Unless there is a reason to do otherwise (like a significant event or circumstance in the congregation, the community or the world at large), it is most common for me to use the Gospel text as the primary basis for a sermon – drawing in material from the other readings. Occasionally the Epistle or the Old Testament lesson is selected as the primary text because it makes a clearer or more significant point. The reason for this is simple – our faith is founded on and centers around the person and work of Jesus. The Gospel text is about the person and work of Jesus as He accomplished the work of salvation for us. It is therefore the primary text to create and sustain faith and therefore most appropriate to the purposes of the Divine Service on Sunday morning.
When many were turning away from Jesus because they could not accept His teaching, He asked his closest disciples, “Do you want to go away, too?” St. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:55-69).
In another episode of Jesus’ ministry, He takes the pharisees to task saying, “You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you have eternal life, but these are they that testify of me!” (John 5:39). By this, Jesus means that all of Scripture points us to the salvation we have in Him because of His work on our behalf.
While some may call the Bible “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” Jesus indicates that the Bible is not primarily an “instruction book” telling us how to live. After all, God has written His law upon our hearts and we see it around us in creation. If we want to know God’s instructions for how to live our lives, we can look there. While the Bible does provide the clearest statements of God’s Law, the primary purpose of those statements is to convince us of our need to be saved and show us our complete inability to be and do what God demands of us.
The primary message of the Bible is not the LAW which shows us our sin, rather it is the GOSPEL which points us to Christ and His work for us. The Bible is the story of how, in spite of our rebellion and sin against God, God still loves us. It tells us what He has accomplished and is still doing to save us.
The Bible is the testimony of God’s love for a fallen and sinful mankind. The primary “instruction” it gives is to tell us to look to Jesus for salvation. It describes what Jesus has done for us, and how He has redeemed and saved from our sin, from death, and bought us back from our slavery to sin and the power of the devil. The Bible shows us who our Savior is and what He has done so that we may trust in Him and His work. For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
God’s Law condemns sin and points us to our need for salvation. The Gospel is the Good News that we are saved by grace alone (that is, only because of God’s love for us even though we don’t deserve it and, in fact, deserve nothing but wrath and punishment) through faith alone (that is, trust) in Christ alone (that is, in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth who is the eternal Son of God born in human flesh who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again).
It is only the Jesus to whom Scripture witnesses that saves, and the Jesus spoken of in Scripture certainly saves. For this reason, I seek to always clearly set the crucified Christ of Scripture before your eyes (Galatians 3:1). Since “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17 and Galatians 3:2), it is generally my preference to preach on the words and works of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, as handed down to us through the Gospel accounts and to draw in material from the Old Testament and the Epistles to help explain and illustrate what Jesus is saying and doing – not using the things which man’s wisdom teaches, but explaining the things of God using the words which the Holy Spirit gives to us (see 1 Corinthians 2:13).
The reason for this is simple and is best explained in Luther’s explanation to the 3rd article of the Creed. When we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” we are saying that, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, My Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His Gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”
Notice that these things are the work of the Holy Spirit and He accomplishes that work through the Gospel. Since He accomplishes this work “through the Gospel,” – that is, through the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, it is the Gospel through which we as believers are established and strengthened in our faith (Romans 10:17) so that we may live good and pious lives here and now and finally receive eternal life.
So, in the end, it’s all about Jesus! Jesus who was born for you. Jesus who lived for you. Jesus who died for you. Jesus who rose for you. And Jesus who ascended on High to pray for you, to send you His Holy Spirit, and to raise you up on the last day. And if it’s all about Jesus, I should be using the texts which clearly place Him and His work for you before your eyes!