Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen
Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times. The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing. The Scientific Revolution was just getting started. The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up. The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East. During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna. And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in. The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change. In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.
It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength. In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil. What a comfort! No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us. No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us. We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.
But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same. It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same. God is always the same, but we are not. Martin Luther found that out. You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things. God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before. One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins. They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven. They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord. We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it. But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.
This was a big deal! This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear! And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places. It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray. We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.
Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened! They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word. Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives. They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another. And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out. They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It had an impact on their lives. Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived. It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained. It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith. But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too. It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level. It changed how families lived together. It changed the position of women in the community. It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society. Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before. Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.
That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before. We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out. And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian. This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before. In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation. They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing. We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners. We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed. As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit. We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.
It’s hard. It’s hard, because the world is changing. It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God. Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble. Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation. Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness. Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.
But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Thanks be to God.