Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Just a paper tiger???
Do you recall what started off the Reformation? It was not some grand affair but pieces of paper to which the Pope had affixed his signature and which promised to shave off many years from the purgatory that had to be endured before heaven’s joys began. It was not the sound of cannon fire or clinking suits of armor or a political assassination or some movement of social discontent. It was merely a piece of paper, like so many other pieces of paper that had been sent out before, all to raise funds to build a spectacular church in Rome. It was a fund raising scheme on steroids that had kings and princes and dukes lined up to buy their indulgences along side the poor peasants of the day. Who would have thought one piece of paper would have started such a movement?
But there was one voice raised to say "wait a minute." This was not the teaching of the Bible, it was not the faith of the apostles, and it was not the faith that saves. One man and one voice. It was one man who pounded to the door of the Castle Church an invitation to debate whether indulgences were moral and godly or immoral and a lie. It was one man who dared to fear offending God more than offending popes and kings and lords and soldiers. It was one man who stood his ground in he face of power and privilege designed to make him quake in his boots and recant his every thought. It was one man who became God’s man for the moment to reform and restore His failing church.
His power was not the might of an army or even the mass of peasant folk who rose up in arms. His might was paper printed with 95 Theses, with a Confession of Faith, with a catechism, and with hymns that would sing the call to reformation in the minds and hearts of God’s people. His authority was not divine right but humble faith that insisted upon championing the cross over glory and the salvation that was free to all who believed even though it cost Jesus His life in suffering and death upon the cross. His was an unlikely heroic virtue in a world of cowards who refused to speak up even thought their consciences were pricked by the lies being paraded as truth.
Well, friends, we are back at square one. More than 500 years have passed and the crime of indulgences seems almost tolerable in the face of Christians who care little for the Gospel and who believe freedom means they can give into every sin and error without guilt. More than 500 years have passed and most of the world not only does not care about Martin Luther, they do not care about God. More than 500 years have passed the Church that bears the name of the Reformer has become a pale and weak shadow of its former self. More than 500 years have passed and we have learned to call virtue sin and sin truth, to value faithfulness to desire over faithfulness to God, to label His Word myth and legend, and to judge God on the basis of what feels good in the moment or sounds reasonable to us.
Reformation Churches have great buildings, colleges and universities, seminaries and schools. Reformation Churches have publishing houses and media strategies. Reformation Churches have mountains of paper. But you know what they don’t have anymore? They don’t have confidence in God’s Word. They don’t have the courage to stand up and to stand out for God against the world and its thinking which does not fear God, does not fear death, and does not fear hell but does fear not being happy, not filling your life with rich experiences, and not being who you think you are at any given moment. Reformation Churches have reams of paper that no longer mean much of anything anymore against the pursuit of what feels good in the moment because they no longer preach and teach with confidence this eternal Gospel.
Where are the Luthers of this day? Where are youth confirmed with promises of faithfulness and where are adults who insist they will keep the faith and suffer all even death rather than fall away? Where are the bodies that should fill the empty pews you find in every Church every week? Where are the faithful singing the mighty hymns of old in a world that uses music to glorify anything and everything except the Word of God? Where are the pastors who have the courage to speak the unchanging Gospel in a changing world? Where are the people who refuse to listen except to the Word of God faithfully preached and taught?
In Wittenberg where it all began, the faith of Luther is almost dead. Dictators and philosophers have persecuted the faith until it is timid and shallow. War and bloodshed have dulled the sharp edge of God’s Word with too many disappointed hopes. Perversions become normal in the minds of most people. Depression and prosperity have taught people you get by without God. But in the places where you least expect it, the Reformation still lives. In Africa’s dark jungles and Siberia’s freezing cold and in India’s crowded cities, people rejoice to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified and give up everything for the prospect of a freedom purchased with the blood of Christ once for all.
And here today four youth will add their halting voices to the chorus of those who say “This we believe, teach, and confess.” Today a mighty organ calls us to sing the battle hymn of the Reformation “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Today through confession you let go of your sins and leave them at the cross of Christ. Today a people rejoices that God does forgive and restore His lost and fallen people. Today a people will pray with confidence to the God they know hears their prayers and will give them all that they need for this body and life and for eternal life. Today people come to kneel at the altar and open their mouths to feast upon the bread of heaven come down from above and to drink the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sin. Today a people will not only open their hearts but their wallets to make sure that today is not the last Reformation day, that the work goes on and the Word ventures forth to do God’s bidding.
Dear people of God, no matter how far ahead we plan, the Church lives one week at a time, by the grace of God given in Word and Sacrament, to a people called, gathered, and enlightened by the Spirit. Our future is known not by sight but by faith. Tomorrow’s army of God is right now being nurtured by parents who hold their children’s hands and teach them to pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” The battlefields where we meet Satan with the sword of the Word of God are not far off hills in distant lands but the very streets where we live, the buildings where we work, the schools in which our children learn, and the churches fighting to keep the doors open one more week.
People loved by God, the Word of God is not a paper tiger but a mighty Word that does what it says and delivers what it promises. The water of baptism is no symbolic washing but the place where we die to sin and rise up in Christ as new people. The absolution spoken by the pastor is not a wish or a dream but the verdict of God who declares you sinners forgiven. The table of the Lord is no snack counter but where the people of God eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood that His forgiveness and life may live in us still. The Church seems like a paper tiger that barks at all the things that are wrong in this world but forgets to speak God’s yes in Christ. But we are a paper tiger only when we fail to speak the Word that endures forever and live from faith our baptismal lives, fed and nourished at the Altar. The Body of Christ is where the lost, the least, the lone, the lame, the little, the left out, and the last are given place, purpose, promise, and power in Christ our Lord.
If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed. That is the Gospel. The gates of hell cannot prevail and Satan cannot threaten. One little Word has toppled the devil and his legions. No one can snatch you from His hand. Nothing can separate you from His love in Christ. You are not your own; you belong to Him. Oh, it is true that you will suffer for the sake of Christ and you will have to make sacrifices so that the church can do her work, and you will have to rebuild what the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh seek to tear down, but if you keep the faith, God will deliver you from all your enemies and give you Christ’s eternal victory. Let these and all things be gone but your enemies have not won. You will endure in Christ and be kept holy and blameless to the day of Christ’s coming when all will be replaced, when a new heaven and a new earth will rise up from the ruins of this world and you will wear a new flesh and blood that death cannot touch and sin cannot stain. And in this Kingdom God will reign and He will share His glory with you and your hearts will be so full of joy and peace that it will seem they cannot contain it all, forevermore.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Fear God and give Him glory. Amen
NB Parts of this sermon were inspired and words borrowed from a number of different Reformation sermons I have heard over the years.