Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent Midweek 3: Catechesis

“But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife…’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, we take education very seriously in our country. We require parents to send their children to school, with the expectation that they will stay for all twelve years. Secondary degrees, from community colleges, universities, and trade schools are more common and necessary than ever before. Then, once you graduate, most professions have continuing education and recertifications, all in an effort to keep you up to date and fully trained for your tasks. About the only place that we stop learning is in the Christian Church. For too many, confirmation is graduation, despite the hundreds of sermons preached specifically to counter such a belief. Sunday morning worship attracts around a third of a congregation’s membership, and bible classes only attract a third of them. Many young children don’t come to Sunday school, and most high school and college age students don’t go to any bible classes at all. The pastoral office is one of the few professions not required to receive continuing education, and so many pastors don’t bother, and their congregations don’t expect them to.

The story of Christmas is a striking example of just how vital teaching and learning is for the life of the Church, for when we find Joseph in our Gospel lesson, we see that he was in desperate need of teaching, for he was about to make a very bad decision. “When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” He was going to do the right thing and protect Mary by divorcing her quietly. But Joseph didn’t have all the facts, he didn’t know everything he needed to. He was in need of catechesis. Now catechesis is much more than simply learning facts or being given information. Catechesis is imparting knowledge of God, giving and strengthening faith. Joseph didn’t need a lesson from a textbook, he needed to have faith in what the Holy Spirit was doing. And the Lord was ready to teach. The angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” In one lesson, Joseph learns all that he needs to. He learns that he can trust Mary; her child is a miracle through the Holy Spirit. And he learns that this miracle child is the promised Messiah, the one who will save us from our sins. God has catechized Joseph, so that he can go forth in his given task as the guardian of our Lord.

When the appointed time came, Joseph’s adopted Son continued the catechesis given to his earthly father. If you own a red-letter Bible, it becomes quickly apparent that the bulk of the content in the four Gospels is the teaching of Jesus. He has come to teach, to bring knowledge of God to His people. He has come to bring divine catechesis, as Isaiah prophesied: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” He taught, He preached, He admonished in order to create and sustain faith in His hearers, to reveal to them the ways of the Lord. But His most important sermon, His most vital catechesis, would contain precious few words. Jesus had come to reveal our Creator as a God of love, and that lesson, that sermon, was given on the cross. There Jesus showed forth His Father as a God of mercy and grace, as He gave up His own life in our place. He demonstrated God’s love through His sacrifice, but that sacrifice was much more than an object lesson. His death actually reconciled us to God, it removed our sin, and with His resurrection on the third day, Jesus demonstrated that death itself was conquered, revealing our God as the God of salvation.

The cross and empty tomb are together the focus and foundation of all catechesis, for they are the object of our faith, they are what we are taught to believe in. Christ sent His Church to spread this knowledge to go throughout the world, so that all people could be catechized, knowing their Creator the only way He can be known, through the death and resurrection of His Son. Isaiah prophesied that in the Messianic age people of all nations would say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” Christ has sent out His Church to teach, to catechize, bringing the true knowledge of God and the salvation He has won to all the nations of the earth.

The congregation that takes this task seriously will be built on the foundation of catechesis. Our primary goal will be to educate all people, our own members and those outside of these walls, in the truths of the faith. Inculcating and strengthening faith will shape all that we do as a congregation. We will always be teaching and learning. Our handbook will be the Small Catechism; it will have a treasured place in our lives, not just for confirmation students and prospective members, but for all of us. We will encourage our children to be in Sunday school, we will exhort our high school and college students to attend bible class. We will be as serious about the education of our youth in the Word of the Lord as we are about their education in math, science, English, or history. Our congregation’s life will be focused on teaching and learning, every age, every week.

The pastor who sees catechesis as foundational will always be teaching, but he will also always be learning. He will seek out opportunities to read new books, to hear new speakers, and attend continuing education seminars. He may even seek out an advanced degree, all with the goal of learning more so that he may teach more. The catechism will be much more to him than a textbook. It will be his pastoral manual, so that he will be constantly referring to it in preaching and counseling, as well as when he teaches on any subject, constantly seeking to deliver the truth of God’s Word to those entrusted to his care. He, too, will remain a humble student of the catechism, remembering Luther’s statement that even he remained a pupil of the catechism his entire life.

The Christian who hungers and thirsts for the knowledge of the Lord which creates and strengthens faith will never graduate. You will constantly be learning, seeking new opportunities to learn more about the Lord and His Word. You will study the bible in class and at home, always seeking to mine its inexhaustible depths. The catechism will be a living book for you, not something that you put away after confirmation, but a book that shapes your life as a Christian day by day. You will take in as many classes as your vocations allow, even being unashamed to join adult catechesis and go through the catechism once again. Your mentality will be that of a humble learner, one who has never learned enough or learned it fully enough. You will never be satisfied with God’s Word, but will constantly seek to drink it in.

For God’s Word is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. We are always in need, and God will never stop providing. He pours out His knowledge upon us through Christ, the Word made flesh for our salvation, the Word which even today God continues to give to us through the Scriptures and through proclamation, forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith. The Word is God’s gift to us, now and for eternity, as Isaiah declares: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Perfect catechesis will characterize the new heavens and new earth, for there our God, who redeemed us through the death and resurrection of Christ, will be fully revealed as a God of love, forever. In the Name of the Word, our great catechist, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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