Reformation Quincentennial – Historic Lectionary – John 8:31-36 – October 29, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the spring of 1522,
– that is, less than five years after that thunderous event that we observe and give thanks for today –
the Reformation was a mess.
The people of Germany, pastors and laymen alike, were clamoring for change, but divided as to how that change should take place.
The Church was under attack and so Christians were desperate and anxious for growth; for a foothold; a way to keep the Gospel and the Reformation alive.
The question then, and perhaps still the question among us now, was how to get the Gospel out, how to make the church grow, and in this, the Church was filled with all kinds of anxiety, tension, and division, and in 1522, each man simply did as he saw fit. (Judges 21:25)
The peasants were rising up against their princes, Christians were attacking and destroying both churches and their fellow Christians, and preachers were brow-beating their people, all in the name of the Kingdom of God, all in the name of the Gospel.
And so it was into that mess and that anxiety that Luther preached these words on March the 10th, 1522:
He writes, “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.
Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.
And while I slept, or drank beer with my friends Philipp [Melanchthon] and [Nikolaus von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.
I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe.
But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play.
I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.”
(Martin Luther, Second Sermon after Invocavit, March 10, 1522)
These were the words needed then, and almost 500 years later, they are still the words needed among us.
We may not be rising up with pitchfork in hand against our princes, we may not be burning down the churches next-door, but we are nonetheless, given and sometimes overcome by the same anxieties, the same fears, the same desperate longing to make the Gospel work, the Church grow, and the faith remain.
Again, we may not be compelling or forcing anyone into the faith, we certainly don’t kidnap our neighbors and drag them to the baptismal font, but can it really be said of us, at all times, in all seasons, that we have been content to simply hear, speak, receive, and take the Lord’s Word, that He might do the work?
That He might preach His own Gospel, not needing us to dress it up or make it work, not needing our brilliant attempts to get more people through the door, or market to them something that we have to sell, but simply resting, hearing, being taught, being fed, and letting the Word remain, letting the Lord do His good and gracious work.
To our modern and fearful ears, as we consider church budgets and the life of this building for our children and our children’s children, that may sound like the worst strategy or church plan ever created, yet it is what our Lord has given, and more than that, more comforting than anything else, what He promises to do.
There is a certain danger to Reformation Day, especially among Lutherans.
The danger is that as we celebrate and give thanks and pat each other on the back for being Lutheran, we would miss the point, and be blind to the present danger.
In the church we observe Reformation Day, we only celebrate in so far as we confess that the Lord has good use of His saints to hear His Word and proclaim it in truth and purity for the life of the world. But we do not celebrate as though we have nothing to worry about, as though we were out of the woods, and away from the danger.
In the very beginning of the 95 theses, Luther writes, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent’” (Mt 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Thesis I)
Which means that no matter how many years pass between now and then, no matter how far we move away from the sale of indulgences, no matter how much we think ourselves to be free from bad theology or being on the ‘right side of history’, we as the body of Christ, will always live in danger, we will always live with temptation, and as Luther himself here writes, we will never be without the calling and the life of repentance.
That is the painful irony of preaching or teaching the Reformation. That we would imagine ourselves to be in a better place, without the danger of falling back into unbelief.
That is the painful irony of sermons that take cheap shots at the sale of indulgences, the selling of forgiveness, while refusing to recognize the many temptations at work among us, that would lead us to again sell the church, sell the Gospel to our neighbor, to lay the Word of Christ aside and put our faith in business strategies rather than the Lord’s promises.
That is the painful irony of breathing a sigh of relief that we are now free from the ‘pope’s tyranny’, while refusing to recognize that today we are probably worse off, as we live in a culture of the church that now steadfastly believes that the freedom of the Gospel, is a freedom from Christ Himself.
That we don’t need the abiding Word of Jesus, after all, we have our Lutheran pedigree, we are sons of Christians, and we have never been slaves to anyone, we have the Gospel, which means we have what’s needed and we don’t need what Jesus actually gives, we can abstain from His Word of life, because we have the Gospel, we can skip out on His supper, because we have the Gospel, we can live our own lives, because Jesus set us free.
If you abide in His Word, you are truly His disciples, and you will and have known the truth, and it will and it has set you free (John 8:31-32).
Our Lord does not come to us today with careful strategies or revolutionary programs, He doesn’t come to beat you up and give the solution that you should just try harder, rather He comes as He has always come, in the only thing that actually matters: simply by and with His Word.
And that is what we cling to you. We hear it, we see it, we wait for it.
The angel that flies overhead in Revelation, comes bearing THE eternal Gospel, the Word that does not change, the work of God that does not need you to dress it up or make it better, but is already finished.
This Gospel proclaims, perhaps rather strangely, that the Good News of our Lord is to “Fear God and give Him glory” (Rev. 14:7).
Fear and the Gospel don’t usually go together. We may think of them to more opposites than anything else.
And yet, simply put, the Gospel, Christ delivered, crucified for you, and given through His Holy Word, Water, Body and Blood, is truly the very fear of God.
For it is to take the Lord at His Word. To believe and trust Him as He actually is. To cling to the promises that He has truly given, and in that, to forsake all other things, all other kinds of righteousness, all other ways of justifying ourselves before God.
It is to fear Him, and so live in Him as He has given His life to be delivered.
This is gift of Romans chapter 3, the sweet comfort of the Gospel, and in the same breath the true fear of God, is to rest in what He has given: a righteousness that is not your own, and is certainly not your work, but righteousness apart from the Law, given in faith, and received for Christ’s sake.
This is why it can and should be said of Luther that just as he re-echoes the truth and purity of the Gospel, of Christ and Him crucified for sinners, so also, and in the same breath, he re-echoes what it means to truly have a right fear of God.
Indeed, you can live your whole life long beating yourself up for your sins, you can comfort your guilt by promising ridiculous things, that you’ll finally try harder, that you’ll keep better track of church attendance, you escape with the so-called comfort of chanting Luther as your father, or good people as your parents, and you can live in terror and misery believing God to be a terrible tyrant and wrathful judge.
But none of that is true fear of God. It is in fact, and as much as you cling to you it, a mockery of God, it is a denial of who He is and what He gives as the only life there is.
Fear of God IS Christ Crucified for sinners: for you, in your place, flesh for flesh, blood for blood, righteousness for unrighteousness, son-ship and family for slaves and orphans, and life for death.
As the psalmist writes, so let the Lord make this our confession and hope, that, “With You there is forgiveness, therefore, You are feared.” (Psalm 130:4)
As Luther preached then, so it is still true today, “I did nothing; the Word did everything… I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.”
This is true of us, you and I have brought nothing to the waters of Holy Baptism, and yet there, the Lord who is rich in mercy, the Word made flesh has done His work, and brought to us everything.”
He has made us sons, He has drowned our slavery in His death, and through His Word He now keeps you in the family, in the Word, in the fear of God Himself.
The Liturgy is not something you do to get to heaven, to make your parents proud, or your pastor happy. The life of Word and Sacrament is not some boring senseless routine that we just have to put up with so that we can be free of it on the other side of glory.
It is in fact, your real life. It is the Word that abides, the one that makes you free, the Christ who takes your place and takes your sin, and in turn gives you His own life, His real life, the one that remains.
I did nothing, says Luther, the Word did everything.
So it is. This Word, this Jesus, this Gospel, teaches and preaches and keeps you.
It burns away godless fear and vain idolatry, it keeps you from praying or pleading to God for any other reason than pure mercy grace. The Kyrie that you sing gives no room for crying out, “We have Abraham as our Father”, but simply, “Lord have mercy.”
The real life of Christ’s Word and liturgy trains even your eyes to see God as He is, as He has spoken, to follow His body and blood up from the altar and given to you with the Words of His Peace.
We pray, we teach, we hear, we confess, we live, we forgive, we work and receive, in other words, we live in the true Son, the one who sets us free, the one who is Himself our freedom, our life, our fear and trust.
The Word will do everything. It endures forever, not just for 500 years.
Indeed, we don’t know what the next 500 years will bring. Perhaps our church will suffer, perhaps Christianity will continue to shrink in America, perhaps your children will live to rebuild a church from the ruins, we don’t know.
But what we have been given, the Word which has made you sons, this Word remains, it does everything, it is not wasted, it is not snuffed out, it conquers and keeps.
Indeed, the Lord does not need you, He doesn’t need you to fear for the future of this church, to fear about how the Gospel will work, both in you and in your neighbor, but He has taken you in, He is rich mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
He abides in you, He is your real life, and by grace alone, He keeps you in His real life both now and forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.