Sunday’s sermon: God Above All

God above all

Texts used – Isaiah 40:12-25; John 10:1-10

  • Last week, we began our Lenten sermon series on the Creeds and Confessions of the Presbyterian Church – talking about what they are, where they came from, why their important, and how they continue to connect us to God and help us to learn about and grow in our faith.
    • Just a refresher
      • Importance of the creeds/confessions outlined by the late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: The creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[1]
      • 10 creeds/confessions that have been adopted into our Book of Confessions
      • Tackling 5 of those creeds/confessions during Lent
        • Started with the oldest – the Nicene Creed last Sunday
        • This week: jumping to the creeds that come out of the 20th → 1st: The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • Now, in order to begin talking about The Theological Declaration of Barmen – or, more simply, The Barmen Declaration – I want to introduce you to a man named Karl Barth[2].
    • Karl Barth is a huge name in the world of theology. His works are required reading for many seminary courses across denominations, and there are a number of seminaries that will teach an entire course devoted solely to Barth and his writings/teachings.
    • Born in Basel, Switzerland in 1886 → father = Swiss Reformed preacher and prof. of New Testament and early church history at University of Bern
    • Eventually decided to follow in his father’s footsteps: ordained in 1909 and served as a pastor in a few small, parish churches before shifting his life and career path to academia (Incidentally, this shift is also the move that brought Barth into Germany.) → eventually became Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Munich starting in 1930
    • Now, if you’re following Barth’s timeline and mentally lining it up with a timeline of global history, you’ve probably realized that Barth was in Germany throughout WWI and into the start of WWII. This point is crucial, because Barth had a critical role to play in Nazi Germany and in the life of Hitler’s Third Reich: a role of opposition.
      • Was fundamentally opposed to the Nazi party and their overtly racist agenda before Hitler even rose to power in 1933
      • Was largely responsible for writing The Barmen Declaration in 1934 – a confession of faith adopted by 139 evangelical clergy and lay people that became one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church Movement in Germany
        • Confessing Church = those churches who spoke out and led spiritual resistance against Hitler and the Nazis
        • German Christian Church = those churches who used theology and Scripture to justify the horrors and actions of the Third Reich
    • Barth actually mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler himself! → eventually forced to leave Germany in 1935 because he refused to swear a loyalty pledge to Hitler without including his own clause: “to the extent that I responsibly am able as a Protestant Christian.”
    • Returned to Switzerland and continued to teach theology and write prolifically throughout the rest of his life
  • So that gives you some historical context for the writing of the Barmen Declaration. It is a document that comes out of Nazi Germany, and it is a document whose sole purpose is to oppose Hitler’s total authoritarianism and hostility toward the church. At that time, Hitler was basically claiming power over everything. He was claiming that the government had power over all aspects of life – that nationalism was more important than anything and everything else, including faith.
    • Rogers: Hitler believed that Germany would become a great power only when it had been welded into a powerful military nation. The necessary initial steps were to be purification of the race, elimination of class distinctions, removal of divisive elements such as political parties and religious denominations, and a new system of education.[3]  → Hitler wanted to remove anything that would oppose his totalitarian regime, and that included all of those pesky Confessing Christians who kept trying to claim that God was more important.
  • And that gets down to the main purpose of the Theological Declaration of Barmen: to declare that God is God above all else. Period.
    • Admittedly probably one of the more difficult documents to read because of the way it’s written (writing style of the time)
    • Basics
      • Begins with some basic declarations …
        • About who Confessing Church was
        • About the paramount importance of prayer and Scripture
        • About how people need to decide for themselves if the declaration was speaking the truth (instead of following blindly as Hitler demanded)
        • About how the integrity of the Church (universal and German churches in particular) was being threatened by the subservience and complicity of the German Christians with the Nazi Party
        • About how those writing and adopting the Barmen Declaration could, in true and good faith, no longer keep silent
      • “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and are also thereby breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:”[4]
        • Outlines 6 “evangelical truths” that follow a basic formula:
          • All begin with Scripture
          • All declare some aspect about the authority of God and the predominant nature of the claim that God has on our lives
          • All reject false doctrines laid out by Hitler and upheld by the German Christian movement that the state has more power over people’s lives than God
            • E.g. – We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.[5]  → Basically, God is God … and we are not, no matter who wants to tell us that they are or how hard someone or something else tries to be. God is God … and we are not.
  • Now, while we are certainly – and very thankfully! – not living in Nazi Germany today, there continue to be plenty of things that vie heavily for our attention and our devotion over and above our faith. There are plenty of distractions … plenty of “but what about this” moments … plenty of idols that we both encounter and create as we go about our day-to-day lives.
    • Some of the things that we can let eclipse our faith
      • Careers
      • Relationships (healthy or otherwise)
      • Politics
      • Material things
      • Addictions/compulsions
      • Overbooked schedules
      • Hobbies/pastimes
      • Fears/worries/anxieties
      • Technology
      • We have so many different things that try to compete with God for our attention and devotion. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • Exactly what our Scripture readings this morning address
      • OT passage kicks off with great questions: Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance? Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor? Whom did he consult for enlightenment? Who taught [God] the path of justice and knowledge and explained to him the way of understanding? … All the nations are like nothing before God. They are viewed as less than nothing and emptiness. So to whom will you equate God; to what likeness will you compare him?[6]  → I love the attitude of these questions. They are just a little bit snarky, and they’re the quintessential rhetorical questions because they literally have no answer. “Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand?” Ummm … no one but God. “Who has gauged the heavens with a ruler?” Again … no one but God. “Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor?” Yup, you guessed it … no one but God. And then the crucial question: “To whom will you equate God?” [PAUSE] God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • NT reading = Jesus addressing exactly those like Hitler and anyone else who tries to lure us away with false words and doctrines and promises – text: I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. … I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[7]  → Jesus speaks of sheep and shepherds and thieves. Jesus speaks of us and of God and of all those who wish to pull us away from our true home and identity in Christ – those who would steal our attention, our enthusiasm, our devotion.
      • Speaks in warning against those who would act as thieves
      • Speaks in warning to us: Be on the lookout! Do not follow the voice and the temptations of the thieves!
      • But Jesus also speaks in reassurance – reassurance that the shepherd is always with us, ready to lead us and shelter us and provide for us; and reassurance that our Good Shepherd does indeed have the best intentions for us. – text: He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and the follow him, because they know his voice. … I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[8]
  • Friends, there will always be people and experiences and things that try to be our “be all, end all” – that try to fill whatever void we have inside us; that try to convince us that truly, they are all we will ever need; that try to get us to lift them up above all else in our lives; that try to be a god in our eyes and our hearts. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things. They cannot hold the seas or measure the heavens. They cannot lead us safely to green pastures and still waters. They cannot compare to the One who created us, named us, claimed us as God’s own before we even knew any of these other things existed.
    • From Barmen: The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church or pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely [Christ’s] property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his directions in the expectation of his appearance.[9]  → And so we lift up the one Triune God above all. Because God is God, and thanks be to God, we are not. Amen.

[1] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 23.

[2] http://barth.ptsem.edu/karl-barth/biography.

[3] Rogers, 177 (emphasis added).

[4] The Theological Declaration of Barmen from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 8.09.

[5] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.15.

[6] Is 40:12-14, 17-18.

[7] Jn 10:1, 9-10.

[8] Jn 10:3b-4, 10b.

[9] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.17.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: God Above All

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Rebuilding the Ruins | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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