Thursday, April 5, 2007
These words which Stephanie just sang are from an Offertory that is part of Divine Service, Setting II, in the Lutheran Service Book, an Offertory which we will sing as part of tonight’s service. These words were also used in similar offertories in the blue hymnal, Lutheran Worship, so they’ve been with us awhile. . .and actually, they go back farther than that. In fact, they go all the way back to their original source: Psalm 116, verses 12-19.
The Offertory signals a transition in the worship service, a shift from the Service of the Word to the Service of the Sacrament. In the Service of the Word, the part of the service that includes everything after the Confession and Absolution and up through the Offering, we receive God’s Word in the Scripture readings and the sermon—which is an exposition, an extended explanation of God’s Word. With the Offertory, though, we’re shifting into the Service of the Sacrament, the preparation, distribution, and thanksgiving for Holy Communion, receiving God’s Word of forgiveness in a tangible way in the body and blood of Christ.
I always used to assume that the Offertory, the song sung while the offerings were brought forward by the ushers, handed to the pastor, and placed on the altar, I always assumed that this song was just about giving thanks for the offering. We were telling God we were giving something back to Him and asking God to bless the use of those offerings.
That’s only part of it, though. In fact, looking at those words of the Offertory that Stephanie sang today, those traditional words, those words that go all the way back to Psalm 116, it seems that it doesn’t have much to say about money, offerings, or paying for the work of the church.
This question perhaps seems like an offering kind of question, a money question, since you could also translate those words to say:
It sounds like a question of trying to pay God back for all of His gifts. It sounds like a question to ask as you’re putting your offering in the plate: “How can I make it up to God for what He has done for me?”
Yet, you look at the rest of the Offertory, and it doesn’t ever mention money and getting your checkbook out. Instead, it sounds bigger than that; it’s talking about what we do in worship, how we live our lives, and what happens in the Lord’s Supper.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the words of Psalm 116 don’t actually seem to answer the question: “How can I pay God back for all of His gifts?” Instead, the answer seems much more about receiving the gifts with thanksgiving, accepting what God has offered, and fulfilling a vow to the Lord—not an act of obedience hoping to gain favor but more in the sense of a “vow of praise,” a promise to proclaim God’s goodness in the courts of the temple.
So then, the Offertory is not focused on any kind of attempt to actually repay God for all of His goodness to us. Instead, our focus is on responding with our worship, responding to God’s gifts with thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise—which is why the Offertory is a shift in the service. It isn’t a static part of the service where we’re just thinking about the offering plates. And it’s isn’t a song that only looks back at what has happened already in the service. The Offertory is encouraging us to have a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise in response to God’s gifts. The Offertory is anticipating what comes next in the service: the Service of the Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar.
The Offertory is a prayer in preparation for Communion.
This Offertory pulls together the verses from Psalm 116 that were traditionally used as private prayers offered by the priest in the Roman Mass as he prepares the Lord’s Supper. Luther encouraged similar prayers, although he encouraged them to be said aloud and spoken on behalf of all the people—not just the priest.
Over the centuries, then, these words have showed up in various forms in the Roman Mass, and Lutherans have encouraged their use in different ways—most prominently in the Offertory.
We’ve purposely designed tonight’s service to help you see the benefit of the Offertory as prayer in preparation for Communion. Stephanie sang the Offertory to help us focus on the words. I am using this sermon hoping to help us see the rich, deep meaning in the words. Immediately following the sermon, we will take the offering followed by the congregational singing of the Offertory—leading right into the Service of the Sacrament, the Order of Holy Communion. Let us see how these words of Psalm 116, these words of the Offertory, these words of the traditional, liturgical prayers prepare us for receiving the body and blood of Christ.
When the table is ready, the bread and wine having been consecrated by the Words of Institution, we are invited to Communion, and we offer the only thing we can possibly offer in response to God’s gracious gift: thanksgiving.
Communion is not our act; it is God’s act, and so the Offertory prepares our hearts by focusing on what God has done and focusing on our response of thanks—which is a very small response in comparison to the great goodness of forgiveness and salvation offered to us in the Lord’s Supper. That focus on God’s act in the Lord’s Supper is shown even more clearly in the traditional words of the prayer which change this line to: “I will receive the Bread of Heaven, and call upon the Name of the Lord.”
Before receiving the bread, the body of Christ, the traditional prayer is similar to this question from Psalm 116. The traditional prayer says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed,” words which are based around the words of the Centurion who asks Jesus to come and heal his servant but then shows his faith in the power of Christ by saying that Jesus would not even have to travel to the house in order to do the miracle of healing.
With the traditional prayer, “Lord, I am not worthy,” and the question from Psalm 116, “What shall I render to the Lord,” the focus is on how we cannot possibly measure up to the Lord’s standards. There is nothing we could possibly offer that would compare to what the Lord has given us. Receiving the true body of Christ in, with, and under the bread in the Lord’s Supper has nothing to do with deserving to eat the body of Christ.
A gift is something undeserved, unearned, freely given, and as soon as we attempt to give back a gift of equal worth, as soon as we feel obligated to exchange gifts, we’ve lost the focus on gift giving and now we’re in the realm of obligation. We have trouble accepting gifts, letting gifts be gifts, and perhaps that’s why we have so much trouble seeing the body of Christ in the bread at the Lord’s Supper as a gift, only a gift, something which we cannot possibly repay. Tonight, pray the words of the Offertory, “What shall I render to the Lord for all of His benefits to me,” and remember that the answer is nothing. We cannot repay God for His wonderful, gracious gift of the body of Christ given for us. Instead, the Offertory focuses on responding with a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise.
Before receiving the cup, the blood of Christ, the traditional prayer says, “What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord. I will call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from all mine enemies.”
Our first impulse may be to think that this prayer turns our focus back on our actions—I will take the cup of salvation. However, you are no more able to take the cup of salvation by your own actions than you are able to make the wine into the blood of Christ by your own action. The cup of salvation, the life-giving drink, the blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, that is offered to you as a gift by God. You might do the action of walking up to the communion rail, you might take the cup from the tray, you might put the cup to your lips, you might drink and swallow, but you are not the one who is acting to make this a sacred act. The Lord, His Word, His power, His miraculous, gracious action makes that small cup of wine into the cup of salvation, gives you the blood of Christ in, with, and under the wine.
The psalmist asks, “How can I repay the LORD for all the good that he has done for me?,” and the implied answer is, “Nothing. There is nothing I could possibly give to repay good for all of His good gifts.” Since the implied answer is nothing, the next line of the Offertory isn’t encouraging some action on our part to even things out. Instead, as the psalmist says, “I will take the cup of salvation,” we’re still talking about responding to God’s gifts with a life of thanksgiving, acceptance, and praise. We respond to God’s gift in the Lord’s Supper by accepting, receiving the cup of salvation. We respond to God’s gift by thanking Him and calling on Him for the very salvation He offers us. We respond to God’s gift with words of praise, words that continue to put our focus on what God has done—not what we have done.
And what God has done is to offer His only Son as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus offers Himself as the victim, invites us to partake of the sacrifice, to taste and see the life-giving body and blood. In the Lord’s Supper, God’s actions give us forgiveness, life, and salvation, strength and assurance for our faith. This is what God has done, and this is what God will do for us again today in the Lord’s Supper.
And now during the offering, give thanks to the Lord for all of His gifts to you. You’re responding to God’s gifts by returning thanks, returning a portion of possessions, offering something to God for the work of His kingdom. But once that offering plate has gone past, remember to see this time as a shift in the service, a shift signaling that the Service of the Sacrament is about to begin. Let yourself use the Offertory as a prayer in preparation for Communion. Let the Offertory encourage you to respond to the Lord’s Supper with thanksgiving, acceptance of God’s gracious gift that cannot be repaid, and a life of praise declaring the incredible forgiveness and salvation that Jesus Christ won for us by the cross.