Let’s jump back in time to your grade school grammar classes. Yes, I know – most people did really not like grammar class, and neither did I. But if you are going to be able to speak or write in a manner that at the very least can be understood by others who hated grammar class as much as some of us did, you’ve got to learn and be able to use some basics.
Case in point: verbs. In its simplest form, a verb is what your teacher called a “doing word.” A verb can express a physical action … or it can express a mental action … or it can express a state of being. With an active verb, you do something. With an inactive verb, you have something done to you.
For example, let’s look back again at the story of Lazarus. We all remember that story, don’t we? Just three weeks ago it was our Gospel lesson and the subject of our sermon meditation. Lazarus was dead and had been buried for four days when Jesus showed up at the home of Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha. His body, as was the custom, was tightly wrapped in burial cloths and had been laid in a tomb. After four days his body was already decaying – a nice way of saying that it had begun to smell very, very bad. Our ESV translation sanitizes the description to say that “there will be an odor,” but here I prefer the old King James language, which quotes Martha as saying: “By this time he stinketh.” But the thought of a foul stink didn’t deter our Lord. Jesus approached the tomb and called Lazarus to come out. Which he did.
Now let’s look at this account in terms of verb forms. We all know that dead people have no power within them whatsoever. It is physically impossible for dead people to do action verbs. Was Lazarus in any way responsible for his resurrection? Of course not. Did Lazarus somehow make himself come back to life and start walking out the entrance of the tomb? No.
So who did the action verbs? Who did the doing? Jesus did. Who brought life back into that dead and decaying body? Jesus did.
Let’s look at another situation that might hit closer to home. Let’s say you suddenly become ill. You are in terrible pain. No matter what you try, you keep getting sicker and the pain keeps getting worse. It’s at night or a weekend and you really don’t want to go to the ER. After all, going to the hospital humbles us – it shows that we are not able to take care of ourselves. When we finally go we realize – still probably very grudgingly – that help can only come from the outside. We need someone else to help us get better and cure whatever is ailing us. If your problem is really serious, you could actually die without the care and intervention of someone else.
But remember that we are proud people. We want to solve our own problems. And it humbles us to admit that we need someone else’s help because we just can’t get the job done by ourselves.
The same thing is true of our spiritual problems. In Psalm 51, King David says that all of us were conceived in sin. St. Paul told the Ephesians that we all were dead in our trespasses and sin and he told the Corinthians that mankind views the cross of Christ as foolishness. He told the Galatians that we sinners actually fight the Holy Spirit, and he explained to the Romans that we could never – never – please God. No action that we could ever take and no verb that we could ever do – try, try harder, work, work harder, pray, pray harder – could ever change that. We need help from the outside.
But just like when we need medical help, it is so very humbling to admit that we need help from outside ourselves. Spiritually, we cannot accept the truth that we are the problem and that we are incapable of healing ourselves. We are shamed to the very core of our existence. Our situation is so bad that our Savior – Jesus Christ – came from outside to rescue us from ourselves.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Do you want deliverance from the power of sin that lurks within your body? Are you seeking rescue from the unavoidable strength of the grave, whose fingers gradually tighten their grip as your body slowly but inevitably moves forward to drawing its last breath? Do you cry out to be released from past transgressions that keep you tossing and turning throughout the darkest hours of the darkest nights? Then hear what Jesus has done for you.
Our Epistle lesson this morning is from the first of two letters written by St. Peter and recorded for us in the New Testament. Like all of the apostles, Peter went on his mission still basking on the glow of Easter – on the energy of the deeds accomplished, the work done, the verbs of action by our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen and hear how Peter writes to us. Listen to the verbs.
According to His mercy – according to His unmerited kindness and goodness – Jesus has caused you to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Kept in heaven for you. Who by God’s power are guarded by faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
All this and more is what Jesus has done for you. He serves you because He loves and delights in you! That is why we Lutherans call this time on Sunday morning the Divine Service. Here the Divine Jesus Serves you with forgiveness of sins, mercy, truth and the gift of eternal life.
Jesus is the subject of the verbs. He – the Christ – the Resurrected One – is serving you, preparing for you an inheritance that is unspoiled, undefiled, kept just for you, sealed in His blood that flowed from His throne on Calvary.
The problem is that much of modern-day Christianity wants to mess with the verb forms. And to explain how our worship can go so very wrong when we muddle the verbs, let’s use the example of a wonderful staunch Missouri Synod Lutheran woman by the name of Grandma Schickelgruber.
Grandma Schickelgruber has a six-year-old granddaughter by the name of Ingrid. Grandma Schickelgruber joyfully says things like: “I think Ingrid is the most beautiful girl ever. I become very excited whenever Ingrid comes to visit. I’m just in heaven when I am with Ingrid.”
Now has Ingrid been praised by anything that her Grandma said about her? No, she has not. Amazingly – but not surprisingly for a proud grandparent – the subject of every sentence spoken by Grandma is – well, it is Grandma. It is all about Grandma and her feelings. She says that Ingrid is beautiful – but as far as we know, that may be Grandma’s opinion and no one else’s. Grandma gets excited when Ingrid comes to visit – but maybe Grandma has a pretty boring life and is easily amused. Grandma hears angels sing when she is with Ingrid, but that music might be all in her head.
Let’s let Grandma have another try at it. This time she says: “Ingrid is so lovely. How darling Ingrid is! Ingrid is always so happy and cheerful.”
Well, some progress has been made here. Grandma is no longer the subject of the three sentences, for the subject of each sentence is now her granddaughter Ingrid. But the words that Grandma uses to describe Ingrid could probably be used to describe a lot of six-year-old girls by their proud grandmothers.
So let’s give Grandma one more try. This time she says: “Ingrid is an avid reader of books and loves to go to the library. Ingrid takes tumbling lessons and hopes to be a gymnast like her older sister. Ingrid often helps her mother take care of her little brother Wolfgang by giving him his bottle and rocking him when he cries.”
Finally we see that Ingrid is the subject of these three sentences. Even better, Ingrid is described by Grandma through the use of verbs, which cannot be used interchangeably to describe other six-year-olds. Through the use of verbs, we definitely know which delightful six-year-old Grandma is so happily talking about. Grandma has showered praise on her beloved granddaughter – all through the use of verbs.
The first verse of our Epistle lesson begins with these words: “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Does Peter speak here about himself? No. Does Peter use adjectives to speak of Jesus? No. As we saw with the story about Grandma Schickelgruber and Ingrid, adjectives all-too-easily lend themselves to being used interchangeably for any number of the so-called gods worshipped and adored by those who do not believe in Jesus.
You praise Jesus when you confess what He has done for you through His innocent, bitter suffering and death. You confess Jesus when you confess what He has done for you though His resurrection. You confess Jesus by proclaiming what He has done for you.
The proper use of verbs in our worship must always focus not on what you do – but on what He has done for you. Again the words of St. Peter: “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” You “have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Note: this sermon was adapted from materials originally published in Concordia Pulpit Resources.