Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 8, 2009

Sermon on Romans 5:6-8

This sermon is an example of a “story sermon.”  A narrative is woven throughout the sermon, illustrating a point in the actual sermon text before the text is read.  In this way, the listeners are led to “experience” the text before they hear it, and will (hopefully!) be led to a new-found appreciation for the text as they listen to the sermon.  Thanks to fellow WELS Pastor and friend David Salinas (St. John Lutheran Church; Victorville, CA) for pointing me out to the movie, Babette’s Feast, whose plot is woven through this sermon around the application of Romans 5:6-8.

Text: Romans 5:6-8

Introduction

A few weeks ago, when our school was on winter break, my family and I headed down to southern California.  We stayed with some friends for a few days; the husband in this family happens to be a fellow WELS pastor.  Of course, when you get two pastors together, they usually end up talking “shop” for a while, and that’s exactly what happened.

One evening, the other pastor talked about an old movie that he had come across which happened to have some good sermon illustration content.  The movie was the 1987 Danish film, Babette’s Feast, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film.  Knowing a little bit about the movie, and knowing that the movie might offer some preaching illustrations, I headed down to Blockbuster on Wednesday night after our Lent service was finished, rented the movie, and “unwound” from church (because that’s what pastors do after a service!) by watching the movie.

I.

The movie is set in a small village on the western coast of Finland’s peninsula in the nineteenth century.  The village is home to a widower-pastor who forms his own, strict, pietistic version of Christianity.  He has two daughters: Martina, named after Martin Luther, and Philippa, named after Luther’s close associate, Phillip Melanchthon.  His daughters dutifully sit in the front of their little church each time they gather for worship, and unwittingly attract the attention of the young men in town.

As it turns out, both girls eventually find themselves the object of a gentleman’s attention.  A young Swedish cavalry officer becomes interested in Martina, but her father refuses to let her go and Martina is just fine to keep it that way.  An opera star comes to reside in the village for a time to recuperate from an ailment.  He becomes enthralled with Philippa and her beautiful singing voice, but after Philippa notices her new voice teacher’s interest, she decides to end contact with him.  Both sisters had a chance at true love and a better life, but both chose to stay loyal to their father and his religious movement, which forbad most of the pleasures of life.

Zoom ahead several decades.  The sisters are in their 50’s and unmarried.  Their father is long dead, his congregation dwindling, but the two sisters try to keep their father’s religious movement alive while helping the poor and needy in their village.  One day an unexpected visitor comes to the door. Her name is Babette.  She arrives with a letter from Philippa’s former suitor.  The letter explains that Babette is a French refugee fleeing the bloodshed and revolution in her country.  Perhaps, the letter suggests, the two sisters could use her as a housekeeper.  Martina and Phillipa feel that they must refuse, for they can hardly afford such a luxury.  But Babette begs them to stay.  She wants no money – just a place to live away from the present horrors of her homeland.  The sisters agree, and Babette’s presence and work eases their lives.

Imagine those two sisters’ shock when they discover a free housekeeper at the door, sent by a rejected suitor from their past?  They were in no position to have such a luxury, and they were of the mindset to decline luxuries.  But what a vivid illustration of our spiritual condition!  In the Second Lesson for today, St. Paul said, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  For those sisters had no means to employ a housekeeper, you and I have even less means to employ the grace and goodness of God.

I often hear Christians talk about “making a decision for Christ,” but one can hardly do that given what Paul says, that “we were … powerless.”  We are spiritually stillborn creatures.  We have no ability to make a move toward God in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, it’s even worse than that!  Paul says that Christ came to this world to die “for the ungodly.”  What kind of person do you think of when you hear “ungodly”?  It’s not a compliment, is it?  But St. Paul tells us that we were the “ungodly.”  For on our best day we fall far short from keeping God’s perfect standards, and on our worst days we tear his law to shreds.

Who really wants to listen to a set of commands that say that your thoughts are just damning as your actions?  How often has your sinful nature convinced you that the commands of God apply to anyone and everyone but you?  No, despite popular opinion, you and I are powerless before God.  We couldn’t employ his help because we are naturally powerless, and we wouldn’t employ his help because we are spiritually corrupt from day one.

But in spite of that, God comes to us in Jesus Christ.  In spite of our natural powerlessness and spiritual rebelliousness, Christ not only enters into our world but enters into our sin and enters into our hell!  What incredible, self-giving love!  “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

II.

Babette lived with the two sisters for 14 years!  She becomes their housekeeper and cook at no expense to them.  She never asks them for a thing.  She is quiet, pleasant, and unassuming.  She makes their lives much easier and even prepares the meals that they brought to the needy.

Babette had all but severed her ties to France.  She had no family to speak of.  Her only tie was a friend who remained in France.  This friend renewed a lottery ticket for Babette every year since she left.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, one day Babette receives a letter in the mail informing her of the good news that she had the winning lottery ticket!  She won 10,000 francs – certainly enough money at that time to provide a comfortable life for her in her homeland.  The sisters were happy for Babette, but sad for themselves.  They assumed that Babette would soon leave them with her newfound wealth.

The news of the lottery ticket arrived at the same time that the two sisters were preparing a special observance for what would have been their deceased father’s one hundredth birthday.  So before she leaves them, Babette asks if she can prepare a special French dinner for their father’s anniversary observance.  The sisters typically shunned anything that was even mildly luxurious, but they reluctantly agree to allow Babette to prepare the anniversary dinner.

Little did the sisters know what they were in for!  Babette leaves for a few days as she arranges for the ingredients of the meal to be sent from France.  And that’s when the sisters become especially suspicious.  For at the shores of their little village arrives a shipment of fine china, crystal glasses, bottles and bottles of French wine and champagne, the freshest of fresh fruit, truffles, live quail, a cow’s head, and even a live sea turtle!

The sisters don’t know whether this is going to be sinfully lavish or some sort of a satanic meal!  The sisters gather the small little church group together and explain that they had no idea this was going to happen.  So the whole group agrees that they will eat the meal but not say a word about it and certainly not enjoy it.  They were in for a feast that could have been served at a five-star restaurant, but they decided before they were even at the table that they were not going to enjoy it.

Would you spend a massive sum of money for people who never expressed all that much appreciation for you and who predetermined that they would not enjoy what you would present to them?  Would you go through that kind of effort for such ungrateful people?  I wouldn’t!  You probably wouldn’t either!

But God did.  Remember what St. Paul said in the Second Lesson: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  We’ve come across that Bible verse often enough in our lives, but have you ever stopped and really thought about what Paul says?  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  You and I have continued in the tradition of our first parents, Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve exchanged the incredible perfection and eternal blessings of God for a fruit salad.  Sin was more appealing to them than God’s will.  And we have continued in that tradition our whole lives!  Our sinful flesh loves to play in the mud puddles and filth of sin, but in spite of it all, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God had no obligation to send us his Son.  But not only does he send us his Son, he sends his Son to hell and back to rescue sinners like us from hell!  God had no obligation to give us the time of day.  But not only does he give us daily blessings, he gives us eternal blessings like forgiveness from Christ and faith in Christ – blessings that flow out of his generous, giving heart of love.  He teaches us the depths of his love in the pages of his Word.  He bathes us in the sin-cleansing waters of the font.  He feeds us with the rich feast of his Son’s own body and blood!  What incredible love for undeserving sinners!

III.

The day of the anniversary dinner for the little church’s deceased founder finally arrives.  The few members of the congregation that remain gather together at the sisters’ home.  As circumstances would have it, there is a guest present who was visiting an elderly relative – a military general who, decades earlier, was Martina’s rejected suitor.  The two sisters, nine other followers, and one guest take their places around the dinner table.  And the feast is served.

The general was not “in” on the plan to say nothing about the meal.  He raves about the incredible meal that has been placed before them.  He had never tasted finer wine!  He had tasted the main dish set before them only one other time, at a very high-class Paris restaurant.

Meanwhile, the others spoon up their meal quietly but politely.  Every so often someone shares a recollection about their deceased pastor and founder.  But little by little, the turtle soup and fresh fruit and exquisite main course and wine and champagne and truffles overtake the grumpy parishioners.  Even though they hardly make a peep about the meal, you can see the meal change them.  The feast enlivens the stogy old congregation.  Their eyes light up.  They come to enjoy the feast they had predetermined not to enjoy!  Old barriers break down.  People who once held old grudges and foolish arguments between them suddenly seem to forget their old divisions.  All the old bitterness melts away and they come to enjoy this artistic feast set before them and the unity that comes from it.

Babette’s feast is done, the guests depart, and we are taken to the kitchen to see a weary and worn Babette alongside stacks of dirty dishes.  The sisters come in and offer a modest “Thank you” for the meal, knowing that Babette would soon leave them now that she is 10,000 francs richer, save whatever the meal cost her.

That’s when Babette drops the bombshell.  She is not leaving.  The sisters wonder why.  She says that she has no family.  But with the lottery winnings, surely she can make a nice home in her homeland, right?  Wrong again.  There is no money.  She spent every last penny on the meal!  She spent every last penny creating a feast for 12 that cost 10,000 francs – the same amount it cost for such a meal at the high-class Paris restaurant where the general had once eaten, and where she had been the head chef many years earlier.  She was staying, and she was staying because she had given them everything!

Who would do such a thing?  Who would spend the last dime preparing a feast for a bunch of stubborn old ingrates?  Who would give up everything for people who didn’t seem to care all that much?

God – that’s who!  The words of Saint Paul come echoing back into our ears.  “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Someone might put his life on the line for a good cause.  Someone might put his life on the line for a noble person.  But who would put his life on the line for a bunch of thankless ingrates?  Jesus Christ did!

Doesn’t that astound you?  You know your sinful failings better than anyone else, but God knows them better than you.  But that did not stop God from giving you his only Son!  That did not stop Jesus from giving the most precious gift imaginable-his holy life, his precious blood, his divine self-to rescue us from sin and to redeem us for his Father.  There is no higher price than the blood of Almighty God!  There is no greater gift than the life of Jesus laid down for us!  There is no greater miracle than our restoration to God and each other that Jesus’ death has accomplished.  There is no greater feast than the exquisite banquet that Christ has prepared for us in heaven and that we will preview here at this altar today.  The gift that God has given you is not 10,000 francs or a winning lottery ticket.  The gift that God gives you is far more precious than that.  The gift that God gives you is himself!

Conclusion

If you want to watch Babette’s Feast, I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to return it to Blockbuster in Belmont today or tomorrow.  But as much as a movie like this can help us see a theological point from a different angle, every human analogy and illustration still limps.  But perhaps this unique look at Paul’s words will keep us from yawning at God’s gift to us in Christ or thinking this is yesterday’s news.  Because the gift that God gives you in his Son has no equal or comparison, and no price tag can begin to quantify it.  “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Amen.

Advertisements

Categories

%d bloggers like this: