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Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2023

First Reading: Revelation 14:6-7

 6I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”


Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; 3Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult. 4The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 5There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 6God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown; God shall help her at the break of day. 7The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away. 8The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 9Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth. 10It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. 11“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” 12The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.


 Second Reading: Second Reading: 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 stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.


Gospel: John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”



A good many of you, I’m sure, will remember one of the more popular musical groups of the mid 1960s, The Righteous Brothers.  One of their more prominent hits, “Unchained Melody” is the song most people associate with this group.  In an interview with one of the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley described the significance of their name.  The group’s name wasn’t so much about their morality as it was about the quality of their music.

In the ’60s the word “righteous” was often used as a kind of exclamation to express one’s approval and admiration of someone else.  You were, “righteous,” if you were cool.  Or you were righteous if the message you were communicating resonated with the person.  Someone once heard the music of Bill Medley’s group and exclaimed, “That was righteous, brother!”  It was music they were proud of — and the name stuck.

Today, if someone says you’re righteous, that means you’re a person of high moral character.  In a purely secular sense, being righteous means you do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, and you can be proud of yourself.  Thus, most people spend their lives seeking to be righteous.  Again, from a secular point of view, we go through life in search of it, and we never seem to be able to satisfy our hunger for it.  We look for it in our career, in our family, in our marriage, in the approval of our friends, neighbors, and from anyone who is significant in our lives.  When others see us in this way, it makes us feel good about ourselves.  But there are two problems with secular righteousness.  The first has to do with situational ethics.

Now I don’t think I need to go into the evils of ethics and morals based on popular opinion.  We’ve all seen the results of ethics and morals based on prevailing opinions.  The second problem with secular righteousness is that it can be a source of pride and at times, this kind of righteousness can turn into arrogance, and the person sees themselves as better than others.  Secular righteousness is rooted in self-centeredness and self-love.  Godly righteous, however, is different.

Godly righteousness is God-focused and is centered in love of God and love of neighbor.  This is why “Righteous” is an important word in St. Paul’s vocabulary, and why it appears repeatedly in his letter to the Romans.  Today’s reading is taken from an important part, of what Luther felt was one, of the most important of all the Pauline letters.  At the heart and center of this passage, Paul talks about “the righteousness of God.”  As I mentioned a moment ago, righteousness, in the broadest sense, is simply doing what’s right.  The difference between human righteousness and Godly righteousness has to do with motivation and focus.

The best way for us to know the difference is to ask this question, “What is the righteousness of God”?  It’s one of the key attributes that sets God apart.  It’s the character and actions that makes God unique.  Righteousness, love, and justice are at the heart and center of God’s character, and are the main characteristics for which God most wants to be known.  So often what has shaped our understanding of God’s righteousness, has been based more on Greek philosophy and human speculation, rather than on what the Bible actually has to say about God.

Often, we think that what makes God righteous is that God is everything we’re not.  We use all those Greek “omni’s”, for example, to describe it.  We are weak, God is strong, therefore God is omnipotent.  We are of limited intelligence.  God knows everything, therefore He’s omniscient.  We’re stuck in one place.  God is everywhere, thus He’s omnipresent.  We’re mortal.  God never dies, He’s immortal.  We’re temporal.  God is eternal.  We’re imperfect. God is perfect.  We’re sinful.  God is holy and without sin.  And the list goes on and on.  These are all true and are all part of what makes God so “righteous!”  Deep down, we too long to have the same sort of righteousness.

Ever since that tragic fall into sin in the Garden of Eden, we spend our lives continually in search of righteousness.  We want to be righteous, to be like God, to be able to stand tall, to be confident, to know that we count and that our lives matter.  Yet our sinful nature turns the motivation for righteousness inward and away from God.  Saint Augustine put it well when he said, “every human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.”  Our idolatrous search for someone or something we can finally put our trust in, is part of this restless and relentless search for righteousness.  Martin Luther, as most of you remember, spent much of his early life in this restless and relentless search for the righteousness of God.

As a young Monk, Luther rigorously followed all the prescribed rituals and programs of the church that were designed to quote unquote, “to get him the righteousness of God.”  He worked hard to get right with God and be at peace with himself.  Yet, the harder he worked, the more he struggled, and he never seemed able to achieve it.  The righteousness of God always remained out of his reach, and he never seemed to be able to do enough to be sure that he was righteous.  After a while, he began to wonder what God was doing to him.  God seemed to be cruel and demanding.

At times, Luther sounded like that great observer of modern American life, Woody Allen, who many years later commented on the emptiness, tragedy, and suffering of life by saying that “God must be an underachiever.”  In the same way Luther began to wonder if God wasn’t some fickle monster who took great delight in seeing him take one step forward, only to fall two steps backward.  Mention “the righteousness of God” and Luther would cower in fear.  One day he read today’s epistle lesson and saw something there that he had never seen before, and it changed his life forever.  It also changed the life of the church forever.  He called it his “tower experience.”

He suddenly realized that the “righteousness of God” wasn’t an unachievable and intimidating demand, but a gracious gift, not a threatening accusation, but a merciful offer.  The “righteousness of God” expressed not the anger of a God who was disappointed in him and his failures, but the love of a God who embraced him even though he didn’t deserve it.  The righteousness of God wasn’t bad news, in reality, it was lifesaving news.  The righteousness of God, that which sets God apart and makes God utterly unique, wasn’t just all those “omni’s” that scared the daylights out of Luther.  What sets God apart, is God’s determination to love the world, to all make those incredible promises, and then keep them.  Luther came to realize that God loves the world like no one else.

The Bible is the history of the God who, time and time again, made promises to love the world and then keep them.  In other words, what’s at the heart of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a God who makes promises to love His people and then keeps them no matter what.  God is righteous because God is always faithful to His promises.  For example, God promises a wandering, old, and childless nomad by the name of Abram, a child, a land, and through them the promise to bless all of humanity.

God repeatedly makes and keeps promises to a scoundrel named Jacob, even though he was a liar and cheat.  God hears the cries of His people in Egypt and delivers them from bondage, even though they didn’t deserve it.  God promises a kingdom that will last forever to David, even though he was an adulterer and murderer.  Through the prophets, God continually made and kept promises to a stubborn and rebellious people.  Time and time again, God was “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Psalm 145:8) even though His people didn’t deserve it.  The God we serve is a righteous God.  He keeps His word.  God is righteous, loving, and just, He always has been and always will be faithful to His promises.  And to prove His righteousness, love, and justice, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5).

In Jesus, the righteousness of God was manifest and revealed for all to see.  Look to Jesus and you see the righteousness of God in action.  Jesus is “the friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  And “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Jesus endured God’s wrath and suffered as a cursed criminal, on a cross reserved for the worst sort of law breakers.  This was all part of God’s marvelous plan to keep His promise.

This is all part of God’s plan to show His righteousness, justice, and love to the world.  God so loved the world, He sent His only Son, taking upon Himself the sin, suffering, pain, and judgment that we all deserve.  Luther came to understand the righteousness of God when he read, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  Someone had to pay the penalty for sin, and God, out of His great love, decided to pay for it Himself.

In Jesus, you and I are free from the bondage and penalty for sin.  Through the atoning blood of Jesus, the debt we cannot pay is satisfied.  God “bit the bullet” for us so that we might be free from the curse of sin and the power of God’s own judgment on that sin.  All because God is faithful to His promises, and because God is just.  Then on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead and it was clear that Jesus was right all along.  God’s righteousness isn’t that we get what we deserve.  God’s righteousness is that we get what we do not deserve: God’s love, His righteousness and adoption into God’s family as His beloved children.  Luther called it the “sweet swap.”

God exchanged the death of His own Son for our life.  God gives us His righteousness, His love, and eternal life.  Suddenly, we discover that we can stand tall, no longer embarrassed, hiding in the back of the room where no one can see us.  We are clothed in the righteous of Jesus.  And in Jesus, we know who we are, a beloved child of God.  We are the apple of God’s eye.  We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.  He indeed is, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  And we, like Luther, come to realize that none of this can be achieved by our own works.

Paul declares, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28).  When Luther finally realized this, it changed his whole life.  He realized that his pursuit of righteousness had come to an end.  What he thought God had demanded of him, he came to realize was that God had already given it to him through the promise of Christ.  The question that had plagued him his whole life, “What do I have to do to be righteous before God?” was now answered.  The answer was shocking, “Nothing!”  He didn’t have to do any of the works he thought he had to do, all he had to do was believe; believe that it was by grace alone through faith alone.  Jesus had already done it all.

All he needed to do was to receive it as a gift, to trust and believe that it was for him.  Luther trusted God’s promise, and the righteousness of God was his.  He no longer had to cower in guilt and fear.  He could stand tall and upright because he was made a “righteous, brother!” in Christ.  The restlessness of his heart had ended.  The hunger at last had been satisfied.  He was now at peace, free to spend his life in service of others.

It was the annual summer family reunion.  Each year, 6-year-old Alex, looked forward to the opportunity to get together with his cousins, uncles, and aunts.  This summer was no different.  The extended members of his family came in from all over the country for a great weekend.  He especially looked forward to swimming with his older cousins, Jimmy, and Peter.  He looked up to them.  He thought they were so cool.

It was Saturday afternoon of the big reunion weekend.  All the cousins, including Jimmy and Peter, were planning a big excursion to the local swimming hole.  Alex was excited.  This was his opportunity to hang out with the big kids.  He had his swimming trunks and towel all ready to go.  When it was time to leave, there was a mad rush to fill the cars that would carry everyone to the swimming hole.  In the rush and confusion, all the vehicles were quickly filled.  Alex first went to one car.  No room.  He rushed to another.  Sorry.  All the seats were filled.  He started to panic and ran to the last vehicle.  It was filled with teenagers, including Jimmy who had just got his driver’s license.

“Jimmy!  It’s me.  Alex!  Let me in,” he shouted.  Jimmy was too preoccupied with the girls to pay him any attention.  “Hey, Jimmy!  Open the door.  I want to go.”  No one seemed to hear or see him.  Everyone was talking and laughing and having a great time.  The engines started.  The cars began to roll.  Alex started to yell and then scream, “Hey, what about me?  I want to go swimming, too!”  Suddenly, Jimmy turned and looked at Alex.  He spewed out words that slammed into Alex with the force of a vicious punch in the gut.  “Hey, kid.  Sorry.  You’re too slow … and too little.  Better luck next time.”  Off the caravan sped leaving Alex alone with his disappointment and tears.

Alex had looked forward to this event and the reunion for months.  Now it all slipped away so quickly.  He wanted to crawl under a rock.  He wished he’d never come.  How could Jimmy do this to him?  Then he heard a familiar voice call out his name.  “Hey, Alex, what’s wrong?”  He recognized the voice.  It was his Uncle Herbert.  He didn’t want to talk to his uncle now, not like this.  He felt ashamed and embarrassed, left behind like this.  He tried to pretend that he didn’t hear him.  He wanted to run and hide.

“Hey, Alex, did they leave you behind?  Alex sniffled and quickly wiped away his tears.  He didn’t want his uncle to know that his feelings had been hurt.  After all, he was six years old.  He was a big boy now.  “Hey, Alex, I understand.  I know how you feel.  When I was your age my brothers and their buddies used to do things like this all the time.”  Alex knew his uncle Herbert was different.  Uncle Herbert seemed to understand people.  He sensed when people’s feelings were hurt.  He always found a way to say the right thing at the right time.  Alex felt better.  Uncle Herbert put his arm around Alex.  I have an idea.  Do you like to watch the trains come in at the railroad station?”

Sniffling, with his voice a little broken, Alex spoke quietly but eagerly, “Yes, I do.  But I can never seem to get anyone to take me down there.”  “Well, how about you and me hang out this afternoon down at the station and watch the trains come in?  Alex was transformed.  “Really?!  Just you and me?”  “Yup, just you and me kid.” “That would be so cool!” exclaimed Alex. “But what will Jimmy and Peter think?”  “Don’t worry about them.  This afternoon is our time together.  Let’s go see the trains.”  It was music to Alex’s ears.  A huge smile graced his face.  He straightened up, stood tall, and proudly grasped the hand of his uncle.  He thought, how cool this would be if his cousins could only see him now!  He suddenly felt important, like someone loved.   He turned to his uncle and tried to think of something that would express his gratitude and let his uncle know just how cool he thought he was.  “Uncle Herbert, you know, you are so … righteous!”  Uncle Herbert quickly turned to Alex and said, “So are you!”

In the same way the “righteousness of God” revealed in Jesus Christ picks us up.  Despite our sins and shame, because of Jesus Christ, we don’t need to flee the probing eyes of others.  By trusting in God’s promises, revealed to us in Jesus, we know who we are and who’s we are.  There is no need to hide.  We can smile and have a sense of peace in our hearts.  We, with the psalmist, can be assured that “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] is our stronghold” (Psalm 46:4).  We can trust that the righteousness, love, and justice of God is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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