Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 27, 2017

Start the Sermon with … Nothing!

Someone asked me recently, “Does the Seminary teach pastors how to capture people’s attention at the start of the sermon?” Fortunately, the question was not a subtle criticism (as in “Hey, can you stop putting me to sleep in the first minute?”). But the question did get me to launch on one of my personal liturgical hobby horses, and since this is an issue that has come up several times in recent conversations, it’s probably worth sharing with a larger audience. So here it is!

When The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) was the main worship book in the pews of WELS congregations, it was fairly common that the congregation stood after the pre-sermon hymn, that the minister spoke a pulpit greeting (such as Philippians 1:2), and that he announced and read the Bible reading that was the basis for that day’s sermon (i.e. the “sermon text”). In some cases, a prayer was also spoken before the congregation sat down again and the pastor began the actual sermon, usually with another greeting such as “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”


The pulpit in the Chapel of the Christ at Martin Luther College (New Ulm, MN)

Part of the reason for this practice may have been the simple fact that the days of TLH were also the days of the one-year lectionary with only two readings per Sunday. Many pastors, looking for more homiletical options than the two readings that were just used 12 months ago, preached on other Scripture selections besides those already read in the service. So it made sense to read the sermon text at the start of the sermon, and, for reasons I won’t get into here, there was also some ceremony around that reading, noted above. (As a side note, TLH also prescribed a post-sermon pulpit blessing: the congregation stood and the minister spoke Philippians 4:7 before the congregation sang its response to the Word of God with a musical setting of Psalm 51:10-12).

Christian Worship does not prescribe any sort of pre- or post-sermon ritual, and so some of what is described above has changed since the days of TLH. My experience has been that few congregations stand anymore at the start of the sermon for the reading of the text. Pastors often preach on a lesson that they read earlier, and so they aren’t rereading the text, but only mentioning the Bible reference and perhaps rereading a key verse or two. But some of the TLH pre-sermon ceremony still remains in several settings.

I’m obviously all for beneficial ceremony and ritual in worship! But I question whether the start of the sermon is the place for retaining these TLH-era customs. Without suggesting that there was anything wrong or improper with those customs, I’d argue that it may be better to set those previous customs aside:  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 20, 2017

Sermon for the Commemoration of St. Joseph


  1. With humility, Joseph obeyed God to protect his Son
  2. With humility, Joseph was used by God to fulfill his plan

Based on Matthew 2:13-15,19-23


“Humility is the first mark of a Christian,” once said one of my college professors. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less,” said C.S. Lewis. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who … humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross,” said the Apostle Paul to the Philippians (2:5,8).

On the other hand, “Nice guys finish last”—so the popular saying goes. No one ever accused Vince Lombardi or Bill Belichick of being humble. Candidates for political office don’t usually run ads promoting their humility—which sounds like an oxymoronic thing to do!

A few sermons preached in this pulpit during this Lenten season have emphasized the pendulum swing we often find ourselves on between the arrogant and proud Pharisee inside us and the down and despairing tax collector who also lives in us. Between those two extremes is a place for proper humility. We’re not talking about the false humility of despair, but the Christian humility that trusts God and his Word and boasts solely in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Church remembers Saint Joseph, the earthly step-father of Jesus. There isn’t a lot we can say about Joseph because Joseph didn’t say a lot. Not a single word he uttered is recorded in the Bible. But we do see in Joseph a man of godly humility. In Joseph, we see a humble man that God used to accomplish his great purpose. And that lesson from Joseph’s life as the step-father of Jesus is the lesson that the Holy Spirit teaches in the Gospel for this day that is set aside on the Church’s calendar to remember Joseph. God uses humble men to accomplish his great purpose. With humility, Joseph obeyed God to protect his Son. With humility, Joseph was used by God to fulfill his plan.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 5, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 3:1-15


 Based on Genesis 3:1-15


Name two people that make a stark contrast with one another. President Trump vs. President Obama. A Packers fan vs. a Vikings fan. A quinoa-consuming California vegan vs. a guy who uses his well-worn Arch Card to buy two Big Macs a day. The New York banker who flies in and out of LaGuardia at least once a week vs. the rural northern Wisconsin farmer who has never traveled more than fifty miles from his house.

Those are interesting comparisons to think about, but they have little to no bearing on your life. Perhaps the economic policies of a president affect your portfolio. Perhaps the outcome of another Packers-Vikings game affects your mood for 12 to 24 hours. But beyond that, these contrasts are just interesting observations.

Today’s service places before us a stark contrast of two people who couldn’t be more different, and both of them have a very direct effect on your life. We were reintroduced to one of those men in today’s First Reading and to the other in today’s Gospel. Between those two readings, we saw Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the God-man confront Satan’s temptations. The results of those incidents couldn’t be any different—and the ramifications of these two incidents on you and me couldn’t be any different either! This morning we will especially concentrate on the First Reading as we look at the difference between Adam and Jesus and make a stark Lenten contrast—in their response to Satan’s temptations, and in the results of their actions.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 7, 2017

Sermon on 1 Peter 2:9-12


  1. You live in the light
  2. Help others to see the light

 Based on 1 Peter 2:9-12


I want more sunlight! The last time I spent a full winter in Wisconsin was the winter of 2000-01 during my last year as a student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. I recall that we had a particularly snowy December that winter. I knew that returning to my state of origin meant that the last and first months of each year would be much colder, but I don’t think I considered much about the lack of sunlight during the winter months. But now that we’re here, I know I would appreciate some more light!

dscn2177The lack of sunlight can lead to a deficiency in Vitamin D, and that can lead to all sorts of other issues: psychological depression (especially in the form of “SAD”—Seasonal Affect Disorder), increased likelihood of catching the flu, even the lack of proper eye development in children. So if the weather is warm enough and the clouds are blocking the sunshine, a walk out in the sunlight even on a winter’s day can do quite a bit of good!

What is true for the body is also true for the soul. Two Sundays ago, our service’s Scripture selections and sermon helped us to think about the importance of receiving the proper “Light” for our souls. That light is the message of the gospel, how Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again to win our forgiveness and salvation from sin. Today we return to that “light” metaphor that we heard two Sundays ago, and we take that thought a step farther. Just as sunlight produces positive benefits for our bodies, so the message of Jesus, the Light of the world, produces positive benefits for our souls and in our lives. Peter teaches us that point in today’s Second Reading from his first letter. Peter encourages us to say (along with the writer of today’s opening hymn), “I want to walk as a child of the light!” God has made us to live in his light, and he now encourages us to live our lives in a way that helps others to see the light.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 12, 2017

Advent Sermon Series for Reformation Year

Luther sealI am belatedly posting a midweek Advent sermon that I preached last month, but the sermon series it comes from may be a useful idea for other pastors and churches to look at near the end of this year. It is no secret in Lutheran circles that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation–specifically, the anniversary of Luther posting his 95 Theses, formally called Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.  The posting of the 95 Theses was the first of many events that led to the Lutheran Reformation of the Church.

Lutheran congregations will be observing this anniversary in a number of ways throughout 2017–from Reformation-themed Bible studies, to seminars, to children’s Christmas services based on Lutheran hymnody, to (of course) festive Reformation services later this year near the actual anniversary day of the posting of the 95 Theses, October 31.

One way that this anniversary year could be concluded is with the following midweek Advent sermon series. The idea for this series isn’t original with me; I first saw this used as a midweek Advent sermon series in 2000 at Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee (where I happened to be serving as the Seminary student assistant during my last year of studies at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary). Since then, I have repeated this sermon series in all three of the congregations I have served.

Here’s how we described this “Lutheran Advent sermon series” in the service booklets at Crown of Life Lutheran Church during this past Advent season (2016); a few minor edits would make this introduction suitable for an Advent series later this year (2017):

Martin Luther once observed that there were three “ingredients” that turned a man into a good theologian. These three ingredients are summarized in three Latin words:

  • meditatio (meditation, or study of God’s Word)
  • oratio (prayer)
  • tentatio (testing, or trials)

What is true of theologians is true of all Christians. God uses these three things—meditation, prayer, and testing—to draw us closer to him as we wait for the day of Christ’s return.

As we stand on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, our midweek Evening Prayer series for this Advent season will help us Prepare the Way for the Lord by considering how God prepares our hearts for his Son’s advent through the three ingredients Luther observed: meditation, prayer, and testing. As we listen to the Advent story in Luke 1 during these services, we will also ponder three different sections of Psalm 119 that highlight the themes of meditation, prayer, and testing. Join us for worship as the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts to celebrate Jesus’ first advent and to anticipate his second advent.

  • November 30 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – in Meditation
  • December 7 | Psalm 119:145-152 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – with Prayer
  • December 14 | Psalm 119:65-72 | Prepare the Way for the Lord – through Testing

Because I’ve preached at least one of the sermons in this series at several different congregations, I have written sermons for all three texts at some point. I offer a sample sermon for all three texts below, with the hope that others will find this series useful in their own congregations later this year and for their own devotional use at any time.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 26, 2016

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44


  1. We don’t know when he will come,
  2. But we do know what will happen.

 Based on Matthew 24:36-44


Perhaps you are familiar with the name Nicholas Thomas Wright. N.T. Wright, as he is often known, is a New Testament scholar in the Anglican Church. He has written many scholarly works and also many popular Bible commentaries. In his commentary that covers today’s Gospel account, he shared the following personal anecdote:

matthewforeveryone2It was a fine Saturday afternoon in the heat of summer. The family, some on holiday from work, were relaxing in the house and the garden. Books and magazines were lying around the place, along with coffee mugs, newspapers and packets of biscuits. Everything had the look of the sort of cheerful untidiness that a large family can create in about an hour.

Suddenly there was a ring at the doorbell. Wondering vaguely which friend might be calling I went to answer it, dressed as I was in very casual clothes. There, outside, to my horror, was a party of 30 or so well-dressed visitors. They had arranged, many months before, to come to look at the house, because of its historic associations. And neither I nor the family had remembered a thing about it.

You can imagine the next five minutes. I suggested that the visitors went into the garden for a little while (‘to get a good look at the house from the outside’), and then mobilized the family to clear everything up. Within minutes everything was clean and tidy. The children retreated into bedrooms. We opened the front door again and the visit went ahead.

You can tidy a house in a few minutes, if you put your mind to it. But you can’t reverse the direction of a whole life, a whole culture. By the time the ring on the doorbell happens it’s too late. That’s what this passage … [is] about.

Matthew for Everyone, Part 2

Today’s service puts us in mind of Jesus’ second Advent, that is, his second coming into this world. As we get ready to celebrate Jesus’ first entrance into this world at his birth, we need to be honest about the situation: Jesus came once, and as we think about his first entrance this time of year, we also have to “get real” about his second coming. N.T. Wright’s personal anecdote is a fitting everyday illustration for our thoughts today—except that if we aren’t ready for Jesus’ Advent, it is not merely a social faux pas or a personal embarrassment. If we aren’t ready for Jesus’ Advent, we can’t tidy up our hearts in five minutes and hastily prepare ourselves. But if we aren’t ready for Jesus’ Advent, we will face eternal consequences. Jesus is coming! Are you ready? Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel help us to be ready. He reminds us to be ready because we don’t know when he will come, but we do know what will happen when he does.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 18, 2016

Sermon on Colossians 1:13-20


  1. He rules over all
  2. He has reconciled all

 Based on Colossians 1:13-20


When a new person is put in charge of something—a project or a committee or a company—that person often has an agenda to improve whatever he is in charge of. Politicians run campaigns with the promise of changing things for the better. Look at our current and future presidents; both ran campaigns promising change! A new boss or supervisor comes into our workplace, and we compare them with the previous boss and evaluate which one was better. Packers fans have become so frustrated with our suddenly mediocre team that many have been calling for change at levels as high as the defensive coordinator, head coach, and general manager, and all with the assumption that a new coordinator or coach or G.M. will be better than what we have now. In every case, whether it’s the people who serve us in government, or who oversee our workplaces, or even run our favorite sports teams, we want people who are better than all the rest.

different religionsSometimes people think the same way about God. We live in a place where Christianity is the vastly predominant religion, but throughout our world many identify with other religions and “gods,” all with the hope that their religion and their god will make their lives better.

Thanks to God’s grace and his Word, we know the one and only path to God is through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Son of God has used the Word of God to plant faith in your heart, and as a result, you realize that you don’t need to look for some other “god” out there to rule your heart and guide your life. There is no better option—in fact, there really is no option at all—other than true God who tells about himself in the Bible and who reveals himself to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. On this final festive Sunday of the church year, our Second Lesson helps us to appreciate and celebrate that point. The only divine influence we need is Jesus Christ, because Christ is a king like no other. He rules over all, and he has reconciled all.


Today’s reading comes from the New Testament book called Colossians. It seems that the apostle Paul wrote this book, at least in part, to warn his readers about a false teaching that was starting to make its way into their minds. This false idea is sometimes called the “Colossian heresy.” So what was the problem? We can’t say with total certainty, but we can gather some information about this issue from Paul’s letter. It seems that there were some people, either in this church or influencing this church, who promoted ideas such as secret spiritual knowledge, or the benefits of a highly ascetic life, or obsession with cosmic, spiritual creatures. What these people failed to understand is that chasing after this spiritual fad would cause them to miss out on the real spiritual blessings that Jesus Christ offered and delivered.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 15, 2016

Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25


  1. Where problems are a thing of the past
  2. Where paradise is permanent

 Based on Isaiah 65:17-25


american flagSo how did you feel on Wednesday morning? The elections were over, the results were in, and the make-up of the next round of our local, state, and national leaders was clear for the most part. Like just about any election, half of our nation woke up with delight, and half woke up with disappointment.

Perhaps it is a happy coincidence that after a tough election process last week, the Bible readings for this week take our minds off this world and place our thoughts in the next world. That’s helpful both for those who are happy with last Tuesday’s election results and for those who are disappointed with those results. It’s safe to say that political differences of opinion do not change the fact that people with different opinions still want what they believe to be the best for our nation. But even if every election and referendum goes your way, you will never be able to achieve a perfect and problem-free society in this sinful world. That simply doesn’t happen now. That happens then—on the other side of the grave, forever in heaven. Your best life and your dream existence won’t happen now. Your best life will be then. And Isaiah helps us to appreciate that point in the First Lesson for today’s service. Your best life is coming then, in heaven, where problems are a thing of the past, and where paradise is permanent.


The second half of Isaiah’s book was written to the ancient people of Judah who would find themselves taken captive by a foreign nation. The homes they had built were vacant. The fruit in their vineyards was dying on the vine. The hopes they had for their children’s future had been dashed. It wasn’t a happy picture.

Isaiah knew his audience well. So did the Holy Spirit, who inspired Isaiah to write these words. To underscore the future reality that problems will be a thing of the past in heaven, Isaiah described heaven in verses 21-23 in these terms: “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.”

When we know the background of the people that these words were first written to, we can appreciate Isaiah’s word pictures of the problem-free existence of heaven. But he doesn’t only speak in terms that his ancient Jewish audience could relate to; he also uses metaphors that anyone from just about any era could appreciate.  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 31, 2016

Devotion for “Proud to Be Lutheran” Night

On Friday evening, October 21, Crown of Life Lutheran Church and School hosted “Proud to Be Lutheran” night. The evening included worship, a school play about Martin Luther, chili cook-off dinner, children’s artwork displays relating to the Lutheran Reformation, and more. The offering from the opening Evening Prayer service resulted in over $3,000 for tuition assistance at Crown of Life Lutheran School. The following devotion was a part of the evening’s opening service:

How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Twenty-three years ago, when our current hymnal, Christian Worship, was first published, there was a definite answer to that question. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Ten: One to change the bulb and nine to say how much they liked the old one better!

There is no shortage of jokes about Lutherans (just ask Garrison Kiellor to tell you a few!), and there is quite a bit of “inside humor” among Lutherans. Lutherans supposedly like to drink coffee even if it’s 110 degrees outside; rumor has it that some churches consider coffee to be a sacrament! Lutherans are known for filling a church from the back; rare is the person who willingly chooses to sit in the front row. Lutherans assume that Jello is one of the four basic food groups; in fact, if you’re really Lutheran, you prepare Jello that matches the liturgical color of the season. Lutherans are more reserved with their emotions in worship, to the degree that some have labeled Lutherans, “the frozen chosen.” Even though we are more reserved with our emotions, we are nevertheless quite musical: Lutherans can sing four-part harmony moments after coming out of the womb.

Most humor has an element of truth in it, and there is an element of truth in the humor you just heard, but at the end of the day, that’s all those comments are—humor. Your love of coffee does not make you Lutheran (which is good, because I don’t like coffee)! So what is it that makes you Lutheran?  Read More…

Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 3, 2016

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10


  1. It proclaims a serious message
  2. It requires serious humility

 Based on Luke 17:1-10


The pastors who participated in my Installation Service at Crown of Life Lutheran Church in Hubertus, Wisconsin on September 25, 2016.


“So, Pastor, what are you going to do to grow this church?” The new pastor was a bit surprised to receive this question from a member of his new congregation on his first Sunday. He sensed a presumption in the question that he was supposed to have some kind of silver bullet or magic formula that would make the ministry flourish there. In light of what he sensed, he answered this practical question with a theological answer. “What are you going to do to grow this church?” The pastor responded, “Preach the gospel!”

Setting aside any assumptions about silver bullets and magic formulas, it certainly isn’t inappropriate to be thinking about the ministry today, especially as we begin our relationship together as pastor and congregation. I would imagine that when I arrived at my previous congregations, people had their own questions. What was my ministry going to look like? What kind of pastor would I be? Would the kind of pastor I would be line up with their expectations or hopes? Those questions are fair questions. They were fair questions for people to ask five and fifteen years ago when I arrived at my two previous parishes. They were fair questions thirteen years ago when Pastor Helwig arrived at Crown of Life. And they are fair questions this weekend as your newly installed pastor begins his ministry to this congregation.

This is a natural occasion for us to think about the ministry. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus’ words contain helpful thoughts as we begin our ministry together as new associate pastor and congregation. Even though Jesus wasn’t speaking directly about the ministry in Luke 17, we’ll find a good deal of direction and encouragement about the ministry in these verses. Today’s Gospel teaches us that the ministry is serious business. It’s serious business because the ministry proclaims a serious message, and it requires serious humility.  Read More…

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