************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 33 ************
By: Rev. Robert Godfrey
This sermon was preached on March 28, 2010
Belgic Confession Article 33
In school when a teacher teaches they often use visual aids. From overhead projectors and worksheets in grade school to clay maps of California and model volcanoes in Jr. High, and perhaps the most graphic of all visual aids; a worm, frog, or fetal pig for dissection in biology class. Why are we given these things? Kids, why do you think your teachers use these? Why do they have posters in the classroom? Why do they show videos from time to time? Is it just for fun. I still remember when I was in Kindergarten our teacher had inflatable characters that were each letter of the alphabet, and each one had a song that went along with it. We had these things because they helped us to learn our letters, to learn words that started with these letters.
There's a lot of similarity with how a teacher approaches their students in the classroom with the way God approaches us in church as we gather together. God gives us visual aids too. As we read about in Genesis and Romans, and what we just read together in the Belgic Confession, God gives us sacraments. Sacraments are the visible representations of the gospel. They're a visual aid for the Christian, a way we see Christ. So the questions we can ask this evening is why? Why does God give us these sacraments? Well I think when we look at our texts and the confessions we find four very clear reasons. 1. To help our weakness 2. To reinforce His word 3. To impart Grace 4. To keep it simple
I. To Help Our Weakness
In helping our weakness we find that these sacraments first and foremost help to keep us from sin. We're going to find something visible, it's in our nature. We're weak and we want to see God, and often when we do, we do so falsely. Look at our track record. Time and again in the Old Testament the people turned to idols, and remember when the people at Mt. Sinai built the golden Calf, it wasn't a made up god, they called it Yaweh. They wanted to see God, so they made an image and called it God. Remember too that they wanted a king, so they could have a visible leader like the nations. The mighty invisible God ruling over them was not enough. They needed a king (I Samuel 8). We are sinful people who turn to sinful visual aids.
So we must acknowledge our weakness. Like the father of the demon-possessed boy (Mark 9:24) ours is the cry "help my unbelief." In our weakness God gives us aids. In the Old Testament we see Noah receiving the rainbow as a promise that the Lord would never again destroy the world in such a way. To Abraham the Lord gave a visual promise of faithfulness in the sign of circumcision. The Israelites were shown their deliverance time and again with the feast of the Passover. For us today there is no difference. We are weak. We doubt. We fear. We stumble. So when we see baptism, as we did a couple weeks back, and when we come to the Lord's table, as we will this Friday, it is such a vivid strengthening thing for us to have. These sacraments help our weakness. They also reinforce the word of God
II. To Reinforce the Word
We're told they represent to our external senses that which we receive through the word, both that which comes to our ears and our heart. When we receive the word with the sacraments complimenting them it makes them all the clearer to understand. It's kind of like when the flight attendant stands up in the front of the plane with the seat belt. She's explaining how to operate it, but she also actually is showing you how that odd contraption works. With the sacraments we experience the words we hear with our eyes, our hands, and our mouth. It gives us a richer understanding of what is taking place. In baptism we understand what it means to be cleansed by the blood of Christ, to be set apart for God. In Communion we understand what it means to have Christ give his Body and blood for us.
We also are given a greater understanding in our hearts as the confession states, what he does inwardly in our hearts. The sacraments help us to understand not just what is happening in the word, but even in our hearts. When we see a baptism, see a covenant child we are reminded what God has done in us. When we partake of the Lord's supper, it is a reminder of God's work in us. A reminder that the body and blood of Christ has saved us. The sacraments come alongside the word of God, and they reinforce its message. Even this point doesn't go far enough though. The sacraments don't stop at reinforcing the word, but they have the same function of the word as far as they actually impart grace.
III. To Impart Grace
Remember that the two means of Grace are the preaching of the word and the sacraments.
A. What that Means
That means that these seal a promise as we found in our text this evening. In Genesis 17 God promises in this sacrament that he will be Abrahams God and the God of his descendants. It is also a pledge. That is where the term sacrament comes from. It comes from the term of pledge that a soldier would make in swearing allegiance. Certainly there is the aspect in which a sacrament is a pledge from us, but much more importantly the sacraments are pledges from God. In these things God is saying to you, "Here is my grace for you! Look at it, taste it, touch it, smell it. This is my pledge!" It also imparts grace because it nourishes and sustains us. I hope you hear that point with the sacrament. It is such a great thing to hear. Because that is what it truly means. God uses these sacraments as ways in which His Holy Spirit nourishes us and sustains us.
B. How it Works
And these sacraments work by Faith through the Holy Spirit. By Faith these sacraments take their amazing meaning. There is no holy water, sacred bread, or blessed wine. The elements only impart grace inasmuch as they are seen with the eyes of faith. And they only impart grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is not some magical power in the water, bread, and wine. When Pastor Dieleman and I stand up here and break the bread in half, it does not suddenly transform the bread. But on the flip side it's not something hollow and empty. I'd encourage you to remember that with good Friday coming up. These sacraments are something to rejoice in. They aren't hollow and empty. They aren't even simply a time of remembrance. Ulrich Zwingli was a prominent figure at the time of the Reformation, who had many wonderful contributions to the Reformation, but he limited the Lord's Supper to a time of remembrance and nothing more. But I'd ask you all to remember that we believe the Holy Spirit accompanies the sacrament and makes it real Spiritual Nourishment. Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 75 says that, "as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves and taste with my mouth…so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood." Certainly we are given these signs that we may be given grace.
IV. Keep it Simple
We are also given these sacraments because God wants to keep it simple. Just as we are very weak, we're also very stupid. The more we're given, the more we tend to mess up. So out of His love, God says keep it simple, here are two and only two. The Belgic Confession makes this point to stand against the Roman Catholic which has seven sacraments; baptism, confirmation, mass, confession, marriage, ordination, and last rites. Even if we're not members of the Roman Catholic church this is good for us to hear. If you ask many people in the church today, what are the sacraments, you'd be surprised what kind of answers you get. People are unfamiliar with the beautiful simplicity of God's visual aids because so many other visual aids that we invent seep into the church. We don't do a good enough job of making things simple. Brothers and sisters, we're not above that, where so much in worship can become "special" that the real means of grace can't be discerned from ordinary parts of worship.
Let's make sure that the means of grace stay the means of grace, and that the word stays primary and the sacraments follow right behind. That they serve as an aid to our weakness, supporting the word with beautiful simplicity. And that they give to us God's grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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