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Sermon for Sunday 31 October 2021

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: 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.”

Truth and the Reformation

Today is, of course Reformation Sunday, and it also happens to be the 504th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 statements to the door of the church in Wittenberg.  Because of this, I thought it’d be nice to honor Luther by sharing a few of his more interesting quotes.  According to Luther, “if we’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”  Here’s one we all need to pay attention to, “Pray, and let God worry.”  A favorite of mine, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”  And finally, “it is pleasing to God whenever you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of thy heart.”  Now there are several other quotes that involve either wine, women, or beer, but I’ll save those for a much more appropriate setting.  Now because this is Reformation Sunday, it’s tempting for us to wave our Lutheran banners, to tout our historical confessions, and puff ourselves up with the pride of our pure doctrine.  We’ll sing our Lutheran hymns with gusto, and a sort of Lutheran patriotism exudes from our celebration.  But where then is our focus?

We, too often, make today about Martin Luther – yes, he’s was a great man and giant of the faith, one who famously faced 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 work laid the groundwork for the church bearing his name.  With all this in mind, it’s difficult to ignore Luther’s accomplishments, or the fact that God used him in a mighty way.  But this isn’t where our focus should be today.

It’s quite natural for us to want to venerate the founder of the Protestant church, but today isn’t about Martin Luther.  Today is about Jesus.  Of course, as Christians, it’s always about Jesus, or it should be.  Today isn’t about Lutheran pride; as St. Paul reminds us, boasting is excluded (Romans 3:27).  Instead, today we gather to mark and celebrate the rediscovery of the truth.  The truth of the Gospel, the truth that sets us free, the truth of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, like you and me.  We rightly claim, and teach, that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) in Jesus Christ alone – not by our good works.  This is the truth of the Gospel we Lutherans make such a big deal about, especially on this Reformation Day.

Of course, our heritage and history are important too.  We can rightly look to the reformers and our fathers in the faith and thank God for the work they’ve done.  I wonder, how might Christendom 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?

Jesus says in John chapter 8, that the truth of His teaching, is what frees us from slavery to sin.  And when we think about it, our gospel reading is a very fitting reading for this 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, the truth 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 commemorates God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness sojourn from bondage in Egypt, to the freedom of the Promised Land.  Participants in this Jerusalem Temple-based festival, would often construct booths, draw water from the pool of Siloam, and light lamps 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 be truly free.  What Jesus is trying to get them, and us, to understand is, that He is the embodiment of the festival, and even now mediates God’s sheltering presence to the people.  But this point seems to be lost on those gathered.

And as is the case most of the time, Jesus’ bold claims prompts sharp division between those who believe, and those who don’t.  It’s hard at times, including in our reading for today, to tell who is in which camp.  The phrase “the Jews”, in St. John’s gospel, 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 sliver 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 or to continue in God’s word.  It’s an action that commands us to never stop; to always be in God’s word, to always be studying and learning.  It’s about seeking and searching for God’s will in our lives.  It’s about challenging the status quo; it’s about trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in and through our lives. 

As is customary in John’s gospel, Jesus’ audience misunderstands His initial statement and offers a reply – “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!”  To us, this is a statement that sounds foolish since it seems that they’re ignoring the 400 years their ancestors spent in Egypt, a good part of it slaves to the Egyptian people.  It’s odd considering the 70 years spent in captivity by the Babylonians.  And it’s an even stranger statement when you consider the festival in which they’re celebrating is currently under Roman rule.  But what this irrational statement does is, 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 Jesus 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.”   Without this constant abiding in the word, truth can become elusive.  Truth: it’s become very fashionable, for some time it would seem, to say that all truth is relative.  Some will even advance the notion that truth is situational.  We 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?” (John 18:37-38a).  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!” 

            As human beings, we have limited knowledge.  Our feelings often cloud our judgment.  Our desires and motives often lead us away from the truth.  We’ll even claim unfamiliarity by saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” Our society clouds the issue by telling us to trust our feelings.  We must admit that we, as human beings, struggle with the truth.  On the other hand, God’s truth is absolutely reliable.  God knows all, and His wisdom is perfect in every way.  God’s motives are loving and true.  And when God makes a statement, we can be assured, it is the truth.

            So why is it, that when we hear the words that the all-knowing God inspired men to write, (2 Timothy 2:16), we often reject them?  If Jesus tells us that He gives us the truth and that the truth will free us, why do we deny the truth He gives?  The problem is that the devil, the world, and even our own sinful natures, want us to remain slaves to sin.  These forces hate us so much, that they want to divide us up – one against the other.  To borrow a phrase from “A Few Good Men,” the forces of evil want to get us into a place, where we can’t handle the truth.

            The people who heard Jesus’ words in John’s gospel couldn’t handle the truth.  They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.  How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”  The really incredible thing about this scene is that these people weren’t even politically free.  If we could see a satellite image of Jerusalem and the Temple at that moment, we would see a Roman army barracks right next to the temple grounds.  There was a guard tower in that barracks.  On top of that Roman tower would be soldiers keeping an eye on everything that happened on the temple grounds.  That tower was a constant reminder, that if anything got out of hand, gentile Roman soldiers would quickly defile the temple and bring a peace that was enforced by the Roman sword.  Apparently, those listening that day had a different definition of freedom – freedom under Roman occupation.

            However, Jesus was concerned about something much more serious than the Roman occupation.  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Think about this statement for a moment.  The all-knowing God, who has come to us in the flesh, is telling us what it means to be a slave to sin.  Jesus wants us to consider not our physical condition, but our spiritual condition.  So, the question we must ask ourselves is, are we slaves to sin, or are we free in Christ?

            When we listen to all of Jesus’ teachings, we discover that each of us came into this world as slaves to sin.  The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to state this very simply in our epistle lesson from Romans:All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23).   This is a slavery that affects all people, in all places, and in all times.  We become slaves to sin at conception, and we would be lost forever, unless delivered from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation by the mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.

            Ultimately, this is the reason that no one can handle the truth without the Holy Spirit.  We don’t want to hear that we’re sinners.  We don’t want to hear we need a Savior.  To be a sinner means that we’re bad.  It means that when we come up with our own plan of salvation, it’s wrong.  Our sinful nature doesn’t like to hear that we’re slaves to sin.  We don’t like to hear that we’re not in control.  So, when we hear or read God’s word that comes by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the One who has perfect wisdom and who loves us, our inner nature, the old Adam within us says, “I disagree with that.”  We would rather disagree with the only absolutely reliable source of truth, than admit that we’re wrong.

            Nevertheless, this is the truth that brings true freedom and makes us children of God.  We’re all sinful and unclean and deserve eternal punishment.  At the beginning of the service, during our time of corporate confession, you heard me recite 1 John 1:8-9, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But, if we confess our sins, [God, who] is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we trust in God’s Word and confess that even our very nature is sinful, then He has great comfort for us.

            And we hear this comfort in the words that end today’s Gospel: “The Son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  The Son of God Himself is the truth that sets us free.  John would later record in chapter 14 Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (vs. 6).  The Son of God sets us free by becoming the truth heard from the cross, the true Word of forgiveness and of freedom.  Jesus alone has lived a perfect, sin-free, life in our place.  Jesus alone has taken our sin onto Himself.  Jesus alone has carried that sin to the cross and offered the sacrifice that makes us free.  Jesus alone can free us, for He alone has carried the sin of the world.  He has carried it all the way to the cross.  And it’s all forgiven.  This is the truth that sets us free.

            On this day when we celebrate the German Reformation of the sixteenth century, we can celebrate God’s eternal truth.  That’s what reformation is all about –returning to the truth.  Because the forces of evil want to get us into a place where we can’t handle the truth, we must be in a state of continuous reformation – a state of continuously returning to the truth.  The Holy Spirit must continuously teach us to handle the truth. 

The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, so that we learn to handle the truth that we are sinners and deserve both temporal and eternal punishment for that sin.  And that same Holy Spirit comforts us with the truth that Jesus Christ freed us with His holy life and His innocent death.  The Spirit also comforts us with the truth of eternal life in Jesus’ Resurrection.  The truth is, without the Holy Spirit, we can’t handle the truth.  When the Holy Spirit creates faith in our heart, then and only then, will we be able to handle the truth.  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.” 

So, the proper way to celebrate Reformation Sunday, isn’t simply to talk up the German monk who nailed a document to the door.  It isn’t about singing our Lutheran anthems with gusto.  It’s not about pointing with pride to our historical heritage.  Rather, the proper way to celebrate this event from our history is to rejoice in the truth, and the freedom of Christ, to dwell on and in His word and to receive Him as He comes to us in His Supper, according to His word.  To daily give thanks for our baptism, where He washed us clean, and made us His people, God’s children, according to His word.  And to therefore live in the truth and freedom that only comes through the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.  For it’s His truth that has set us free, for He is, the way, the truth, and the life.


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