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Sermon for 30 October

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”  11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Romans 3:19-28

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

John 8:31-36

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.



Since today is Reformation Sunday, I thought it’d be appropriate to honor Luther by sharing a few of his interesting quotes.  According to Luther; “If we’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there”.  For all you worry warts out there, Luther gave this recommendation, “Pray, and let God worry.”  And speaking of prayer, Luther insists that, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”  For the more reserved, Luther had this advice, “It is pleasing to God whenever you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of thy heart.”  Luther it seems was full of interesting guidance, some of which involve either wine, women or beer, and I think it might be best if I save those for a more appropriate setting.  And because this is Reformation Sunday, there’s a real temptation for us Lutherans as we observe this day.  It’s a temptation to wave our Lutheran banners, thump our historical confessions, and puff ourselves up with the pride, in what we feel is our pure doctrine.  We sing our Lutheran hymns with gusto, and a sort of Lutheran patriotism exudes from our celebration.  But there’s a danger in this festivity, for in reflecting on our founding roots, we need to ask where’s our focus?

Too often we’re tempted to make today about Martin Luther – a great man and hero of the faith.  A man with the conviction to face down the most powerful man in his world, with his great “here I stand” speech.  We’re tempted to revere the man who translated the Bible into the language of the people, who left the safety of the Wartburg castle because the people needed him, who debated the Roman Catholic Church’s false teaching persuasively, and whose efforts laid the groundwork for the church bearing his name.  When we consider what Luther accomplished, it’s difficult to ignore his determination or the fact that God used him in a mighty way.  But is this really where our focus should be today?

Should our focus be on venerating the founder of the Protestant church?  We all know the answer, of course not; our focus should be on Jesus.  It should always be about Jesus.  Nor is today about Lutheran pride, since Paul says, boasting is excluded.  Instead we mark and celebrate the rediscovery of real freedom and the truth.  The truth of the Law and the Gospel, the truth that shows us our sin and the truth that sets us free, the truth of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, like you and me.  A truth that says we’re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone – not by our good works.  This is the truth of God’s word, both Law and Gospel, that we Lutherans make such a big deal about, on this day that we reflect on the Reformation.

Of course, our heritage and history are important.  We can rightly look to the reformers and our fathers in the faith, and thank God for the work they’ve done.  How Christendom might be different today, had God not led these men to a clear and true confession of the faith.  How many would’ve missed out on the assurance that a reformation understanding of the faith brings?

In our gospel reading appointed for today, Jesus says in John 8, that the truth of His teaching, is what frees us from slavery to sin.  And when we think about it, this passage is very fitting for Reformation Sunday.  Not because today is a sort of “Lutheran independence day” in which we shoot off our liturgical fireworks.  Not because we celebrate freedom from the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.  Instead, it’s because we once again take note, of the importance of truth and the freedom from sin, that the Gospel truly brings.

Our gospel lesson for today, draws us into a brief but intense scene that’s part of a much larger drama of increasing tension and opposition.  The scene runs from the beginning of chapter 7 to the end of chapter 8.  And the backdrop to all of this is the Festival of the Booths or Tabernacles; the Jewish harvest celebration that celebrates God’s protection and accompaniment, of the Jews on their wilderness sojourn from the bondage of Egypt, to the freedom of the Promised Land.  Participants in this Jerusalem Temple-based festival, would often construct huts or booths, draw water from the pool of Siloam, and light candles to commemorate the odyssey of their ancestors.

It’s in this context, that we must hear Jesus’ declaration that He offers anyone who is thirsty, rivers of flowing water (7:37-39), that He is the light of the world (8:12-20), and that those who literally abide, dwell or continue in His word will truly be free.  What Jesus is trying to get them, and us, to understand, is that He is the embodiment of this festival, and now mediates God’s sheltering presence to the people.  But this point seems to be lost on those gathered that day.

And as is the case, most of the time, Jesus’ bold claim prompts sharp division between those who believe, and those who don’t.  Although at times, including our reading for today, it’s difficult to tell who is in which camp.  The phrase “the Jews” in John almost always refer to the opposition, but in today’s passage, John is referring to “the Jews who had believed in him”.

It’s in today’s periscope from this larger scene, that we focus on the third element of the Tabernacle celebration:  that of freedom.  “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  The Greek word for abide here is men-O which means more than to simply abide; its usage is much stronger, it means to dwell in or to continue in God’s word.  It‘s an action that commands us to never stop, to always be in God’s word, studying and learning.  Seeking and searching for God’s will in our lives.  It’s about challenging the status quo; about trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in and through our lives.  It’s about truly understanding what it really means to be a Christian, or to be “Christ-like”.

As is customary in John, Jesus’ audience misunderstands this initial statement and offer a reply – “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!”  It’s a statement that sounds foolish, since those gathered seems to have already forgotten about the 400 years their ancestors spent in Egypt, a good part of it slaves to the Egyptian people.  Which is even a stranger statement when you consider the festival in which they’re celebrating.  But what this irrational statement does, is that it gives Jesus an opportunity to elaborate.

Jesus isn’t talking about physical slavery as they suppose, but a spiritual, even existential state, of being enslaved to sin.  Further, a person isn’t delivered from such slavery by either history or birth right, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship – a relationship to the Son, the One who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known.  Only those who abide with, dwell in, continue in and are in an intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”   And without this constant abiding in the word, truth then can become elusive.  But even more troubling than the realization that truth becomes elusive is the revelation that truth suddenly becomes difficult to define.  Over the last few years it’s become fashionable to say that all truth is relative.  Some will even advance the notion that truth is situational.

Often we’ll hear people say, “Well … that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”  Yet this attitude isn’t something we’ve developed over the past few decades.  When Pilate questioned Jesus, Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”  And in the 1992 movie, A Few Good Men,” Lt. Daniel Kaffee demanded of Col. Nathan Jessep, I want the truth!  Jessep shouted back with those memorable words, You can’t handle the truth!  This of course leads us back to our reading, what is the truth Jesus is talking about?

In reality, there are two truths in our reading for today.   The first is the hard one.  And this reality bears down on us like a freight train when Jesus says, “I tell you the truth:  everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”  Odds are, if we take it seriously, we’re not going to like what Jesus says here any better than His original audience did.  And to be honest, it’s hard not to smirk at the selective memory of Jesus’ debaters when they claim, “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”  Again we are forced to ask, what happened to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, and now the Romans?  And almost involuntarily we question, who do they think they’re kidding?

But in reality it’s not a joke; it’s an out and out denial, a denial which, Mark Twain reminds us, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”  But the real question we need to ask is, are we any different?  Do we somehow mistake the social freedom we enjoy, with the issue Jesus is referring to; do we take sin seriously?  I don’t mean sin as a theological category, sin as a rhetorical device, or sin as a tool by which to shame others.   I’m talking about sin, our sin.  The age old rebellion, the sin of putting one’s self first before God or others.   The kind of sin that makes it hard for me to trust others the way I should, worrying that they may take advantage of me.  The kind of sin that makes it hard for me to share with others the way I should, afraid that there really isn’t enough to go around, so I’d better get mine first.  The kind of sin that makes it hard to imagine the future as God sees it and Jesus preaches it as I should, instead accepting the status quo, playing by the established rules, and doing the best I can for me, rather than taking care of my neighbor.

And it’s not just individual sins, either.  It’s this whole broken and fallen world, where I know that nearly every decision I make — from the clothes I wear to the car I drive — contributes in adverse ways to the health of the planet and the wellbeing of people continents away from me.  Sin, the sin that enslaves, is inseparably woven into our existence.  As Paul says in our epistle reading, “All have sinned and fallen short.”  Seen this way, the words spoken at the beginning of the service at the moment of confession – that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves — may be the most truthful words of our week.

So that’s the first word, the first truth that’s hard for us to handle.  We, like Jesus’ original audience, are slaves to sin.  We can earn all we want, pretend all we want, say “okay” every time someone asks us how we’re doing, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are not living up to the vision God has for us and deep down we know it.  That’s, of course, why we’d rather deny our circumstances than face the truth.  Because the truth is that we can grow, but not fully change, we can help this world but cannot save it.  We are, ultimately, insufficient for our own salvation, let alone that of anyone else.  And that word, to the self-made man or woman of this age, is death.  Which is why we also need so desperately to hear the second truth; the truth about God’s great love for us.

This second truth comes through loud and clear in the first reading for this day, where after acknowledging that Israel — and, let’s be honest, all of us — shattered God’s covenant and commands, God nevertheless says, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.”  That’s right, despite everything, the Gospel or good news is, that God doesn’t just forgive, but also forgets.  God develops a case of intentional amnesia when it comes to our sin and regards us as if we were perfect, blameless and whole.  God regards us, that is, as if we were Christ, because of Christ.

Wait, did I say that truth is the easier one?  I may want to reconsider.  Because here’s the thing:  as much as it hurts being justly accused, sometimes I think it hurts even more when we’re unjustly forgiven.  It’s a difficult concept for our self-centered natures to comprehend, but maybe a story will help.

Picture, for a moment, two young men, brothers, playing soccer on a deserted high school field.   After playing for some time, they begin to argue (over what they will later not recall), and then to push and to shove each other.  Finally the older of the two shoves the other one violently away, and then, clenching his fists, taunts him saying, “Go ahead.  Hit me.  Give me an excuse to crush you.”  The younger one just shakes his head, moving neither closer nor further away.  The older one, angered further, repeats his taunt:  “C’mon.  Take a swing.  I dare ya.”  Again, the younger brother shakes his head from side to side, as the older one continues to badger and ridicule him.  Finally, as tears begin flowing out of the younger one’s eyes, he manages to choke out just one word, “No.”

Enraged at being denied, the older one moves forward and shoves his younger brother again, harder than before.  “C’mon.  Hit me!  Hit me!”  The younger brother, tears streaming down his face, says amidst his sobs, “No.  I will not hit my brother.”  “C’mon,” the older one jeers again.  “Go ahead.”  “No.  I will not hit my brother.  I will not hit my brother.  I can’t hit you.  I love you.”

How do we respond to God’s offer of forgiveness?  One would think that the pardoned sinner, like a pardoned criminal, would gratefully and earnestly mend his or her ways.  And one would think that being confronted by the younger brother’s word of love, the elder brother would have immediately acknowledged his poor behavior and tried to make amends.  But not so.  The only thing that was acknowledged in the face of the younger brother’s grace, was that the older brother had not gotten his way, that the younger brother had thwarted his will, and so, far from making amends, the older strode off to their car, bitter and angry, and pulled away, leaving Jim to walk the four miles back to their home.  But then, as eldest was pulling away, he looked over and saw his brother, with the soccer ball tucked under his arm, walking home with his head bowed in pain, tears still streaming down his face.  And so the older brother stopped…not because he wanted to.  No, not even then did he want to stop, but he could do no other, had love somehow won him over?  No, exactly the opposite:  Finally his love had broken the older brother’s will, killed that arrogant, prideful, and insecure self that demands to be always in control.
And believe me when I say, that’s always the way it is.  And we’re no different.  “I will not hit my brother.”  “I love you.”  “I will remember your sin no more.”  To the one who is unprepared to admit defeat, you see, to admit his or her need for forgiveness, even the purest words of grace give offense and seem a disgrace.  And so God must wrest control from us, must, indeed, kill us by grace so that, also by God’s grace, we may be raised to new life.

This is why today is a big temptation, a bid danger.  When we read the classic “Reformation” texts, we naturally want to jump right to the good stuff:  “they are justified by his grace as a gift”; while skipping over the hard part, the part that stings:  “all have sinned and all fall short” and “all who have sinned are slaves of sin.”  But we do so at tremendous cost, for to ignore the law is then to miss the gospel, to skip over the pain is to reject relief, to deny our illness is to refuse eternal healing.

For the truth of the Son, the truth that makes you free, the truth at the heart of the 95 theses which Luther nailed to the door at the Wittenberg church, is that we are sinners — God’s fallen, flailing, and confused children — from birth to death.  Sinners that no amount of indulgences or good works can ever redeem.  Sinners so corroded by fear that only the very blood of the Son of God can cleanse them, so deeply stained by insecurity that only God alone could forgive them.

We are those sinners, who, dead to the law, are now free to love and serve our neighbor extravagantly, daring to care for the poor, to give witness to the gospel, to help our neighbor, and to share all that we have and are, no matter what.  For we are, finally, those justified sinners who, having died with Christ, will also rise again with him, to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  That’s the truth, the two truths, actually, that we are called to hear straight up this day and always.


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