Saturday, November 06, 2021

Jesus Sets the Captives Free

[Here's the Reformation Sunday message from last week. Beneath that, you'll find the video of our church's modern worship service. The people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, would love to welcome you for in-person or online worship any Sunday.]

There’s a legend told about a man who stood trial for murder. The case was decided by the judge, without a jury. It didn’t take long for the prosecution to present its case. And the evidence of the man’s guilt was so overwhelming that the defense had no case. After the defense rested, the judge considered the verdict.

Back in the courtroom, the judge commanded the defendant to rise as he pronounced his judgment. “There isn’t a shred of evidence that casts doubt on my finding,” the judge said. “You are guilty as charged. You deserve death for your crime. That is the sentence I impose.” The defendant hung his head in shame. Then, the judge stunned the courtroom by declaring, “But I will take your punishment and will be executed in your place. You are free to go.”

It’s funny the reactions people have voiced when I’ve told this legend over the years. Some see the analogy I’m trying to draw and say, “But I’m no murderer!” Others complain that the defendant got off scot-free and should have been made to do something for his freedom. Still, others have told me that the judge in the story was a chump. But I tell you, friends, that this legend really tells us in parabolic form what this Reformation Sunday is all about, what our faith as Biblical, Lutheran Christians is about.

We see this reflected in our second lesson for this morning, Romans 3:19-28. Romans, you know, is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Rome in about 55 AD. Our lesson is at the cusp between the beginning of the letter in which Paul talks about the fallenness of the human race and the second part in which he talks about how God addresses and overcomes that fallenness.

This passage, a German pastor of the nineteenth century said, could be divided into three parts, each with an important message for us. The first part is contained in its opening verses: “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.” (Romans 3:19-20)

The moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is forever reflective of God’s good and perfect will for the human race. God wills that we should worship only Him because only God can give us life. God wills that we should honor our parents, not steal, not commit adultery, not engage in sexual intimacy outside of marriage, not lie, not covet. He wills that we should love God completely and love others as much as and in the same ways as we love ourselves. But, if you’re honest, you will have noticed something as I briefly reviewed God’s moral law just now: that never in your life, never on a single day of your life, have you ever perfectly obeyed God’s will for your life. Neither have I. In this section of our second lesson for today, we see that this is what the moral law proves: We are sinners, incapable of doing what God expects of us. That is, we are incapable of being righteous. Think of it. Righteousness is the basic requirement for entry into God’s kingdom and none of us is and none of us is capable of making ourselves righteous. We are all at least as guilty as the murderer in our legend.

Martin Luther, the young German monk and priest born in 1546, wanted desperately to be righteous, to have a life with God. But he saw his sin, his unrighteousness, too clearly. Until he became a student of Scripture, he thought that he was eternally damned. But he began to see that he could be free of sin and death when he considered verses like those that come next in our second lesson. Paul writes: “...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…” (Romans 3:21-25)

If the opening verses tell us about what the Law proves about you and me, these verses tell us what Jesus Christ gives to us! Think of it: The righteous judge of the universe sheds His blood for us, to cover us with His righteousness. Jesus offers Himself up to death and damnation for sin in our place! Like the judge in our legend, Jesus takes our rightful punishment. But Jesus doesn’t force His righteousness on us. The convicted murderer might have defiantly told the judge in our lesson: “I will not accept my need for your righteousness. I will stand on my own two feet. I will prove that your verdict is wrong or that I had the right to take that other man’s life.” People effectively say similar things to God all the time. They insist that they’re not that bad and that their lives are good enough not to need Jesus’ righteousness. I even heard this from so-called Christians. “I think I’m a pretty good guy,” they say with what they think is modesty. No, friends, the Law says none of us is that good and that we need, desperately need, Jesus’ righteousness.

This brings us to the third part of our lesson: “he [Jesus] did it [that is, died for us on the cross] to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies [That is, Jesus on the cross shows us both that our sin deserves death, that’s just, and that God shoulders our guilt for us, He justifies...] those who have faith in Jesus. 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.” (Romans 3:26-28)

This last section, folks, tells us, “This is what faith receives.” When the gift of faith in Jesus Christ comes to us through the Word of God in the Bible and in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, we believe that despite our unrighteousness and sin, Jesus Christ died and rose for us. We receive the good news, the gospel, that, not because of our good works, which will always fall short of righteousness or moral perfection, but because of what God the righteous Judge has done for me in the crucified and risen Jesus, we are forgiven. We are new. We belong to Jesus Christ for all eternity! When Martin Luther was assailed by doubts about His salvation, he cried out, “But I am baptized!” In other words, God has acted. I have been crucified and raised with Christ. God has spoken and neither the devil, nor the world, nor my sinful self can separate me from the Savior Jesus to Whom I turn in faith! This is the truth that faith in Christ receives, that we are justified, made right with God, by our faith in Jesus Christ alone. “For God so loved the world [God so loved you] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Jesus sets the captives free, all those in bondage to sin and death. To all who receive Him with faith, Jesus gives the freedom to live with God now and forever. This was the truth, Luther said, that opened the gates of heaven for him. As we turn in faith to Jesus each day, may those gates open wider and wider for us as well. Amen