Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reformation (Romans 3:19-28)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, the medieval church was noisy. You heard the sound of prayers and masses, offered to God and to the saints, seeking favor, seeking protection, seeking merit. You heard the voice of the indulgence preacher, marketing his wares, offering deliverance from purgatory for a few coins. In Rome, the monk Martin Luther heard the sound of hundreds of pilgrims climbing the stairs, saying ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ on every step. And you heard people constantly chattering, to each other and to their God, telling all who would hear about what they have done for their Creator. That is what you must do, if you believe that you are justified, made right before God by what you do. The heart that believes it is justified by works is always talking, always telling God what it has done, always making comparisons, contrasting itself with those around it. Any sinner can look better when he finds someone more wicked than himself.

You and I are little different; we are as noisy as a flock of blackbirds, chattering to God, chattering to each other. We make comparisons, we make distinctions, between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between we ‘good church people’ and the ones who dwell outside of these walls. We love to compare ourselves to others, especially when the comparison shows that we are the saint, when we are given the opportunity to show that someone else is the sinner. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I’m certainly not as bad as her! In pride, we brag about our good deeds, we bring them before others, we hold them up before God, hoping that He will be pleased. Our comfort at the time of death is ‘I’ve lived a good life,’ something we need to tell ourselves constantly so that we just might believe it.

God hears our chatter, our boasting, our distinctions, and He has one thing to say: Be quiet! Be quiet. “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The Law of God stops all this foolish chatter; it silences mouths that love to run down others and exalt themselves. Be quiet! Quit boasting in your works; the Law declares that no good work is good enough to overcome sin. “By works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” You thought that the Law could justify you, that it was the path to bring you to God. But that was a false, misleading dream. The Law can never bring you near to your Creator, because you cannot keep it. Through the Law comes knowledge of sin; the Law is meant to condemn you, to proclaim the opposite message: there is no distinction, all flesh stands condemned, separated from God forever.

You and I chatter to God and man, making distinctions, making comparisons, thinking that somehow our Creator is working with a sliding scale, that we can justify ourselves in His sight. God speaks in His Law, making no distinction, condemning all. “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” Every mouth is stopped. The whole world stands accountable to God. That is the truth that the thunder of God’s Law declares. You are not good enough for God; you are not holy enough, you are not righteous enough, you are not perfect enough. You are unworthy of your Creator, no matter how much worse your neighbor appears, his condemnation is your condemnation. Be quiet. Shut your mouth. Quit chattering, quit talking, and listen. God’s Law demands absolute perfection, each and every day, and you have fallen far, far short. You are a sinner, and you are accountable to God for that sin.

You have no defense, the Law has stripped away every excuse, every apology, every attempt at self-justification. When the Law speaks in all of its fury, we have no choice but to shut our mouths. What can we say? Martin Luther declares in the Smalcald Articles: “This, then, is the thunderbolt by means of which God with one blow destroys both open sinners and false saints. He allows no one to justify himself. He drives all together into terror and despair.” We cannot speak, for all of our chattering, all of our distinctions are no good. God doesn’t care that you are a ‘better person’ than the one sitting next to you tonight; when He looks at this world, all He sees is sinners, sinners accountable to Him, sinners who could never pay their debt.

He sees sinners that He, He alone, can deliver, that He has promised to deliver, that He has delivered. “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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” God makes no distinctions; all stand condemned under His Law, and all are justified, declared righteous, right with Him, solely by His grace, through the blood of Jesus Christ. On the cross, God justifies Himself by justifying you. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” A God of justice couldn’t simply ignore sin; the Law’s deserved wrath must be poured out. But for centuries, His wrath didn’t come. Even today, many blame God for the existence of unpunished evil. But God is not unjust; His wrath against sin would be poured out, in His time, and upon one man: your substitute, God in the flesh, His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ suffered the very anguish of hell; every ounce of wrath earned by the sin of the world was poured out upon Him. On the cross, Jesus suffered for your sins, so that their price is no longer demanded from you; He suffered your punishment, so that you will never feel it. You stand condemned under the Law, but the Law is not God’s final Word, just as the cross was not the end for Christ, so condemnation is not your end. He is risen, and you are delivered, justified, declared righteous before Him, solely through Christ. The Law silences you so that you hear the Gospel and rejoice!

The most important paragraph in the Lutheran Confessions, Article Four of the Augsburg Confession, mercifully brings to an end all the chattering of the medieval church: “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God on our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness.” The Law demands that we be quiet, for all stand condemned under it; the Gospel invites us to be silent, because there is nothing that we need to say, nothing that we need to do. We believe that Christ has done it all for us, and it is ours. It is a gift, we do not earn it; a gift won upon the cross by your substitute, and given to you in the Word, in Holy Baptism, in His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. You are no longer condemned, you are righteous!

As the Apology to the Augsburg Confession declares, “When frightened consciences are consoled by faith and believe that our sins are blotted out by Christ’s death and that God has been reconciled to us because of Christ’s suffering, then indeed Christ’s suffering benefits us.” Christ suffered for you, He has brought the benefits of that suffering near to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments, and you are justified by faith, the faith created by the Holy Spirit in those very means. He has done everything needed to quiet your conscience, a conscience that stood in terror under God’s Law. As Saint Paul says, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

The Reformation church is noisy. You hear the sound of the Gospel, freely proclaimed to the entire world. You hear the songs of the saints, trumpeting forth the wonderful good news of God’s free grace on account of Christ. You hear the Divine Service, bringing salvation near to human ears and lips each and every Lord’s Day. The church of the Reformation, the Lutheran Church, cannot keep from chattering, speaking the beautiful message of the Gospel to sinners in desperate need of it. We have a treasure we can’t help but share. The Lutheran Church exists, and the Lutheran Confessions were written to bring comfort to stricken sinners, to those who were living under the Law and all of its demands. Paul declares, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” The Confessions echo: “Faith alone makes a righteous man out of an unrighteous one, that is, that it receives the forgiveness of sins.”

Therefore, the Reformation is for everyone; the Lutheran Church isn’t a German phenomenon, any more than Luther is simply a German cultural icon. The Lutheran Church is for all people because the message she proclaims is for all people. “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is that glorious Gospel message that we celebrate on Reformation Day, because that message is for every person on this planet, even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, who stood in your place under the wrath of God, by whose shed blood you are declared righteous, Amen.

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