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Sermon for Sunday 25 October 2015 (Advent Lutheran Church)

FIRST READING Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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. 33 But 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. 34 No 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 Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea; 3 though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble with its tumult. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken; God shall help it at the break of day. 6 The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake; God speaks, and the earth melts away. 7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 8 Come now, regard the works of the LORD, what desolations God has brought upon the earth; 9 behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world; who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

SECOND READING Romans 3:19-28

19 Now 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. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom 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; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

GOSPEL John 8:31-36

31 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They 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’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The 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.”


What do the years 1517, 2010 and 2013 have in common? Here’s the hint. In each of these years, events were set in motion by a person or persons that changed history. Now from the smiles of recognition I see, the year 2010 rings a bell because that’s the year that the people here at Advent set in motion a series of events that resulted in a new congregation. Like all major decisions, it’s been a struggle; you’ve been maligned and quite possibly some threats were made against some of you along the way. But, by the help of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit, this group of believers, this part of the Body of Christ, continues to faithfully serve and be a confessional light in the community. I pray that God continues to bless the work of your hands and your witness to the people here in Kings Mountain. But what about 2013?
2013 was the year that a series of events were started by two young men; the two young saints that we celebrate with today. They, by their faithful study, also set in motion a change that too will alter the events of history. Josh and Gage began the journey of Catecatical teaching that took them through the Bible, taught them the 10 Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments. But it was more than just learning the words, Gage and Josh set out to understand what these foundational documents mean to them. And through their diligent efforts, they too will change history as the next generation of faithful Lutherans. This of course leaves us to the second thing we celebrate today, the reformation. It’s a story that resonates well not only with this congregation, but with the NALC as a whole.
It was 498 years ago that an Augustinian monk name Martin Luther inadvertently set in motion a series of events that changed church history forever. Luther stands in history as one of those unique forces, an individual who by force of will and by his ideas changed the world fundamentally. Luther initially saw himself as a great reformer of the Catholic Church; a simple monk who thought the force of his ideas would single-handedly redirect the church. His intension was never to divide the church, rather his desire was to address and correct the abuses within the church. In the end, however, his actions divided Christianity into two separate churches and finally, when Luther saw the results of his actions, he then saw himself as a catalyst for returning Christianity to its roots. He believed he was setting the clock back. In reality, his ideas, guided by the leading of the Holy Spirit, irreparably changed the world and pushed it kicking and screaming, not into some ideal past, but into the modern era.
Luther became an Augustinian monk in 1505, disappointing his equally strong-willed father, who wished him to become a lawyer. He earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg, but instead of settling down to the placid and scholarly life normally associated with monkish life or to an uneventful university career teaching theology, he began to struggle with the teachings of the Catholic Church and what the Bible had to say concerning salvation.
It was while struggling with Paul’s letter to the Romans, that the realization that salvation came only by God’s never ending grace through faith, caused him to question and challenge the teachings of the Catholic Church which would later lead to him being accused of outright blasphemy. It was a charge that was leveled against him when he protested the use of indulgences in a document he nailed to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
Indulgences, which were granted by the pope, did not forgive individual sinners of their sins; rather it was to mitigate the temporal punishment that applied to those sins. The sale of indulgences had become big business, bring in large sums of cash, much in the same way pledge drives have become big business for public television here in America. Luther’s Theses, written in Latin, outlined several theological arguments, some of which had to do with the sale of indulgences. Luther chose to write them in Latin because they were not intended for the laity, but rather his students and the leading scholars and church leaders. These 95 statements or Thesis were meant to create discussion among his students, but the document was quickly translated into German and circulated causing many to begin to question not only indulgences but other teachings of the Catholic Church as well. This action led to Luther being hauled into court to defend his arguments against the cardinal Cajetan. When the interview focused on the spiritual value of “good works,” Cajetan lost his temper and demanded that Luther recant. Of course we all know the result of this demand, Luther refused to recant and made the famous statement, “here I stand, I can do no other.” Instead of recanting, Luther fled, and a steady scission from the church was set in motion.
Despite the fact that the church opposed Luther’s arguments, many in the north embraced Luther and his ideas. As a way to get his message out Luther began to write and Preach at various locations. Luther’s first writing was The Sermon on Good Works. In this sermon he argued that good works do not benefit the soul; only faith could do that. Pope Leo soon declared that 41 articles of Luther’s teachings were heretical and Luther’s books were publicly burned in Rome. Despite the church labeling him a heretic, Luther still believed his actions would reform and revitalize the church.
In 1521, Roman Emperor Charles V demanded that Luther appear before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms. Luther was asked to explain his views and again he was ordered to recant. Luther again refused and was placed under an imperial ban as an outlaw. He managed to escape under the guise of a kidnapping, and was hidden away in a castle in Wartburg where he continued to develop the new church. In a more conciliatory effort, Luther wrote a letter to Pope Leo explaining the substance of his ideas, “On the Freedom of the Christian.” This conciliation didn’t work and Luther was finally excommunicated.
What had started as an attempt to reform the church sadly turned into a project of building a new church independent of the Catholic Church. Despite his excommunication, Luther worked hard to develop his convictions and forwarded three beliefs that form the core concepts of what would later be referred to as the Lutheran Church; Justification by faith, the Universal Priesthood of believers and the Supremacy of Scripture.
Of the holy Scriptures, Luther believed that every Christian should not only be able to read the Bible for themselves but should be able to own a copy. It was while hiding in Wartburg castle that he took on the monumental task of translating the Bible from Latin to German. But this was only half the solution, the other was getting this newly translated Bible into the hands of the believers. The second half of the solution was answered with the advent of the printing press. With the help of the printing press his desire for the laity to have a Bible would soon become a reality.
In an argument to justify his belief, Luther said, “That the Bible is God’s Word and book I prove thus: All things that have been, and are, in the world, and the manner of their being, are described in the first book of Moses on the creation; even as God made and shaped the world, so does it stand to this day. Infinite rulers have raged against this book, and sought to destroy and uproot it; but none prevailed. They have all gone and vanished, while the book remains, and will remain forever and ever, perfect and entire, as it was declared at first. Who has thus helped it, who has thus protected it against such mighty forces? No one, but God himself, who is the master of all things.”
He continued: “The Holy Scriptures are full of divine gifts and virtues. The books of the heathen teach nothing of faith, hope, or charity; they contemplate only the present, and that which man, with the use of his material reason, can grasp and comprehend. Look and see how the Psalms and the Book of Job treat faith, hope, resignation, and prayer; in a word, the Holy Scripture is the highest and best of books, abounding in comfort under all afflictions and trials. It teaches us to see, to feel, to grasp, and to comprehend faith, hope, and charity, far otherwise than mere human reason can. And just as the Bible teaches us hope and charity, it teaches us about faith, faith needed so that we can accept God’s grace and receive salvation.”
Luther taught that salvation, contrary to the Catholic Church of his day, comes not by anything we can do in an attempt to earn God’s grace, but that God’s grace comes to us. It’s an action strictly on the part of God, not ours. We simply believe through faith that He gave his only Son in our place to take our punishment. Through this salvation we all become heirs and priests. Christ is the only intermediary between our Creator and ourselves. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ we have the privilege of going directly to God ourselves in Christ’s name to pray and to receive the grace he so richly pours out upon us. It was a revolutionary understanding and teaching that went against the status quo and one that the church of his day rejected. They rejected the teaching not only because it was seen as a threat to their selfish desires, but was one they failed to understand. As Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 1 verse 18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For the church of Luther’s day, they couldn’t understand God’s grace being a free gift. They couldn’t let go of the notion that we must earn God’s favor.
God’s free gift of grace is difficult to understand without the help of the Holy Spirit and the faith He provides. That’s why the world sees it as foolishness. In our “me first”, self-centered society, we have difficulty coming to terms with a God so loving that He was willing to send His only Son to redeem us. Jesus paid the price we could not pay and as self-reliant natured creatures we want to save ourselves. But the saving has already been accomplished. We simply have to accept this by faith. It’s a teaching that many still today cannot understand and refuse to accept. St. Paul was right; it is foolishness to the world. But as faithful followers we must still communicate this difficult message. I received an email sometime back that I’d like to share that I think does a good job at separating works and efforts on our part from the grace of God. The story centers on a baseball game between God’s team and Satan’s team.
Bob and the Lord stood by to observe a baseball game. The Lord’s team was playing Satan’s team. The Lord’s team was at bat; the score was tied zero to zero, and it was the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs. They continued to watch as a batter stepped up to the plate whose name was Love. Love swung at the fist pitch and hit a single, because Love never fails. The next batter was named Faith, who also got a single because Faith works with Love. The next batter up was named Godly Wisdom. Satan wound up and threw the first pitch. Godly wisdom looked it over and let it pass. Ball one! Three more pitches and Godly Wisdom walked, because Godly Wisdom never swings at what Satan throws. The bases are loaded.
The Lord then turns to Bob and told him He was now going to bring in His star player. Up to bat stepped Grace. Bob said, “he sure doesn’t look like much!” Satan’s whole team relaxed when they saw Grace. Thinking he had won the game, Satan wound up and fired his first pitch. To the shock of everyone, grace hit the ball harder than anyone had ever seen. But Satan wasn’t worried; his center fielder let very few get by. The center fielder went up for the ball, but it went right through his glove and sent him crashing to the ground. Then it continued over the fence for a home run! The Lord’s team won.
The Lord then asked Bob if he knew why Love, Faith, and Godly Wisdom could get on base, but couldn’t win the game. Bob answered that he didn’t know why. The Lord explained, “If your love, faith and wisdom had won the game, you would think you had done it by yourself. Love, Faith, and Wisdom will get you on base, but only My Grace can get you home. My Grace is the only thing Satan cannot steal.”
St Paul records Jesus words in 2 Corinthians 2:19, there we read, “But [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you.” All sufficient grace. A grace that is freely given, not something we strive for, or can earn. This is the good news that we freely we share with others. Accepting God’s saving grace through faith is what we teach and believe, it’s what Luther tried to get the Catholic Church to understand.

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