Monday, October 27, 2008

Reformation Day (observed)

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Sunday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from John chapter eight. Dear friends of Christ, what was the Reformation about? Some would say that it was all about the abuses of the medieval church, that an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther was finally driven over the edge by the selling of salvation by the church. Others would say that the Reformation was all about change, and that the Reformation Church is therefore constantly changing. I would agree to those two thoughts to a certain extent. The Reformation did begin because someone was finally pushed over the edge, driven to speak out against the abuses of the Church. The Reformation also has an element of change- there were problems that needed fixing, there were changes that needed to be made. But I believe that the Reformation was about much more than church abuses or change for the sake of change. The Reformation was all about the Gospel, and the free and clear proclamation of that Gospel throughout the world. The Reformers were called by God to be His bold witnesses before the Church and the entire world.

And what did they bear witness to? They bore witness to the truth of the Gospel, the truth of God’s word. Their lives, and our lives, revolve around the confession of the truth, as it is stated in our text: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” And what is this truth? It is much more than a concept, than an abstract idea, it is a person. Jesus is the Truth, God’s Truth, the Truth that is sent into a world afflicted by the father of lies. Jesus Christ, the Truth Himself, is God’s answer to our sin, He has come to speak the words of ultimate truth- that no person can be with the Father except though Jesus. The Truth of God is that your heavenly Father had a plan to deal with your sin, and it included sending this Truth into the world as a man and then sending that Truth to the cross, where man refused to recognize God’s Truth and instead put Him to death. But it was only through that death, and His glorious resurrection, that the Truth could triumph over the lies of sin, death, and the devil.

The benefits of this triumph are now given to us through the Word. As Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” The truth then comes to you when you abide in the Word, God’s Holy Scriptures. Abiding is not only reading God’s Holy Word, but instead it is an intimate communion with this Word, letting it shape your life and strengthen your faith each and every day. It is not simply head knowledge, just as the truth is not simply a concept. Instead, it is the means of a connection, of a communion with a person, God’s Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. And when we are connected with the Truth through the Word, we then are given the privilege of being Christ’s disciples. We have the wonderful opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet each and every day, to learn from Him and draw strength from His gifts. As Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” What a wonderful gift! To that we can only respond with thanksgiving!

But how do the Jews respond to this glorious message? They take issue with one little word, one that we haven’t even touched on yet in this message- ‘free.’ “They answered Him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it then that you say, “You will become free”?’” Many in the Church at the time of the Reformation said much the same thing. They did not see any bondage or slavery in their beloved Church. It took Martin Luther and others to open people’s eyes to the bondage that the Church was under. The people were under a terrible slavery to the Law. They were expected to work out their own salvation through their own effort, in many cases, they were expected to buy their own salvation. The burden of salvation rested solely on the shoulders of the people, and it was a heavy burden. Because of this, the Gospel itself was in shackles, bound and chained to the Law. The clear proclamation of what Christ had done was rarely heard, but instead people had to look at what they had done, leaving little assurance to anyone.

But even that slavery paled in comparison to the slavery which you and all humanity are under. What, we ask, is the slavery that we are under? We live in a free country, we are bound to no one! Why would we need to be set free? We have the same objection as the Jews in our text or the people in Luther’s day. We “have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answers you, me, the Jews, and all people throughout history, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That is the slavery that we are under, that of sin! Sin is a narcotic, it is an addicting substance, it wraps its chains around you, becoming tighter and tighter as you fall deeper and deeper into it. Some sins are famously addictive, such as pornography, alcoholism, or stealing, but when you get down to it, every sin that you commit enslaves you. We think that we can quit at any time, but as we continue in a sin, it becomes harder and harder to do so. Jesus is exactly right- sin is a slave master, constantly seeking to bind us ever tighter. It calls upon our total allegiance, it begins to consume our entire lives. And there is no reward at the end of this slavery, our slave master will not let us go, and so this slavery only promises death, it only promises separation from God in hell.

As Jesus said in our text, “The slave does not remain in the house forever, the Son remains forever.” Because we are slaves, slaves to sin, we do not deserve to remain in the house, instead we deserve to be cast away from God’s presence. And that is what God’s judgment is on sinful humanity. But the Son, the Son remains forever. And who is the Son? He is none other than the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who remains in the Father’s house forever. The word used here for ‘remain’ is the same Greek word used earlier in our text for ‘abide,’ and here it has the same meaning. It means an intimate communion between Jesus and the Father, a connection, a personal relationship that is closer than any other relationship that we could think of. Jesus is true God, He is in that relationship called the Trinity, one God in three persons, three persons in communion with each other. And without leaving that relationship behind, Jesus Christ became true man, and He became true man to do something about our slavery.

I said earlier that our slavemasters, sin and Satan, will not let us go. They have us in their grasp and there is nothing that we can do to set ourselves free. All of the good things that we do cannot break the bonds of slavery, they do not cancel out our sin. No, we will not be let go. But Jesus did not become man to negotiate our release- He came to take on sin, Satan, and death, to deal our slavemasters a blow from which they will never recover, He came to defeat them and free you. And how did He do this? By taking the form of a slave, taking our form, and humbling Himself to death, death on a cross. He allowed Himself to be bound by the Jews and the Romans, He allowed them to deliver Him to the death that you deserved. Upon a Roman cross, Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, shed His blood, and He shed it for your sins and the sins of the entire world, He shed it to set you free from the bondage you were under. Then He broke the bonds of death, He threw off the shackles that enslaved you when He rose from the dead Easter Sunday. When the stone to the tomb rolled away, freeing Jesus Christ, you too were free, centuries before you were born. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
As Paul said in our Epistle lesson for today, you “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” This grace comes to you today and every day as a gift, Jesus is constantly freeing you from the bondage of sin each and every time that you repent of your sins. Christ continually works to free you because you continue to fall into sin’s slavery, you will not be free of sin this side of heaven, but He still breaks your bonds daily. You see, Jesus’ grace is so overflowing and abundant that it pours into your life at every moment. And how does this grace come? As Jesus said at the beginning of our text, it comes by abiding in His Word. But this is not simply head knowledge or reading from a book. God’s Word comes to us primarily through His spoken word, when He comes into your ears with the message of freedom. But He also works to free us in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through those physical means, connected with His Word, we are set free from our slavery to sin. These means bring us into a relationship with Christ, through them we are in intimate communion with the Trinity, we abide in God, and He abides in us. We are now the sons who abide in God’s presence until eternity, we are claimed as His children through Christ. We no longer have any need to be enslaved to sin, for we have been set free by the grace of God through the triumphant victory of Christ over our slaveholders.

This message was the goal of the Reformation, no more and no less. Martin Luther and his companions did not intend to start a new Church, but instead they sought to release the gospel from its slavery and once again give it free course throughout the world. They sought to release men and women from the bondage of the Law and sin, proclaiming to them that Jesus has set them free through His death and resurrection. They sought only to emulate what John wrote about in our first lesson today: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” May this eternal Gospel, the Gospel that you are set free from your sins through Christ, strengthen and preserve you in the true faith until life everlasting, Amen.

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