Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lectionary 30 or Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Jehovah hath done great things for us, Whereof we are glad.

Many churches will take this next Sunday to remember the day Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg. The document was meant to begin an academic debate about the issues that they church faced. Those Ninety-five Theses set off an explosion of reformation in the Church. Along with the political upheaval of the day, Martin Luther sent the world spinning in a whole new direction. One of the main issues that concerned Brother Martin was that indulgences were being sold to build a grand new church in Rome. Martin Luther was not so concerned about building the building. He was concerned by the mistaken understanding of salvation understood by those purchasing the indulgences. He preached the reality that God saved His people by His grace through faith, not through any works of human hands. We can’t buy salvation. It comes free from God. Human effort is temporary and perishable.

The sellers of indulgences created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the hearts of the believers, manipulating them into believing that they could buy their way, or the way of their loved ones, into heaven. Along with financial indulgences, the people thought they could do things to gain the forgiveness that God gives for free. People, including Martin Luther, did acts of piety in the hopes that it would bring them the holiness that God required of His people. While in Rome on business, Martin Luther visited the places that held sacred relics and even climbed the steps of the Lateran Church on his knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer on every step. Many pilgrims did this, with the hope that they would satisfy God.

Interestingly, when he reached the top, he wondered to himself, “What if this doesn’t work?” Would the painful act bring him the peace of assurance that his salvation was secure? He didn’t feel at peace that day, nor did he ever feel peace when he spent hours in confession. Nothing made him feel like he was forgiven. Nothing gave him the courage to boldly stand firmly in God’s promises. That is, until he discovered the Epistle text we read during worship on Reformation Sunday. Paul writes, “But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26, ASV)

There is a Reformation Day message in the scriptures for Lectionary 30: the stories of Israel’s salvation and Bartimaeus’ sight. Jeremiah offers a promise from God, a promise of salvation for those who have been exiled. The path that they would walk would be directed by God Himself. “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall they return hither.” This salvation was not meant for a select few or for only those who are perfect. As a matter of fact, God was ready to answer to all those who called out to Him.

Jeremiah talks in the Old Testament passage about a remnant. Those who sew know that a remnant is a leftover piece of cloth, the end of a roll, often sold at a discount. The pieces are usually too small to make anything, certainly not a piece of clothing. I search the remnants for material to use for craft projects, and quilters can often use pieces for quilts they create. Usually, though, these pieces are worthless and unwanted. The word “remnant” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a usually small part, member, or trace remaining; a small surviving group—often used in plural.” The remnant of Israel would be a small surviving group, a group with no power, no authority, and no position in the world.

In this case, the remnant includes those who turned to the Lord, who returned to the Lord. Israel had been lost, forgetting the works of God and turning to the nations for aid. The judgment they received for their unfaithfulness was exile in Assyria. But God did not send them into exile without a promise: they would be saved. In today’s passage, God calls His people to praise Him. “Sing Hosanna” which means, “Save, O LORD, your people.” They were called to rejoice in what God has done and what He will do.

In this passage, He calls His people both “the chief of nations” and a remnant. This doesn’t make sense in our mind. How can a remnant be a chief? Then He says, “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born.” The irony, here, is that Ephraim was the second son of Joseph who was the eleventh son of Jacob. He could not be the first born. The nation could not be chief. Israel was just a remnant. But God can do whatever He wants to do.

The trip into exile did bring His people back into His heart. The remnant did turn back to Him and they were returned to their home. The Temple was rebuilt and they returned year after year to seek His forgiveness for their sins. The priests did what they were ordained to do. They offered the sacrifices. They prayed the prayers. They offered the bread and the blood. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that the work they did was not permanent. Day after day, over and over again they offered the sacrifices, but they had to do so year after year. What they did was temporary because they were temporary. But God can do whatever He wants to do, and He offered a greater priest with a greater sacrifice: one that as permanent. He was holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.

Yet, He was one of us. Jesus Christ was born of a woman. He suffered temptation in the wilderness. His flesh required food, rest, bathing. He needed clothes to wear and shelter. He enjoyed the company of disciples and thrived in the presence of the searching crowds. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. His human experience gave him the understanding to be sympathetic to us, but His divine place made Him holy and perfect to be an eternal priest. He is the perfect intercessor. He can do whatever He wants to do.

Imagine what it must have been like for Bartimaeus. He had heard stories about Jesus and he knew that Jesus could help him. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus, the disciples and the crowds were leaving Jericho. They passed by the city gates where beggars sat in the hope that a pilgrim or passerby might give a morsel or a coin. He heard that Jesus was coming, so he called out, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Bartimaeus was a nobody; he was less than a nobody. He was blind, so he was cursed. The people thought he must have done something to deserve his dis-ease. Even though the crowds told Bartimaeus to be quiet, he kept calling to Jesus, the Son of David. He knew. He saw something that the others could not see. He was blind, but not so blind that he didn’t know the One who could change his life. He was a remnant, a surviving piece, one who turned to God for salvation.

Being blind in Jesus’ day was much harder than it is today. Though blindness is a disability, many blind people in our age are able to lead normal, independent lives. For Bartimaeus, blindness meant rejection, hunger, begging. It meant being outcast from society and persecution. It meant exile, like the Israelites in the passage from Jeremiah. It was understandable if the people of his day looked upon him as a sinner, unworthy of Jesus’ time and power. But Bartimaeus did not let his low position stop him from crying out to God. Did he cry out, “Hosanna” along with his cry for mercy? Did he sing that praise found in the Old Testament lesson, “Save, O LORD, your people.” He sought mercy and Jesus invited him into His presence.

When asked, he told Jesus, “I want to see again.” Bartimaeus did not ask for healing; he asked to see again. I am certain he wanted to see with his eyes, for sight would give him his life. But his request came with an interesting title: my Teacher. Did he also want to see with his heart? The heart was the center of the being, the place of the mind as well as the emotions. Jesus answered, “Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.” Jesus provided him healing—his eyes and his heart. He was made whole because he believed in Jesus.

God can do whatever He wants to do. Knowledge of this fact is what gave Martin Luther peace. He realized that it was not his works or his words that would bring salvation, and he knew that there was no peace in relying on his own abilities or actions. Only in God can we have peace. The psalmist knows what it is like to experience the grace of God, and knows that even in praising God for what He has done there is room to look forward to what God can do. We praise God at every moment for what has been and what will be. We rejoice in what God has done and what He will do. For “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” God can do whatever He wants to do, and He does all that He has promised. We live trusting in His faithfulness, crying “Hosanna” to our Father, counted among His firstborn despite our unworthiness. All this by grace through faith in the Eternal One who can save.

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