Sunday, October 27, 2013
Homily for The Festival of the Reformation (observed)
Matthew 11:12-19; Romans 3:19-28; Revelation 14:6-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is often said that justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. But, what does this statement mean? That is to say, what does justification mean? Justification is about how your are made to be right with your God: Are you made right with God by your works, by being obedient to the Law, or are you made right with God by grace, by the works and merit of Jesus? The former is the way of the Law, which leads only to death, while the latter is the way of the Gospel, which bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation.
St. Paul teaches you plainly in Romans, “By the works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight.” Likewise, Paul teaches, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, […] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
And so, God’s Law is the great leveler, condemning us all equally without exception: The Law of God condemns the Jew and the Gentile, the clean and the unclean, the Pharisee and the prostitute, the good and the bad, the saint and the sinner. However, the Gospel, likewise, forgives and redeems equally and without exception all who believe in Jesus Christ “whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” This is to show God’s righteousness, that, though He has all things against you, He willingly holds no thing against you, but forgives you all things through Jesus Christ. Therefore, God retains His justice and righteousness, and at the same time He justifies you who have faith in Jesus.
There is no cause for boasting, for there are no works or merit you can (or would want to) take credit for, for God has done all things necessary for your justification. He has done what you could never do: He has made you right with Him once again. Likewise, there is no cause for despair, for your sin-corrupted works and worthless merit have no role in your justification at all! As they cannot count for you, neither do they count against you if you repent and trust in Jesus for forgiveness.
However, the flesh does not like this arrangement. The flesh insists that it deserves credit and merit for its good works and that it, on the contrary, does not deserve judgment and condemnation for it’s bad works. The flesh considers the wisdom of God in justification to be foolishness. Often, the proclamation of the Gospel is met with rebellion, anger, and violence. Thus, Jesus lamented, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
The Prophets and the Law are the entirety of the Old Testament scriptures. As our resurrected Lord taught the Emmaus disciples, these all testify of Him. What they teach, specifically, is that God’s Law is Holy and Righteous, demanding perfection: You must be holy, as the LORD your God is holy. God set the bar so high that no one could possibly reach it, for the Law was never intended to be the means of your justification, making you right with God. Thus, God instituted the sacrificial system that the sins of the children of Israel could be atoned for, covered over for a time. But, they had to be repeated over and over again, year after year. Indeed, no man was ever forgiven his sins by these sacrifices, but God looked away from his sins for a time. That’s why, when John the Baptist came, he pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s Law saying, “Behold, the Lamb that God has provided, who does not merely cover over your sins, but who actually takes them away!”
But, what was the reaction of the religious leadership, and even many of the laity of Israel, to Jesus’ preaching of the Law’s fulfillment and it’s Third Use and fruit, love? They denied His divinity saying, “Aren’t you the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, the son of Joseph whom we know?” They denied His ability to forgive sins saying, “Only God can forgive sins.” And, their fathers killed the Prophets whom God sent to testify about Jesus even as they would kill the Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles Jesus would send in His Name.
Jesus described them in this way: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn’.” His meaning is that the flesh is never satisfied. First it wants to boast of its works and merits, but then the Law crushes man’s pride and reveals the best of man’s works to be but filthy rags. Thus, disdaining the Law, man lowers the bar for himself (if that were possible) so that he may do what the Law requires according to his own, not God’s, definition. This is what the Pharisees were especially good at doing. They made the Law do-able for themselves, but un-do-able for the laity, the people they were supposed to be serving. Yet, even then, they couldn’t do it perfectly. Therefore, they lowered it again, and again, and again. However, often the opposite occurs: The flesh recognizes that it cannot fulfill the Law’s demands and thus is plunged into hopelessness and despair. This will leave the poor soul either in the morass of despair, or his heart will be hardened and he will rail against God’s Law and God Himself crying, “Unfair! Unjust! Evil!” The devil steals the Word of the Gospel away from that heart altogether and it returns to the hard soil it was before.
Likewise, Jesus taught that they rejected John because he didn’t eat and drink in the legalistic ways that they did saying “He has a demon,” while they rejected Jesus because He did eat and drink, calling Him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collector’s and sinners!” John, the forerunner of Jesus, represented the Law and the Prophets, the final word of the Law to be spoken. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and He is the fulfillment of John as well. Where John commanded men, not to perform the Law to be saved, but to repent of their failings, their sins, in keeping it, Jesus would be justified by His deeds. Jesus alone did all things well; He fulfilled the Law along with all Messianic prophecies: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus is the Wisdom of God, often personified as Sophia in the feminine, thus He teaches, “Wisdom is justified by Her deeds.” Of no man but Jesus could this be said, for Jesus alone kept the Law perfectly, in perfect love and obedience, and had no sin of His own to corrupt His works or His merit. Therefore, not only did Jesus fulfill God’s Law for you, in your place, but He could take your sin and guilt upon Himself and put it to death and bury it, leaving it behind in His empty tomb forever.
Still, the flesh rebels against and rejects this Truth and Wisdom. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time rejected Jesus’ Gospel and considered it “expedient that one man should die for the people.” They despised the Law of God and preferred their own law instead. They couldn’t possibly see the Gospel for the Good News that it was, for they trusted in their works and merits and deceived themselves that they kept God’s Law, thus they saw no need at all for faith in Jesus or the forgiveness He offered.
However, Pharisees are not consigned only to first century Israel, but each generation has its own fleshly legalists. In Luther’s time it was the magisterium of the papacy, cardinals, and bishops. The magisterium taught that works (prayers and pilgrimages) and money (tithes and indulgences) could merit God’s forgiveness. Luther exposed this for the legalistic false teaching that it was, insisting from the Scripture that men “are justified by faith (alone) apart from works of the Law.” In fact, what we are commemorating this day is Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses on Indulgences to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31st, 1517. Each of these ninety-five theses dealt specifically with the question, “How are we justified before God?” How you answer that question will inform how you treat countless other doctrines in the Church: Who is Jesus? What does His sacrificial death mean? How can I know that I am saved? Is God wrathful or gracious? What am I to make of suffering and death? How should I understand the command to perform good works? Etc. This is why the doctrine of justification is said to be the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls, for if any part of your justification depends upon you, you can never be saved, and if you are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, then you need do nothing to be saved at all but believe and trust in Jesus and receive God’s most gracious gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In Jesus, the hour of God’s judgment has come – bearing your sins, Jesus was judged guilty in your place, and you have been judged innocent. Moreover, Jesus received the sentence you deserved, death, and He went to your cross, was crucified, died, and was buried. But He rose again from the dead because He had paid the penalty for your sin and, having no sin of His own, the grave could not hold Him. Therefore, He has taken away the sting of death, sin, and He has taken away the power of sin by fulfilling the Law. This is the eternal Gospel that must be proclaimed again, and again, and again “to those who dwell on the earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”
Thus, the Reformation continues, for the flesh and sinful men will continually rebel against and reject the Gospel and return to the chains of the Law, God’s, man’s, the devil’s, or otherwise. Semper ecclesia reformanda, the Church is always being reformed, for we must daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, and annually cast off the shackles of the Law and works righteousness, repent, and receive the soothing balm of the Gospel. The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. And, the Wisdom of God will appear as foolishness to man’s flesh and corrupted reason. Therefore we pray and we repent, this day and every day, that God would continue to send His angels, His messengers, His pastors, teachers, and evangelists to proclaim to us the eternal Gospel again, and again, and again. And He will, and He does. Even now He has prepared His table before you in the presence of your enemies that you may eat and be satisfied, drink and be quenched. And He promises that He will never leave you or forsake you, but that He will keep you and protect you as you pass through the valley of the shadow of death. For, “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.” And, though “the old evil foe now means deadly woe,” “He’s judged; the deed is done; one little word can fell him.” You may be surprised to hear that Luther said that “one little word” was “Liar!” However, this makes sense, because Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and He exposes Satan for what he is, a liar. Therefore, when Satan lies to you saying, “You must do more if you are going to merit God’s forgiveness,” or, “There is no forgiveness for you, your sins are too great,” just say to him, “Liar! My Jesus is the Truth, and He has set me free; for I am saved by grace through faith in Jesus, and that is the truth.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.