In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear Brothers and Sisters of Christ the Crucified:
... Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:31-33 ESV)
The world and the world's churches have convinced themselves that the nicer they appear and the more good they can do in front of television cameras and newspaper reporters, the more the world will adore Christ, fall in love with him, and stop all its bad behavior.
And so congregations and organizations that call themselves Christian are out in the world loving everyone to death in order to make the world love the Gospel of Christ.
And shouldn't that be the way we effectively, successfully make everyone in our families, neighbors and communities Christian — by being holy and righteous and good and sinless people who are constantly doing holy and righteous and good and sinless things? If only we would end all disagreements in our church. If only we would stop all those personal idiosyncrasies that bother those around us and give a flower and a smile to everyone we meet during the day. If only we would be the perfect parent or the perfect child or the perfect next-door neighbor or the perfect employee or citizen.
If only we would overcome our fallenness and truly love God with our entire mind and heart and soul. If only we would overcome our sinfulness and love and care for our neighbor simply for the sake of our neighbor —
Then the world would stop being so mean and realize that Christ-like love is all we need. If we would only be like Christ — then the world would put away all anger and jealousy and greed and slander and hatred — and decide to be nice and play by the rules.
But that's the strategy of the world and the world's churches. And although it sounds so good, it is, in view of God's own clear revelation through the prophets and apostles, a strategy that leads nowhere but sinful pride and boasting — or total despair.
This morning, as we celebrate the 492nd anniversary of God's grace given in Luther's re-discovery of the saving Gospel, we do well to remind ourselves that the Reformation of the Christian Church of Rome that began on October 31st, 1517 had nothing to do with any man-made revitalization program for the church and the world.
Luther didn't cook up some magic formula that injected enthusiasm and excitement into Rome's plans to build the kingdom of heaven on earth through the funneling of more money into the church's coffers. Luther is not celebrated this morning because he defended the inalienable rights of the individual or because he single-handedly exposed the evils of corporate greed within the organized Christian church.
God's Word this morning tells us again exactly what we need to hear - especially when we get all puffed up with the wrong-headed notion that stubborn ol' Luther, master theological teacher, Bible-translator, hymn-writer, preacher, pastor and missionary lived such a good and Christ-like life that the gates of heaven were opened for anyone committed to follow in his saintly steps.
All that the Reformation truly stands for continues to be something that the world just can't swallow. Something that the world and the world's religions continue to spin and re-interpret to fit it's own self-deluded conclusion that humanity — if it just tries hard enough — can become holy and good and righteous — even before God himself.
Luther, after his hell-on-earth experiences as a monk, was given by God the grace to understand that even with the best of intentions, even with the greatest desire to please God and serve neighbor, our first parents have drained us of any ability to actually carry out what is truly God-pleasing.
Our care of neighbor is stained with our own preoccupation of building up our own image in the eyes of others.
Our love of God is all wrapped up in what kind of reward we think we'll be knocking down for being such good children of heaven.
We keep track of who we've saved and who we've helped and how many times we've said to someone on an airplane, "God loves you and so do I."
We are, by our very nature, list-makers of all the good we think we've contributed to the "righteousness" column that will be read on the last day by the One who knows if we've been naughty or nice.
No wonder why our old nature and the world's religions around us just can't accept the Jesus that comes to us in the Old and New Testament. The Jesus who announces in the eighth chapter of the Holy Gospel According to Saint John that all children of a real Adam and Eve are real fallen and sinful children of parents who gambled everything away — for themselves and for each of us — as they traded in faith and trust in their gracious and all-giving God for a chance at being the center of the universe.
And so any Reformation service worth it's salt begins with the acclamation that it isn't our good intentions that last forever. It isn't our nice behavior or sincerity or tears or promises or decisions or our cleaned-up lifestyle that saves ourselves or anyone else. The Church of the Reformation is, by God's unmerited grace, the church that begins Reformation Sunday with the clear confession — to the Lord Almighty and to the world — that on the basis of the unchanging Word of God, we are by our very fallen nature "sinful and unclean" and "deserving only of God's present and eternal wrath and punishment."
That's the opening note of the Reformation symphony because it is the opening note of the history of God's redemption in Christ.
We are under the oppression and shackles and curse of sin. We are worse off than the children of Israel under the thumb of Egypt's wicked Pharaoh. We are, by our very nature, able to choose, but able to choose only what appears to be good, right and salutary before the Maker of heaven and earth.
We are, in the words of Saint Paul, poor, miserable failures when it comes to carrying out the good that we wish to do, even if we've convinced ourselves and the world of our spotless intentions.
You see, the Law of God comes through Moses and the Ten Commandments to hold up the clear mirror of heaven's will, that we would get a good look at what we have lost — what we have become before our holy and perfect and righteous God. And the sight is not a pretty one. "For all have sinned and fallen woefully short of the glory of God" — that glory intended for each of us and for the whole of creation.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:34-36 ESV)
Several years ago, the great Lutheran theologian and ethicist Dr. George Forell spoke here in this sanctuary and held up the truths of Scripture reflected in the great hymns of the Reformation. And in pointing out the relevance of the Reformation for today, he pointed to the words written by Paul Speratus in the hymn we sang here last Sunday: "Salvation unto Us Has Come."
It was a false, misleading dream
That God his Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem /
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright /
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature. (verse 3)
Try getting the United Nations or Washington D.C. or Sacramento (or the YMCA or many churches that call themselves Christian) to sing that next time they get together to do good and make the world a little more like heaven.
This morning it is God in his grace that gathers us together to shut-out the go-nowhere, empty programs of the world and our own fallen nature — that we would hear his Word — his Word which shows us our sin —so that we would then receive with joy and thanksgiving the only God-ordained medicine for hardened hearts — the only God-ordained cure for minds convinced that, if given just another chance, we could clean up our lives, turn everything around and thereby earn God's favor.
It is God's Word alone that clearly shows us the depth of our spiritual plight, that we would then be brought to the foot of the Cross of Christ to there see the Son of God take upon himself our sin — and atone for it and make satisfaction for it and bury it forever in his grave.
Jesus wasn't born in a humble manger just to teach us to be humble. Our Lord wasn't crucified on a cruel cross just to show us that we can redeem ourselves by always looking at the bright side of life. Christ did not come to show you how you can save yourself. He came to affirm the ministry of Moses and the Law that drives us to despair of any self-made attempt to build some staircase into heaven out of our own good works.
Outside of God's grace in Christ, we are, as the Small Catechism reminds us, spiritually blind, rebel enemies of God, even when our behavior looks so good to the world. For, as Romans 14 reveals, "whatever does not proceed from [true] faith is sin."
But if the Church of the Reformation proclaims that everything outside of God-given faith in the Christ of Scripture is sin and slavery and death, it is because only with this confession are we ready to hear the Gospel — the great Good News that alone brings true peace and salvation and the hope of heaven.
Christ did not come to show us how we can perform before God and make him applaud on account of our more civilized behavior.
Christ came to die for the shame and guilt of an entire disobedient, out-of-control world. Christ came to graciously, mercifully save undeserving sinners who were, whether they would admit it or not, dying under the weight of their own unrighteousness.
That is the one, true treasure of the Church. That is the holy Gospel of grace given to the Christian Church on earth to share with all who have given up on saving themselves by their attempts to be nicer and more love-able before God and neighbor.
The Jewish leaders in this morning's Gospel reading who began to believe were taken back when Jesus told them that their favored status as children of Abraham didn't negate the fact that on their own they could do nothing to earn heaven's reward. Even the religious elite needed another — a strong man to come and bind sin, death and the devil and set the weak and helpless free.
And what these people in John chapter 8 needed to believe is the same thing we are called to put our faith in. The clear teaching of Scripture that there is only one righteous offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is only one righteous Son who enjoys an permanent place before God in his eternal dwelling place. There is only one righteous redeemer who offered up his very life-blood as an all-encompassing sacrifice for the transgressions of the entire human race.
Only through Christ are we declared acquitted, restored, righteous in God's sight. Only through Christ. Only through Baptism into his saving Name are we given a new nature that not only has the ability but the unwavering desire to trust in God's Word and please him with the fruits of faith.
Saint Paul said it best when he wrote these inspired words to young Timothy:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners... .
(1Timothy 1:15 ESV)
I am not up here this morning to wow you with everything I know about Luther and the Reformation. I am not up here this morning to give you the secret formula to get all sin out of your life so you can become just like Christ in order to win some "Holy and Righteous Christian of the Year" award. That's the junk Tetzel was selling by exchanging coins for parchment and the Pope's seal and the promise of sins paid for.
I am here, on this Reformation Sunday, to point you to that one thing — that one thing that remains forever. And it isn't the smarts of the pastor or your promise never to sin again.
I have been called to simply point sinners to the eternal Word made man — to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world — at his Cross, at his Baptismal font, at his altar.
In God-given faith, confess your unrighteousness, and your trust in Christ — our only redeemer, our only savior, our only hope and righteousness, here and in eternity. Again, Paul Speratus:
Let me not doubt, but truly see
Your Word cannot be broken;
Your call rings out, "Come unto me!"
No falsehood have You spoken.
Baptized into your precious Name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish. (verse 7)
Let yourself be the helpless sinner. And then — let Christ be your Savior.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit