Sunday, October 25, 2020

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.

We celebrate the Festival of the Reformation, not because of the birth of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, not because of the translation of the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular German, nor even because of the great deeds and bold confession of Martin Luther and other reformers, but we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation because of the eternal Gospel proclaimed to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And the eternal Gospel is this: The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, […] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Thus, what Luther and reformers both before and after him accomplished through their reforms served to strip away the layers of man-made law, tradition, and superstition that had enshrouded and obscured the pure Gospel message that men are justified, not by works and obedience under the Law, not by their personal piety and devotion, but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.

But the Gospel had become obscured long before the corruption known as indulgences had become normal practice. In fact, the Gospel had become obscured long before the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law began to layer their own laws and traditions upon the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel had become obscured long before the incarnation and birth of Jesus, long before Moses and the Ten Commandments, long before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all the way back to at least Cain and Abel. In fact, from the moment that God first promised that He would send a Savior who would crush the serpent’s head and remove our guilt and the sting of death, man has striven to offer something of his own to God as payment for his sin and to reject the gift of grace that God Himself has provided.

The eternal Gospel proclaimed by the angelic messenger is exactly that, eternal. It is a message that was proclaimed before the foundation of the world and it is a message that remains unchanged then, now, and always, world without end: The hour of [God’s] judgment has come. When God sent forth His only-begotten Son to be subject to the Law that binds all men, to suffer and die to remove the guilt of all men, it was finished. All that was necessary to justify men before God was accomplished without any work, merit, or even faith from men. That is the eternal Gospel message proclaimed God’s angels, His messengers, be they angelic spirits, prophets, apostles, and evangelists, ministers and pastors in the Church of Christ, or even you, dear Christian, as you share this Good News with your neighbors in word and in deed. How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the Good News!

The eternal Gospel is extra nos, outside of us, and that is why it is Good News. Your justification does not depend upon you in any way. Your standing before God does not depend upon your good works. It does not depend upon your obedience to the Law. It does not depend upon your piety, your tithing, or your attendance at church. It does not even depend upon your faith, but it depends only, solely, and completely upon the Lamb of God Jesus Christ whom God put forth as the propitiation for your sins. If your justification were to depend on anything at all from you, then you could never know comfort or peace, for there would always be uncertainty that you have done enough or believed enough or given enough. If your justification were to depend on anything at all from you then there would be no Good News, no Gospel, but only the rigid, inflexible, and condemning Law of God that you cannot keep.

Yet, that is exactly what sinful man wants to believe, that there is some way in which we can justify ourselves. Whether you believe that Jesus died for your original sin so that you can pay God back for your actual sins or that you can purchase God’s forgiveness with tithes, prayers, or time, you are, in effect, saying, that Jesus, in His obedience, suffering, and death, did not do enough. You are saying that Jesus’ suffering and death was not sufficient to make you right with God. You are saying, “Thanks for the gift of Your Son, God, but that’s not enough, so here’s what I’ll give you to make up the difference.” Or, to put it another way, any gift that you have to earn, buy, or deserve is not a gift at all. If it’s not a gift then it’s not grace. And if it’s not grace, then you are still in your sins, bound under the Law, and condemned to eternal death and separation from God.

Jesus taught in our Gospel lesson that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” That is to say that, while God desires to give men the kingdom of heaven for free, by grace, as a gift, men desire to take the kingdom of God on their own, according to their own terms. Indeed, the generation of men from the time of John the Baptist, even from the time of the Patriarchs, and yes, even from the time of Cain are dissatisfied with God’s plan of salvation, the Gospel “Good News” of Jesus Christ. This generation of men are like children who will not dance before a happy flute or mourn at the sound of a funeral dirge. They rejected John the Baptist because he did not eat and drink and they rejected Jesus because He did.

What is it that you tell God you will or will not do? What is it that you tell God He can or cannot do. What is it that you tell God and the whole world you will or will not believe? What part of His Good News do you reject and say, “That’s all fine and good, but it’s not enough?” Have you not heard that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom? That God alone is God, and you are not? Indeed, that is the central doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and the First Commandment of the Law of God. It is meant, not to encourage you and embolden you to justify yourself, but it is meant to condemn you in your guilt so that you despair of self-justification. For, only when you confess that you cannot justify yourself can you truly receive grace for what it is, a gift – a pure, and perfect gift. And, when you do receive God’s grace as a pure and perfect gift, then He is glorified as just and the justifier of the one who has faith in His pure and perfect gift of grace, Jesus Christ.

There is a Latin phrase that says ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church is always being reformed. Indeed, this is most certainly true. The Reformation that we commemorate today began, symbolically, on October 31, 1517. But, in truth, it was but the rolling boil of a reformation that had begun much, much earlier, as faithful men of God, His holy angels and messengers, called men to repentance and proclaimed to them the one and eternal Gospel of our justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the nature of sinful man to desire to justify himself, and thus, the Church is always, continually in a state of reformation. Today the Church of Christ needs reformation every bit as much as it did in 1517, and today God still raises up prophets and evangelists, angelic messengers to proclaim the Good News to those dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. Indeed, God has raised you up for this purpose promising, “Whoever confesses me before men, him will I confess before my Father in heaven.”

There is no higher worship of God than to receive His gifts. And the most precious, pure, and perfect gift He has given is righteousness in His Son, Jesus Christ. Strive, not to please God by your works or to earn His favor by your words, deeds, and piety, but strive to not let anything or anyone obscure the eternal Gospel of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, whom God put forth as a propitiation by His blood that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Ecclesia simper reformanda, the Church is always being reformed; so too are all the members of the Church which is the body of Christ, that is you, dear Christians. Let every day of your God-given lives be a Festival of the Reformation in which you repent of your sins and receive God’s holy absolution by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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