What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It? (part 1)

On the liturgy, Preparation through Gloria in Excelsis.

[meant to have video; no power cord.  meant to press record; forgot.]


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think it was Jaroslav Pelikan who said something to the effect that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, while tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is doing something simply because it was always done; tradition is doing what has been handed down to us, because it has become ours. Traditionalism very often leads to the opposite error: doing things simply because they aren’t what we’ve always done, always doing what is new and contemporary. But the fact that something is “contemporary” is not a reason to do anything. All it means is that it is being done now, at the same time that we are alive. What matters is not when something was produced, or when it was made, but what it is and what it does. A high school history teacher of mine once asked a class of sophomores, “What makes something a classic?” I don’t remember all the answers that were given, but I remember one answer: Something that stands the test of time. There are lots of things that are made and done and written and heard, but most are forgotten, most are forgettable, most are not able to stand the brutal test of history as it shifts, changes, and moves through place and time. One thing that has stood the test of time, even as it has developed and moved through very different languages, cultures, and places, is the liturgy of the Church. Granted, the Church has not had only one liturgy in her history, but it is astounding to consider how much the liturgies of the Church have in common across time and space. For the next few weeks, I’m going “preach through the liturgy” as we dig deeper and hear better this great gift as it has been handed down to us for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Lutherans call it the Divine Service. It is not divine because it fell from heaven whole (though all of it has been taken from holy Scripture); it’s divine because it is where God meets with us. And it is service because here is where God has promised to serve us, by His holy Word and His holy Sacraments. Our high priest, Jesus, is “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:2). But why do we have this Divine Service? Can we not get along without it? True, it is not commanded in the Scriptures; but the form of the liturgy, tested, tried, refined by so many generations of Christians, shapes and orders the content of the Gospel, which it delivers. We have the Divine Service because God has chosen and still chooses to work by means: especially as a Man born of a virgin; but also as that Man comes to us by means of words, water, bread and wine. All of this divine service aims at the same purpose that John had in writing his Gospel: “…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, ESV). The Scriptures testify to Christ, and the Liturgy testifies to the Christ who is found in the Scriptures. So what is our part in the service? Our service, our liturgy, is to offer back to God in worship and prayer all things which He has graciously given us. Everything we have, every good gift, comes to us from our dear Father in heaven. He serves us; He gives us His word and promise. We believe what He says and worship, returning those same promises to His ears. This is the rhythm of the Church of God: He gives and we receive; He blesses and we are blessed; He forgives us our trespasses, and we are forgiven. He is active and we are passive. But as He gives to us, we give to others. As He blesses us, we bless others. As He forgives us, we forgive those who trespass against us. In the realm of our neighbor, our family and friends, we are active. We are the “masks of God” as He serves them. And all of it becomes a joyful symphony of praise to our God.

You have heard the bell calling the Lord’s people to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day, marking this time off from other time during the week. We are recognizing that something different from everything else in the entire world is going on here when the Holy Spirit gathers together God’s holy people. This is time outside of time, made holy by the saving presence of Jesus Christ. Because by these words of God, spoken to us by Him, and by us to Him, the eternity of God breaks into our moments, days, and years. The eternal Son in human flesh has promised to be present whenever and wherever His true word and gracious gifts are given out. But when we do come to the Lord’s House, we bring all our baggage with us; besides our sin, we bring our weakness and the weight of our lives. So sometimes we need a nudge, maybe even a push or a shove, in the right direction, to focus our minds away from our selfish thoughts and toward the things of God, which are why we come here. One way to focus and to help us remember again what this time is for is to pray the prayer in the front cover of Lutheran Service Book: “Lord, I love the habitation of Your house and the place where Your glory dwells. In the multitude of Your tender mercies prepare my heart that I may enter Your house to worship and confess Your holy name; through Jesus Christ, my God and Lord. Amen.”

In just a moment, you will hear the invocation again: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Invocation means “calling upon,” because we call upon the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is that God who has accomplished salvation for the entire world in the central event of our Faith, and the central even of all time: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We could spend our entire lives exploring what it means to have the Divine Name spoken over us in Holy Baptism. Indeed, the Christian life is nothing other than baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. By the repetition of God’s Name, you are reminded every single week that it is precisely this God who has claimed you at the font. You have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. You may notice that, as our hymnal suggests, I make the sign of Jesus’ cross over myself; in order to remind yourself that God has put HIHis holy Name on you, you may also wish to make that ancient sign. The sign of the cross is the only physical movement unique to Christians. Not only to Roman Catholics, or to the Orthodox churches, but to all Christians who are marked by that Name. That’s why the Small Catechism recommends, in the morning and in the evening, making the sign of the holy cross, to remind you that, whatever the day brings or has brought, you belong to God by the baptismal Name. In that washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, you were given the faith that trusts in the God who is Three and One at the same time. In the Invocation, we speak back to God His promise to be wherever “two or three” are gathered in His Name, and we call Him to witness that we are indeed gathered in His Name alone. Thou shalt have no other gods.

“Beloved in the Lord! Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching Him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness” (LSB 184). Having been washed in and marked by the Triune Name of God, we “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” as Hebrews 10:22 puts it. We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who recognize that God’s judgment on us and on our sin is just and deserved. But we do not come before this altar in fear! We are in Christ! And “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we have confidence that our Father will grant us His forgiveness. The promise is there: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). Ponder then, beloved, your sin and I will ponder mine, and so we will speak: “I, a poor, miserable sinner….” And then, take heart, for you will hear Christ’s forgiveness from the mouth of your pastor. It is Jesus, remember, who breathes on the apostles as representatives of His Church and promises: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:22, ESV). To be sure, I am a fellow sinner and a baptized Christian, as you are. But I have also been put here for this explicit purpose: “I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word…” (LSB 185). You were witnesses at my installation of the charge laid upon my head, and the stole is the sign of that charge to do what Christ has commanded, nothing more and nothing less. What you hear is not my forgiveness, but Christ’s, and so, whatever my failings, know that Christ does not fail. “…in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins….” In the Name, you hear again the baptismal promise of God Himself: you are My child, forgiven and reborn.

+          +          +

In the Name of Jesus. Now we speak the Introit. We enter. We have been forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, and now we enter the sanctuary of God as His people, washed and cleansed and made new by His forgiveness. As this people, we speak words from the Psalms that have spoken by His people for thousands of years. Introits change according to the particular week of the Church Year. They focus our attention on the theme of the service, which runs throughout like a bright thread, coming to the surface in hymns, Scriptures, prayers, and the sermon. These changeable parts of the service are called propers because they are “proper” to the day or season. (If anyone tells you that the liturgy is the same every week, talk to them about propers!) Those things that stay the same are called ordinaries because they are done “ordinarily,” that is, almost every week. So the Divine Service, like our lives, both changes and stays the same. At the beginning and end of the Introit, we speak a verse called the antiphon, which particularly emphasizes the theme of the day. Prior to the second antiphon, we speak the Gloria Patri, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.” The Trinity is the author of all holy Scripture, both Old and New Testament. He is the “Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Because we are praising our God in the Gloria Patri, it is appropriate to bow toward the altar in reverence before God.

Then come the Kyrie and the Gloria in Excelsis. As so many people do in the Gospels, we cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” Kyrie eleison! We are not confessing our sins again so much, as our general human weakness. We find it hard to hear and believe God’s Word. We find it hard to praise God. Our flesh is constantly dragging us back down into the mud of our laziness and apathy. So our song is highly appropriate: “Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!” Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief. “Miserable” literally means “in need of mercy.” And in Jesus, the miserable find the mercy they need. What is the response of the people who fall at Jesus’ feet requesting mercy and receive it? Praise; worship of Him who heals bodies and souls. We find and sing this praise in the Gloria in Excelsis, which is simply the Latin for the first few words: “Glory be to God on high” (LSB 187). In the Gloria, we are transported to the hills outside Bethlehem, where angels first sang these words to the shepherds at Christ’s birth, and we recognize with John the Baptist that the one who is born there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Since we are not just souls, our bodies are also engaged when you worship. What we do in our bodies affects how we think and how we worship. The Gloria gives us several opportunities to connect what we’re singing with what we’re doing. So, you may bow your head when we sing “we worship Thee,” as a confession that you, now, worship the true God. And every time we speak or sing the name of Jesus, it is appropriate to bow, because, as St. Paul says to the Philippians: “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11, ESV). But, by God’s grace, you are not waiting until He comes again in all His glory to bow at His Name. You have been given faith to worship Him as the highly exalted one now. And bowing is simply a reminder of that. A third motion is to bow at “receive our prayer,” acknowledging that it is only from His taking away our sin that we are able to offer our prayers to the Father through Him. Finally, it is appropriate to make the sign of Jesus’ cross at His Name with the Father and the Spirit, recognizing the holy Trinity as the author and perfecter of our salvation, which comes through Jesus’ cross. Let us now enter the sanctuary of God by the Introit and praise Him, bless Him, worship Him, glorify Him and give thanks to Him for His great glory.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/13/16


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