Sunday, October 31, 2004

Twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost or Reformation Day
Isaiah 1:1-10
Psalm 32:1-8
2 Thessalonians 1:1-14, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

We are bound to give thanks to God always to you, brethren, even as it is meet, for that your faith growth exceedingly, and the love of each one of you all toward one another aboundeth.

Since this next Sunday is October 31, it is natural that this Lutheran would lean toward using the scripture established for Reformation Day. This is the day when we remember with thanksgiving the work of Martin Luther, who sought to find the truth of the Gospel in a world that was buried in Law. The Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed Ninety-five theological ideas on the door of Wittenberg Church for discussion among the scholars of the day. Social, religious and political circumstances made this act one of widespread popularity among the common folk. It eventually led to Luther’s expulsion from the Roman church and the creation of what we know now as the Lutheran Church.

Of course, at this time there were other reformers, some who agreed with Dr. Luther and others who disagreed. It was a time of upheaval, of war and of great spiritual awakening, not only among the elite, but also among the people. Men like Luther, as well as Guttenberg’s printing press, made God’s word more available for the believers through music, catechisms and printed literature about faith.

The turning point for Luther’s faith was a discovery in scripture that was seemingly lost in the teaching of the church of that day. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free.

The Gospel lesson for Reformation Day is from John 8:31-36, “Jesus therefore said to those Jews that had believed him, If ye abide in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32) As we consider these words of our Lord Jesus, we can easily get caught up in the words “truth” and “freedom.” What do these mean, particularly in our world today? Truth is relative for many, and the definition of freedom is different from one person to another.

The epistle passage for Reformation Day comes from Romans 3:19-28, and this passage answers some of the questions about this freedom we have in Christ. Our lack of freedom is caused by the burdens we bear – burdens that are often based on social, political and religious structures in our world. For Luther, the burden of indulgences was too much to bear, so he sought God’s word in the Bible. He found the answer in this passage. “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Freedom in Christ comes from the knowledge that we are not able to justify ourselves. We do not have to work for God’s love, but we receive it in faith so that we might live it in the world. We can’t buy it either.

Though as a Lutheran I am drawn toward the Reformation celebration, I’m also aware of the wonderful message that is found in this week’s passages for the season of Pentecost. The story of Zacchaeus, the encouragement of Paul and the reminder of Isaiah that God does not need our sacrifices show us that God often comes into our life to turn it upside down.

Imagine what it must have been like for Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector, obviously a very successful one. Success in such a business generally meant that he probably extorted too much from his clients – taking a far greater percentage for his own pocket than was necessary or acceptable. I have often wondered if the tax collector in last week’s story was Zacchaeus, who after having heard about Jesus went to the temple to seek the mercy of God. Then, hearing of Jesus’ visit, wanted to get a look at the man whose words helped him to see the world in a new way.

Whether it was Zacchaeus or not, we see that this wealthy tax collector was curious about the man named Jesus. Since he was short, he climbed up in a tree to get a better look. I can almost see Zacchaeus trying to squeeze through the crowd, but was unable because he was held in contempt even by those people who believed and followed Jesus. They would not let him through, perhaps because they thought in his sinfulness he was unworthy to even watch him pass by.

Jesus did not hold this Zacchaeus in contempt, however. When He saw the man hanging from the tree he called out, “Zacchaeus, come down because I am coming to your house!” This was an exciting moment for this little tax collector. But it was shocking to the crowd. They mumbled because Jesus wanted to go spend time with ‘that sinner.’

However, Zacchaeus saw his sin. He repented of his greed by offering to give half of his possessions to the poor and by repaying those he cheated four times the amount. This was the accepted punishment for thievery, and in making this offer, Zacchaeus admitted his sin. As we read this passage, it is easy to assume that Jesus answer to his confession that faith came as a result of his words. Yet, Jesus does not mention the works in his answer. “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”

The salvation to which Jesus refers in not a thing, it is not an experience and it is not a change in the person’s attitude or eternal inheritance. That salvation is Jesus Christ, the flesh and blood manifestation of God’s mercy in this world. Jesus went to stay with Zacchaeus because the little tax collector was a beloved child of God, a son of Abraham. He did not go to the house because Zacchaeus repented, but rather Zacchaeus repented because Jesus had mercy on him. This puts the justification of man where it belongs – in God’s hand, not in works.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks to those who think they can earn God’s mercy. He tells them their sacrifices mean nothing to Him, that He takes no pleasure in the blood they shed. He addresses their offerings, calling their incense detestable. Even their worship is a burden to Him. “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary of bearing them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”

God calls them to repentance. “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Again, as we read these words, it is easy to fall into the assumption that it is up to us to make a difference, so that God will hear our prayers.

However, this is not a passage about law, but rather about grace. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Forgiveness changes things, grace makes everything new.

While Isaiah shows us what it is like to think ourselves more highly than we ought, Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians shows the life turned upside down by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “To which end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfil every desire of goodness and every work of faith, with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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 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 enough, worthy 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 reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

We recall that day in 1517 because Martin Luther’s questions reminded us of our sinfulness and God’s amazing grace. The Reformation was movement in which the Gospel was preached and the forgiveness of God was shared so that those who were bound might be set free. Our modern understanding of freedom often refers to our ability to do whatever we want, but the concept of freedom in Christ is different. In Christ we are set free from our bondage; we are set free from the slavery to sin and death.

I sometimes wonder if it were not time to have another Reformation, and there are others who think the same. Unfortunately, the focus of this new Reformation for many is a freedom to do what we feel is best. However, the Reformation we need is the reminder that we are sinners saved by grace and that God has mercy on us so that we might glorify Him with our lives. We need to recognize God’s grace as did the psalmist. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah imputeth not iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no guile.” We need to remember that God’s grace does not set us free to live as we want, but rather He sets us free to live to His glory. In that grace we are called to live in a manner in which our faith will grow and that our love for one another will increase.

Thanks be to God.

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