of the book of Canticles. Why was this discourse written in a such a beautiful manner? Why doesn’t the Scripture just tell us plainly that Christ loves the Church, rather than give us this drama and poetry? The purpose of the Spirit inspiring the text
is by stooping low to us, to take advantage to raise us higher unto him, that by taking advantage of the sweetest passage of our life, marriage, and the most delightful affection, love, in the sweetest manner of expression, by a song, he might carry up the soul to things of a heavenly nature. We see in summer that one heat weakens another; and a great light being near a little one, draws away and obscures the flame of the other. So it is when the affections are taken up higher to their fit object; they die unto all earthly things, whilst that heavenly flame consumes and wastes all base affections and earthly desires. Amongst other ways of mortification, there be two remarkable—
- By embittering all earthly things unto us, whereby the affections are deaded* to them.
- By shewing more noble, excellent, and fit objects, that the soul, issuing more largely and strongly into them, may be diverted, and so by degrees die unto other things. The Holy Spirit hath chosen this way in this song, by elevating and raising our affections and love, to take it off from other things, that so it might run in its right channel. It is pity that a sweet stream should not rather run into a garden than into a puddle. What a shame is it that man, having in him such excellent affections as love, joy, delight, should cleave to dirty, base things, that are worse than himself, so becoming debased like them! Therefore the Spirit of God, out of mercy and pity to man, would raise up his affections, by taking comparison from earthly things, leading to higher matters, that only deserve love, joy, delight, and admiration. Let God’s stooping to us occasion our rising up unto him.
- That is, ‘deadened.’—G.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet And Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 5–6.
And so ends the introduction to this sermon.
I said there were not three things, but here are three things in this verse about hope. First, hope has a very present effect. That is the word “because”. Second, the hope is certain: it is laid up in heaven. Third, the hope marks goal, the end of our pilgrimage. Our hope is laid up in heaven.
First we are going to consider the effect of hope. I want you to notice something about. In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul writes that, “faith, hope and love” now abide. Here is a triad which lies at heart of being a Christian: we cannot be a Christian without faith hope and love. Paul mentions these three in our text:
4since we heard of your faith [there is faith] in Christ Jesus and the love [there is love] which you have for all the saints;
5because of the hope [there is hope] laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel
Notice also that the hope comes about from hearing “the word of truth, the gospel”. So there is a chain of events here:
First there was hearing the word of truth. We will think about what is that word of truth in moment. For right now, just notice that hope did not come their imagination or their experience or anything else. Hope came from hearing “the word of truth”.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 Paul describes what happened to that church:
“for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and full of conviction”
There is the pattern which is throughout the Scripture — and demonstrated over and again in the history of the Church. Believers, the church of Jesus Christ are created by Word of God and the Spirit of God. The Word of God comes to people and comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. It presses down upon the elect and they believe and are transformed.
Now understand this about true, saving faith: it is not just some sort of historical calculation. For instance, I believe George Washington was the first president of the United States. But that belief is just an idea, it’s just an exercise of thought.
Saving faith is different, it is not just an idea. It comes with power, with conviction, it changes. When true faith comes, it comes with hope. In Romans 4:18, Paul describes Abraham’s saving faith like this, “In hope again he hope he believed.” And in Romans 8:24, Paul writes, “For in hope we have been saved”.
Faith and hope are very close together; and in saving faith, it comes with hope. We believe we are now saved, and we believe we will be saved. We believe we will be justified on the day of judgment, we believe we will be resurrected, we believe we will be forever with the Lord. But notice that all of that belief entails hope:
For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Rom. 8:24-25. And conversely, we could not possibly hope for something we did not believe to be true and real and ahead of us. No one could hope for something he did not sincerely believe was true.
Now consider this also: faith and hope strengthen one another. As we believe, we can more easily and clearly hope: as we hope, our faith gains strength and vigor.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let us assume that the story gets around that Tom is feeling generous today and that he is taking every out to lunch. And so we all hope and believe that Tom is going to bring around limos and we will all be ferried down to Gladstones at the ocean and we will have lunch and be brought back to church in time for evening service.
But after our initial rush of hope and belief, we start to think about this. We begin to realize that taking a couple of hundred people in limos to lunch at the ocean might be unrealistic for Tom. Tom probably doesn’t have ten thousand dollars to spend on our lunch. And so, our belief begins to wane. And as our belief wanes, our hope wanes. And by the time noon comes around, our faith and hope in Tom’s wonderful lunch surprise goes away.
Faith and hope need one another to survive.
Here is a point of application. We must keep our faith and our hope well and in good strength. When we becomes hopeless, when we begin to falter in our hope, our faith will decline. In fact, I would surmise that for most people it is their hope which falters first, and then their faith. The Devil would not easily get you to deny the Incarnation — but if he can discourage you, if he can distract your hope and draw it on to other things, you faith will fail. Faith cannot stand without hope. To keep faith without hope is like keeping a roof without walls. Faith and the roof will fall to the ground.
But Paul also draws love into this equation look again
4since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints;
5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel
The love which the Colossians experience and exhibit is “because of the hope”. Their hope gives rise to their love. Some of the commentators are puzzled by this connection. Since love is a very generous affection, it seems odd to connect with one’s hope. How can hoping make one more able and willing to love?
Let us think of the greatest act of love in the history of humanity: without question, it is the love Jesus showed to us when he went to the cross. Jesus himself said that giving one’s life for another was the greatest act of love. Jesus abounded in love, when he went to the cross.
Now I want you to consider Hebrews 12:2, “Jesus … who for the joy set before him endured the cross”. Jesus’ love toward us was itself grounded in hope. Jesus died for us to glorify his name, to glorify the Father — and for us, he made atonement for sin. Jesus gave himself in love, but Jesus also gave himself in hope.
Because Jesus knew his work would be successful does not mean that Jesus did not hope. Hope does not mean an uncertain a foolish desire. Hope can be quite certain, as we will see. The security of the hope does not mean that it is not hope. Hope is desire for something which is not now present.
Hope is means of enjoying something in the future now. It is taking possession of something just beyond our grasp.
Jesus’ love and Jesus’ hope were in perfect agreement and were both fulfilled together.
Love is a generous affection. Hope is also generous. A hope of acceptance and love from God, makes us wealthy — it makes love and generosity wise. Hope fixes our eyes upon Christ (and that is a whole other thing which we cannot fully consider) — and as it fixes our eyes upon Christ, it makes us like Christ:
2 Corinthians 3:18 (NASB95)
18But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
Our hope transforms us by fixing our gaze upon our Lord. And in so doing, our hope transforms us into those who love. We could never love without hope. We love in hope that our love will be received and will work good in the beloved.
If our gaze could never go beyond the confines of this life and this world, then the full generous love God commands, to love our neighbor as ourself would be insane, it would be dangerous and foolish. To love as God calls us to love is a sucker’s game if there is no heaven calling us: if there is no life beyond this life, then as Paul writes, we are most to be pitied.
But hope gives room and promise and purpose to Christian love. As Paul also says, our labor will not be in vain.
When we are filled with hope, then faith and love will grow themselves. And here is the amazing thing: When we have these three, they each make the other grow. When we have love and faith, it grows hope. When we have hope and love it grows faith. Love fulfills the law, love is obedience to Christ. And in Hebrews 5:14, we learn that obedience — which will necessarily require love — makes us fit and able to learn more of God, to increase the scope and depth of our faith and hope, because it gives more range for faith and hope act.
What produces hope? The Word of God brought to bear by the Spirit of God, the word of God believed produces hope. And what does hope produce: faith and love. If you see you faith flagging look to your hope. If you love has grown cold, look to hope. If you hope is weak, look to your faith.
If you feel yourself wander, discouraged, fallen into sin and tempted with despair, come back to the fountain, come back to the place you lost your way. Come back to the start, to the Word of God, pick up the trail in faith; your flagging hope will stir and that will set you going in the correct direction.
Stephen Chanticleer explains that we impoverish our lives because we do not meditate up the goodness of God. He explains that such knowledge would transform what we desire
A sense of the Divine goodness would mount us above the world. It would damp our appetites after meaner things; we should look upon the world not as a God, but a gift from God, and never think the present better than the Donor. We should never lie soaking in muddy puddles were We always filled with a sense of the richness and clearness of this Fountain, wherein we might bathe ourselves; little petty particles of good would give us no content, when we were sensible of such an unbounded ocean. Infinite goodness, rightly apprehended, would dull our desires after other things, and sharpen them with a keener edge after that which is best of all. How earnestly do we long for the presence of a friend, of whose good will towards us we have full experience.
CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory explains that we were created to desire and seek such goodness
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased