Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 10, 2012

Installation Sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

On March 11, 2012, I have the privilege to preach for the installation service of Pastor Brian Doebler, one of my seminary classmates who is being installed as the new pastor at Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Redding, California.  Here is the sermon for that service.

THE RIGHT RESOLUTION FOR MT. CALVARY CONGREGATION

  1. Don’t focus on a pastor’s personal style
  2. Focus on the pastor’s faithful preaching

Text: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Introduction

Significant events on the calendar or in our lives tend to be times when people make resolutions.  The start of a New Year is also the start of New Year’s resolutions.  Ash Wednesday isn’t much different, as many Christians use the start of Lent as the time to stop doing something.  Getting married, or the birth of a child, or another major life event is also the trigger for people to make resolutions about their lives and their futures.

Today appears to be no exception.  The dialogue we spoke at the start of this service suggests that you have been thinking about what it means to be a Bible-based, Christ-centered, gospel-proclaiming, Means-of-Grace-administering, Lutheran congregation.  The installation of your new pastor today is the ideal time to make some resolutions for your future together as pastor and people.  The worship committee of this congregation selected 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 as the Second Lesson for this service, and these words of St. Paul provide a fitting focus as you begin your time together as pastor and people.  St. Paul’s inspired words will help you to make the right resolution for Mt. Calvary congregation.  And that resolution is quite simple: Don’t focus on a pastor’s personal style, but focus instead on the pastor’s faithful preaching.

I.

What do you suppose the apostle Paul was like as a pastor and preacher?  You wouldn’t find too many people who would argue against the idea that Paul was the greatest missionary the Christian church has ever seen.  He is the author of nearly half of the New Testament’s books.  After Jesus, it seems safe to say that Paul is the most important figure in the New Testament.  Surely he must have had a quite a “pulpit presence” when he preached and taught.

Well…that’s not what it sounds like if we listen to Paul’s own description of himself.  Our reading begins, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.”  Paul said that he had neither words nor wisdom that would have been perceived to be superior to everything else they had ever heard or learned.  There was nothing flashy about Paul’s message.  He simply proclaimed “the testimony about God,” a message that he defined in the next verse as “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” There was nothing particularly impressive to talk about a guy that died a criminal’s death via the most gruesome form of capital punishment concocted in the first century.

But then Paul takes his self-analysis a step further.  Not only does he say that his message wasn’t all that stunning by worldly standards, but he says that his own personal style was rather unimpressive.  “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” 

In a previous parish I served, I once confronted a woman in the congregation who was living together with her boyfriend apart from marriage.  After being ignored for quite some time, her boyfriend called me up.  He argued with what I said and threatened to come over to the church to meet me and “take care of business.”  Do you think incidents like that might make pastors a little “gun shy” when Scripture calls them to address sin and preach a message that might not always be so popular?

Let’s think about what the apostle Paul had endured during his ministry.  Unjust beatings.  Unfair imprisonment.  Riots.  Tense escapes from cities.  All of these things were a part of his biography by the time Paul arrived at cosmopolitan Corinth, a city with a long and rich history of loose morality.  Do you think that would have caused Paul to come to them “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling”?  I think so!  How could it not?

Now maybe you hear Paul describe himself in this timid manner and think that he’s just being polite and humble.  But remember some of the complaints Paul received about his ministry from the very people who received this letter.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes what his critics said about him: “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Corinthians 10:10).  And if that doesn’t convince you, remember that Paul was the preacher who went on talking for so long on one occasion that someone sitting in a window listening to him fell asleep and fell out the window (Acts 20:7-12).  Maybe Paul was completely honest when he said there was nothing impressive about his style.  His point is clear: There was nothing particular striking about Paul that made him “Mr. Missionary” to the Gentiles.  If the Corinthian congregation had built itself on Paul’s slick presentations or smooth way with words…well, there wouldn’t be much to build on!

In the 1950’s, a Reformed minister by the name of Robert Schuller started a new church in Garden Grove, California.  Although it began with a completely different name, most of you probably know that church today as the Crystal Cathedral.  I don’t know to what degree you all follow religious news in America, but I suspect that a good number of you are aware that the Crystal Cathedral congregation was built heavily on Robert Schuller, the man.  Now that Schuller is retired and family members have taken over the ministry, the danger of building a church on a man is readily apparent.  The church has filed for bankruptcy, the building has been sold to the local Roman Catholic diocese, and the church’s Board of Directors has fired three Schuller relatives from the congregation.  When you build a church on a person, don’t expect it to do well when the person you build it on isn’t there anymore.

There is no question that a congregation can be greatly blessed through the ministry of a faithful pastor.  But there is also no question that focusing on a pastor’s personal style is still focusing on a sinful human being—and the last time I checked, sinful human beings make a lousy foundation for a church’s existence.  What if the congregation I served in the Bay Area for a decade had built its ministry around me—what would have happened when I took a call to serve St. Mark’s last summer?  What would happen if the congregations of all these pastors before you today built themselves on the man in front?  What will happen if Mt. Calvary congregation builds itself on Doebler, or Pechman, or Prange, or on some future pastor who will serve you down the road?  Friends, the answer is obvious, and the Holy Spirit’s warning is clear.  If your resolution this day is to build this church on the basis of a mere mortal, on the personal style of a pastor, then your foundation is unstable, your focus is misguided, and your trust in God and his precious Word is sorely lacking.

II.

So where should our focus be?  If it is an improper resolution to center our ministry on a pastor’s persona, then where should Mt. Calvary congregation direct its resolution for its future?  Just as St. Paul helps us to see where our attention should not, be, he also helps us to see where our attention should be.  In verse two of our reading, Paul gives us the right resolution for Mt. Calvary on this day.  “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  I suspect that those words are quite familiar to most if not all of us here today.  But step back for a moment and think about that.  Of all the things in Jesus’ life that Paul could have resolved to focus on, he picks the biggest “downer” of them all.  The center point of his preaching and teaching among them was not the birth of Jesus proclaimed by angels, or the miracles of Jesus witnessed by others, or preaching of Jesus that encouraged us to love one another.  This was Paul’s ministry resolution: “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Why would Paul say that?  Surely he knew that the picture of a crucified and dying man was not one that would resonate very well with a first century audience!  No one on his own would choose to proclaim this kind of message to establish any kind of religious community.  But that is the point!  At the end of our reading, Paul said, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Paul’s term for “preaching” implied someone speaking as a herald—a messenger for the king.  Paul was most certainly not preaching his own message, but God’s message.  And if it was God’s message, then it was a message packed with divine power.  The message of Christ crucified wasn’t some sort of religious fact that you stored in the back of your mind; it was “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”—power to convert the lost to faith in Christ and to confirm the found in their faith in Christ.

If the Holy Spirit was the reason for the Corinthians’ faith, and if the message they came to believe in was not Paul’s message to begin with, then Paul could rightly say what he did in the final verse of our reading: his message was “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”  By centering his ministry on Christ crucified, Paul not only kept the attention off himself, but he could also say with a clear conscience that the power source for their faith was clearly rooted in God, not some mere mortal man.

I find it instructive to see how Paul defines faithful Christian preaching: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Notice that Paul didn’t simply say: “preaching from the Bible.”  He doesn’t simply say: “preaching spiritual concerns.”  And if this little statement from Paul defines faithful Christian preaching, then it also defines where you will find the Holy Spirit’s power at work.

Let me expand this thought further.  Several decades ago, the Christian church essentially had a battle for the Bible.  Some claimed that the Bible isn’t necessarily factual, true, or historical.  Those on the other side of the debate confessed—properly—that the Bible is entirely true, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and without any errors.  This theological battle waged on for some time, but in time the lines were drawn and it became clear which pastors and which churches professed each position.  Our church body is among those that properly professed that the Bible is the true, inspired, and error-free Word of God.

But now there is a new battle among those who hold to the Bible’s truthfulness.  Now the question is: What is this book supposed to be about?  Is the Word of God about God’s advice, his inspiration for your life, his direction for your daily decisions, a book of moral and practical advice featuring Jesus as your life coach?  Or is the Word of God about one man’s innocent life lived on behalf of us all, the perfectly obedient Son of God whose determination to redeem a world full of sinners led him to lay down his life on the cross—a book that primarily tells you what Jesus has done for you by his agony and death?

Sometimes it is hard to identify the problem because both sides of this new debate will use Scripture to make their point.  And truth be told, Scripture certainly does give us direction for our day to day lives of godly living.  But remember Paul’s ultimate “bottom line” statement: “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  As odd as this may sound, it is insufficient for a pastor to simply say that his preaching is based on the Bible.  I know that sounds odd, but remember that the Bible has one central message, and the message is not relationship advice or financial wisdom or popular psychology.  The Bible’s central message is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  And what an important message that is for us to hear!  Jesus’ crucifixion and death that we remember in this season has washed away every last one of your sins—even the sins of misdirected preachers and misguided parishioners.  Jesus’ blood has washed away your sin.  His agony has spared you from hell.  His sacrificed has freed you from the accusations of guilt that would have otherwise stood for eternity.  And it is this very message, Mt. Calvary congregation, that you ought to expect—yes, demand—from your pastor each and every Sunday.  Resolve as a congregation to expect Christ crucified preached and applied to you every Sunday and every service, as Pastor Doebler proclaims the blood of Jesus from this pulpit, as he applies the blood-filled waters of the font to souls, and as he serves you with the body and blood of Jesus that you will receive from your new pastor for the first time this evening.

Pastor Doebler, if you have a “resolution” today as a pastor, make it that: to “know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  And my brothers in the ministry, you and I know that any installation service is a time when we can’t help but reflect on our own ministries; as you do that today, re-resolve to preach the crucified Christ.  And Mt. Calvary congregation, let this day be a day when you also re-resolve to center your worship, your Bible studies, your school, your outreach, and even your pastor’s schedule and responsibilities on the message of Christ crucified.

Look at what that focus and divine message gives you!  Think of the miracle of forgiveness that is announced and delivered to you at the start of worship each week.  As your pastor stands in this pulpit, vested with clothing that symbolizes his office, think of the proclamation that you are privileged to hear each week—an emancipation proclamation from sin’s eternal effects!  Think of the miracle that takes place at this altar, as the Sacrifice that has already atoned for your sin now comes to you in the Sacrament and personally delivers Christ’s forgiveness to you.  Resolve to let this gospel message and these Means of Grace to be the essence of your ministry.

Conclusion

Mt. Calvary congregation, I have no doubt that you will love and respect and appreciate your new pastor.  God has blessed you with a man of many gifts, a person with a very likeable personality, and a pastor with a heart for people.  I don’t think there’s much more that any congregation could want in its pastor.  Well…maybe there is one more thing you ought to desire in your pastor.  But that one more thing is hardly a surprise given our time to spend pondering Paul’s words tonight.  Resolve together as pastor and people that your pastor’s ministry and your congregation’s purpose will be to carry out one simple but oh-so-important task.  Pastor Doebler, Mt. Calvary congregation: Make Paul’s resolution your resolution.  “I resolved to know nothing while I was among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Amen.

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