Sunday, October 30, 2016

What is Reformation Day Anyhow?

[Tomorrow is Reformation Day and today has been celebrated as Reformation Sunday in many congregations. Below is a little essay about Martin Luther and the Reformation, which I've written and rewritten, sometimes presented as a sermon, other times as a bulletin insert, and more recently, as a blog post, for many years. I hope you find it helpful.]

He was born in November, 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His father was a one-time coal miner who, through hard work, had risen to middle class status, the owner of several mines. His mother, who would exert great influence over the boy, was, in the custom of those times, a full-time housewife and mother.

His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become an extraordinary preacher, theologian, and musician. These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted the boy to become a lawyer in order to care for him and his wife in their old age.

That, in fact, was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving when a shattering experience intervened.

He was heading back to the university he attended when a ferocious thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”

I once told this story to Father Seavey Joyce, who served Saint Ann's parish in the same small town (Frankfort, Michigan) where I did my seminary internship. Seavey listened and wearing an impish smile, said, "I guess that goes to prove that even saints make mistakes." (He was kidding, because Seavy also told me once that he was sure that one day the Roman Catholic Church would name Luther a saint.)

But of course, it wasn't Saint Ann who’d made a mistake. It was Martin Luther. In fact, in his moment of terror in the thunderstorm, he made several mistakes. Mistake one: Calling for supernatural help from anyone other than the God we know in Jesus Christ. Mistake two: Making a deal in the hopes of placating what Luther thought was an angry God. God doesn’t make deals.

But Luther became part of a long tradition of people who have done the right things for the wrong reasons.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, for example, we find the true story of a young dreamer named Joseph. His father, Jacob, doted on the boy while virtually ignoring his ten other sons. Resentful, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and then took the coat their father had given to him and spattered it with blood. They showed it to Jacob. He concluded that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The brothers had done the wrong thing. But it turned out that, unbeknownst to them, they played into God's plans for Joseph. Joseph was set down a difficult road that ultimately led him to become, in effect, the prime minister of Egypt, second in command after the Pharaoh. In that position, Joseph oversaw the storing of crops during seven bumper years in anticipation of seven years of famine, a famine that affected the entire Middle East.

Ultimately, Joseph was able to use the stored crops to save the lives of his very own family members and many others. Later, he was able to tell his brothers that when they sold him into slavery, "You meant it for evil. But God meant it for good so that many might be saved." Joseph's brothers had somehow done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In the New Testament book of Matthew, we find the story of people who came to see the Christ Child. We call them "wise men." But they were really little more than astrologers, people who made horoscopes and superstitiously believed that stars foretold occurrences on this planet. It's the sort of the practice that the Bible condemns completely. We're to depend on God and on nothing and nobody else. Yet, these wise men who followed the stars for the wrong reasons, at the end of their journey, came to the right conclusion: This baby was the Savior of the world.

Martin Luther’s entry into the monastery for the wrong reason turned out to be very right, indeed! I don’t think that his father ever forgave the young Luther for taking the vows of a monk and "abandoning" his family. When, several years later, Luther also was ordained a priest, his father, Hans, expressed the belief that Martin’s call might not have come from God, but from the devil.

Martin Luther was a deeply disturbed young man, probably neurotic. He felt himself utterly and completely guilty of sin. He couldn’t imagine that a morally perfect God could or would forgive him. At times, Luther hated God. He believed that God was playing a vicious game with the human race: Demanding moral perfection and when none of our race were unable to attain it, gleefully sending us to hell.

Noting how disturbed Luther was, believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out his worries and fears, and recognizing how intelligent Luther was, his superiors decided that he would study to become a doctor of theology. He would teach at a new university being started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.

At first, a new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to assuage Luther’s loathing of God and of himself.

But then, something happened to change Luther’s life and world history. (And, over time, through the Reformation Luther began, my history.) Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching.

In the Bible, Luther found a God different from the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love Who reaches out to His children, Who charitably understands their fallen humanity, Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him. He saw a God Who hates sin while loving sinners, Who calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.

He began to see this picture of God as he studied the book of Genesis in preparation for lectures to his students at Wittenberg. He met this God again in the Psalms. And, perhaps most clearly of all, Luther saw this God in the majestic New Testament book of Romans.

A key passage for him was Romans 1:16-17:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
With his deepening knowledge of the Scriptures and the original Hebrew and Greek in which the Old and New Testaments, respectively, had been written, Luther’s understanding of God blossomed.

Up until this point in his life, Luther, like most of the people of his time, labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status God commanded of us, although none of us could ever attain it.

Now, Luther saw that righteousness is having a right relationship with God and that it can’t be secured by anything we do. He saw that while God does demand moral purity from us and that our sin earns us everlasting condemnation, God Himself took on flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ so that He could die in our place on the cross and all with faith in Jesus won't be condemned. Instead, God gives all with faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life. That's what Romans means when it talks about salvation and salvation as God's gift to believers in Christ. Period.

Realizing all of this now, Luther, who studied in the tower of the monastery at Wittenberg had what was later called his “tower experience.” While studying God’s Word, Luther had an overpowering sense of the depths of God’s love for all of us--including himself. Coming to know that rigteousness is God’s gift which we can access when we turn from sin and entrust our lives to Christ, Luther said, was like having the gates of heaven thrown open to him! The faithful person would try to respond to the love of God given through Jesus Christ, of course. But, Luther knew, we can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift called grace.

The once-neurotically ashamed Martin Luther became a joyful champion of the new life that God gives to all with faith in Christ. As he grew in the confidence he had in Christ and in God’s love for him, Luther grew bolder in sharing what he had learned about God from the Bible.

On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions--for debate on the church door in Wittenberg. In those days, a scholar who wished to engage in discussion about important issues posted points on the doors of churches. Church doors were the Power Points, bulletin boards, or blogs of that time.

Luther’s theses were prompted by a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper known as indulgences. These indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves.

Luther, certain that eternity was a free gift, was deeply offended by this practice. He would later say that if there were such a place as purgatory and the Pope, as head of the Church, had the capacity to free people from the place, he should do so out of simple Christian compassion and not accept a penny for doing so.

When Luther’s preaching against indulgences began to impact the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. At a gathering in the German city of Wurms, before the emperor, Luther was ordered to recant, or repudiate, all of his writings. He refused.

Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban.” That meant that both the Church and the powerful Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of principalities and nations, agreed that if any one saw Martin Luther, he was to be killed on sight. Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.

For the balance of his life, Martin Luther remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! Luther died in 1546.

We celebrate October 31 each year as Reformation Day because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Halloween, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church. That reform movement goes on to this day. We celebrate the Sunday closest to October 31 each year as Reformation Sunday.

Martin Luther learned and then taught from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death don’t come from our works or from doing proscribed acts of ritual, religious or otherwise. These things come to us freely from a God Who, in Christ, shows us that He isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

No way to climb to, take the elevator: Jesus the Christ

Romans 3:19-28
Today is Reformation Sunday, a day that calls us to focus on the whole idea of righteousness and what it means to be righteous, or just.

Before you go to sleep at the mention of a couple of words used a lot in the Church and hardly at all in the rest of the world, please know that being righteous is the requirement for entering the Kingdom of God. Righteousness is the essential quality we must possess in order to claim an eternal place in heaven and avoid eternal consignment to hell. Righteousness is the essential quality we must possess in order to have a life with God today, in this world.

So, this business of being righteous is, to put it bluntly, the single most important thing any of us can appreciate, appropriate, or understand. And that’s no overstatement. (It could be an understatement.)

A young German, Roman Catholic monk, priest, and professor Martin Luther, who lived in the sixteenth century, knew how essential being righteous is for anyone to have a relationship with God, either now or in eternity. Luther likely would have read words like those of Jesus in Matthew 5:20--”...unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”--and think, “I need to get busy. I need to do more good things. I need to remember more of my sins and repent for them. Otherwise God will damn me for eternity.” To someone as neurotic and driven as Luther, these were daunting, terrifying thoughts.

That’s because to be righteous means to be in sync with the Law of God, the will of God for human beings. To be righteous is to walk in the ways of God. Luther knew how, in his heart of hearts, out of step with God he was and thought that to become righteous, he had to work at it.

The problem was that no matter how much he repented or how many good things he did, he would always remember one more unrepented sin or commit a new one after confessing the old ones or he would fail to do enough good or fail to do good for the right reasons. Luther drove his Father-Confessor, Johann Staupitz, crazy. Luther would visit him multiple times a day to confess some new sin. Finally, von Staupitz told Luther, "Stop coming to me with your puppy sins!"

Luther felt that he could never attain the title of righteous. He felt that he was damned to hell and there was nothing that he could do about it.

Here's the deal: According to the Bible, Luther was right. Luther couldn’t make himself righteous.

Neither can you or I.

When we consider the sinful things we do or think or fantasize, we’re bound to confess with King Solomon, who writes in Ecclesiastes 7:20: “...there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” No one.

Luther looked at how far he fell short of the moral standards of righteousness embodied in the Ten Commandments and realized that he would never measure up. Life with God was out of his reach.

He later confessed that, there in the monastery, working at being righteous for God and realizing that he never could make himself righteous, he hated God. He saw God as a monster, demanding of him (and of all of us) what none of us can do. And in hating God, Luther's guilt and his sense that he would inevitably be swallowed up by the fires of hell, only increased.

Then, something happened.

Luther's superiors were driven to distraction by his questioning, wandering, brilliant mind and by his neurosis. So, they tried to keep him busy. By his mid-thirties, he was both a parish priest and the administrator of fourteen monasteries. But still his restless, self-loathing seeking after God and righteousness continued. At the direction of his superiors, Luther became a scholar of the Bible, so that he could teach at the new Wittenberg University. "I can't do that," Luther told them. "The work will kill me." "That's all right," they responded. "God can use trained scholars of the Bible in heaven."

Through his study of God’s Word, Luther came to realize that righteousness can never come to us through our perpetually failed attempts to keep God’s Law. We cannot climb or claw our way to a state of righteousness or to a relationship with God. That’s what our second lesson, Romans 3:19-28, tells us. Take a look at it now, please, starting at verse 19: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”

It’s good and loving for God to give us His commandments. God's Law marks out the boundaries of a life not only more pleasing to God, but also that marks out the boundaries within which there’s life with God and beyond which there’s death.

But because we can never keep God’s Law perfectly, His Law can never make us righteous. At the most, God’s Law is a mirror that shows us the awful truth with which Luther wrestled about himself, which is true of us as well, that we aren’t righteous and can’t make ourselves righteous.

The Law is very bad news for anyone who thinks that being nice or doing good are enough to give us an in with God.

But there is good news!

Romans 3:21: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

To understand the message of these magnificent verses from our lesson, let’s look at several key words as they appear in the Greek language in which the apostle Paul wrote the letter to first century Roman Christians.

The first word is δικαιοσύνη, which we translate as righteousness. The other word, appearing in verse 26, is justifies; in the Greek in which the apostle Paul wrote the verse, that word is δικαιοῦντα.

When you hear those two words--δικαιοσύνη, δικαιοῦντα--you can tell that they’re related. And being able to tell this helps us to understand what it means to be justified or counted just, righteous. It means that despite our sin, despite our inability to obey God’s Law or to make ourselves righteous, God gives Christ’s righteousness to those who entrust their lives to Christ, surrender to Christ, believe in Him as their only God, Savior, or hope. We can’t attain the righteousness necessary to enter God’s Kingdom. We can't work to become righteous, but God "righteous-fies" all who entrust their lives to Christ. We can't as I said earlier, climb or claw our way to righteousness; but the great thing is that we can take an elevator. That elevator is Jesus Christ!

Jesus has perfectly obeyed God’s Law for us and then shares the perfection of His obedience with those who believe in Him to make us righteous. And this isn't a declared righteousness, what the theologians call forensic righteousness. God doesn't say, "You're a jerk, but I'm going to call you righteous."

No, as we repent and believe in Christ, the power of God makes it righteous, changing the ways we think, live, say, and look at things.

And, as we live in daily repentance and renewal, God imparts His righteousness to deeper and deeper levels in our lives.

This is a hard concept for many people to grasp. "What do you mean? There's nothing I have to do to be acceptable to God? Nothing I need to do to turn my life around?" I'll never forget what happened during the reception after our son Philip and his wife Amy were married. It was held outdoors and people were sitting around bonfires. As I was getting ready to leave, I found Philip talking with a number of his college and seminary friends. Phil was nicknamed The Lutheran. At the moment I approached him, The Lutheran was explaining to his friends that there was nothing they could to make themselves righteous or more righteous; all they could do was let Jesus, by simple faith and trust in Him, cover us with His righteousness. They were skeptical; it seemed too easy. Phil saw me and said, "Dad, tell them!"

I've always felt that being made righteous by Christ and being made holy (what the Bible calls being sanctified) by Christ is like gathering around a fire on a chilly night. There's nothing you need do to have your heart warmed into life by Christ, the Burning Center of the universe. We simply bask in His light and warmth and He makes us new.

Martin Luther said that when he realized that we can only be and are justified--made righteous--by faith in Christ through the charitable grace of God, it was as if the doors of heaven opened to Him.

And whenever we trust in Christ rather than ourselves, our efforts, our goodness, or our parents’ faith, heaven opens to us as well.

Look at how Paul finishes our second lesson. Verses 27-28: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

Many of the self-identified Christians who get play in the media are people who seem to make a point of telling others how good they are, how wholesome they are, and what good values they have, while others are evil, devoid of values. They form organizations in which they claim to be part of God's "moral majority."

These phonies are braggarts. If people brag about their own goodness or imply that they’ve attained righteousness by being wonderful people, they’re not Christians. Or, at least, they’re Christians who need to repent for their sin and surrender their egos to Christ.

Rather than claiming to be members of a "moral majority," authentic Christians confess that they are actually part of the immoral majority who are saved by the grace of God given in Jesus Christ, not by their goodness.

When Christians do brag, it’s not about their goodness.

After Martin Luther died, a scrap of paper was found in his pocket, on which he had written six words: “We are beggars; this is true.”

As Christians, we don’t brag about how wonderful we are. We know better. Our daily gaze on the face of God and into the mirror of God’s Law tell us that. Instead, we brag about how wonderful God is! We’re not braggarts, we’re beggars, completely, utterly, totally dependent on the crucified and risen Jesus to justify us, to make us righteous, fit for life with God.

Like the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6), we can honestly confess: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags...”

But we live with the joy of knowing that even when the devil, the world, and our sinful selves are forced to agree with the Law that, in our own power, we aren’t and never can be righteous, in the power of God, through the spent blood of Jesus on the cross and our faith in Him, we are justified, we are right with God, we are righteous! We’ve been set free from sin and death and condemnation.

And set free, no longer under the thumb of the Law’s condemnation, we can focus on truly living as disciples: following Christ, drawing on the Holy Spirit’s power to love God as He has loved us and to love others as Christ has loved us.

In Christ, we are justified, we are righteous. That’s worth celebrating not just on the October Sunday closest to October 31, but every single day.

Friends in Christ, you who have been justified and accounted righteous by God’s grace through your faith in Jesus Christ, happy Reformation Day! Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Bull in a China Shop by Switchfoot

"I wanna rock this block
"Like a bull in a china shop"

This is a somewhat distorted video of a live performance of this tune. Despite the distortion, it's cool to see and hear the band present the song live.

And this is another fan's recording of soundcheck in the same venue. Distortions again here, but cool to hear.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]