Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday
Revelation 14:6-7
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

I saw an angel flying in mid heaven, having an eternal Good News to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth, and to every nation, tribe, language, and people.

I went to a haunted house with a group of friends when I was a teenager. It was one of those houses at the Jersey shore filled with professional actors and rooms depicting frightening events. I entered the house a little cocky, “These things don’t scare me!” which made me a target. The minute I was in the first room of the house, a ghoul came out of a hiding place, frightened me and I quickly found myself cowering in a corner. My friends and I took off and practically ran through the house. One friend even lost a flip flop along the way; we had to go buy her a new set at one of the shops because none of us were willing to go back and find it and she couldn’t walk around the boardwalk with a shoe on only one foot.

I used to love that kind of stuff. I went to all the horror movies and decorated my house with all sorts of spooky things. When asked, I used to talk about how a little fear is healthy; it gets the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping. A scream or two never hurt. Besides, it wasn’t real. As I got older, particularly after I had children, I stopped going out of my way to be scared. I suppose I realized that there were real reasons to be afraid in the world, and the idea of going out of my way to be afraid to get my adrenaline flowing and heart pumping just wasn’t fun anymore.

There are very real reasons to be afraid in our world. I’m not so sure that there are more reasons today, although it seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it? We are afraid of the things that will affect the world and our nation. We are afraid of the crime in our neighborhoods. We are afraid of natural disasters that can destroy our homes. We are afraid of more personal things like disease and financial ruin. The political conversation surrounding this year’s U.S. election is filled with fear. Sometimes we don’t even really know what we fear.

It seems odd, then, that the passage from Revelation would command us to “Fear the Lord.” We know that there are benefits to the fears we have about the things of this world. Fear makes us more aware of the dangers. Fear helps us to work so that we won’t lose our health or our money. Fear protects us in many ways. However, we can be so focused on fear that we don’t experience joy or hope or peace. Why would we have to fear the One who has promised to be our source for joy and hope and peace? Fear of the Lord is not the same kind of fear. It isn’t the fear we experience in the haunted house or the movie theater. It isn’t the fear we experience when we are threatened. Fear of the Lord is a reverence for the Holy One, trusting that He where we’ll find our joy and hope and peace.

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago on October 31st Martin Luther posted Ninety-five thesis on the door of Wittenberg Church to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time. This began a reform movement that sought to restore the Christian faith to a simpler time, to a time when the work of God, His grace, was the center of the faith.

Martin Luther was an interesting character who lived in an interesting age. Superstition was rampant. The Church and secular authorities used the fears of the people to control and to establish even greater power for themselves. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. The Church was selling entrance into heaven; the only way to end up in heaven was to pay for it. The sellers of indulgences convinced the people that they could also pay for those already dead, so the poor became poorer by paying to set loved ones free from the bondage of purgatory.

People were ignorant of God’s Word, they received only what was given to them by the priests. The priests were often uneducated and heretical in their understanding of God, partly because they were ill-informed and partly because so many pagan thoughts had entered into the Christian understanding of God. It was a time of fear. Those who were faithful were so afraid of the wrath of God that they could not find peace or hope in their life. Guilt was a tool used by the Church to convince the congregation to purchase indulgences.

Martin Luther was an educated man who studied the scriptures and had a good sense of God’s love, but he so riddled with guilt that he spent hours confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. He was afraid of so many things. He was a priest and he was afraid that if was not justified before God, then his entire congregation would be condemned forever. He included every minor and trivial thought, word or deed that was not perfect. He suffered great pains spiritually. He was trying to be perfect, but when he was not perfect he obsessed over receiving forgiveness for himself for the sake of his congregation. He was afraid of the devil.

One day, however, Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him, that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God. He realized that his earthly fears were keeping him bound when the Gospel was given to make us free. He realized that nothing he feared had power over him because God was his refuge and strength.

When Martin Luther read the passage from Romans 3, he rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message: it is not by our works that we are saved, but by the amazing grace of God. It is so much easier for us to do good works than to accept the humbling reality that we can never make ourselves good enough to enter into the presence of God. We don’t want God to see our imperfections and we fear what will happen when He does. It is much, much harder for us to cry out to God in our imperfections because we are truly afraid of what He might say. Yet, the true path, the better path, is to cry out in faith knowing that God is gracious and merciful, full of forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to earn His grace, but in faith we can boldly approach Him with our needs. He will stop and listen. He will heal. In Him and in Him alone, we have joy and hope and peace.

In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is “our refuge and our strength.” We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. It was Psalm 46 that Martin Luther used as the basis for one of his most important works: the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” God is always there. He is a fortress in times of difficulty and a refuge in times of need. When things are looking bad in the world in which we live, as they must have looked to Luther in 1517, we can rest assured that God is present, active and faithful.

The Old Covenant included list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, and the people failed. That’s why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith to live according to God’s Word.

Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didn’t understand what he was talking about. “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free’?” They relied on their heritage; they relied on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they could not keep the Law perfectly, they would always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law. Jesus said that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. This is what Martin Luther discovered when he was trying to confess himself into salvation.

The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it changes how we look at God’s Law and God’s Word. In faith we respond to the call of God. The Old Covenant, which comes from outside, is replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. When we hear the Gospel, God’s Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear or greed. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out God’s Word in the world.

This life of grace is what Martin Luther discovered as he searched the scriptures for relief from his burdens. He longed to be freed from the fear, guilt and pain he experienced when he recognized himself as the sinner that he was. He knew there was no way he could be good or enough for the gifts of God. His fears threatened to affect his ministry, because he thought his lifetime of sin would invalidate the work he was called to do in the church.

Then he found the grace of God, that unbelievable truth that the work of salvation is not dependent on man but rather on the mercy of God. When we realize that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, our whole world is turned upside down. We are set free from the burdens of the law so that we might live to the glory of God in His grace. This is what happened to Martin Luther when he read Paul’s words to the Romans, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

There may be many things in this world that we should fear. That fear can be a good thing because it helps us beware and do the right things. However, no earthly fear or works will ever free us from sin and death. “Fear the Lord and give him glory.” The hour of judgment is upon us, but the judge has chosen to forgive our sins through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We need not fear; the angel in Revelation proclaimed the Good news that God has done all that is necessary. We justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. By His grace we are made sons and daughters, freed to live the lives He is calling us to live.

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