The 21th Sunday After Pentecost October 29, 2006
798 (TLH alt. 23), 387(1-5), 775 (TLH alt. 285), 262
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
In Jesus’ name, dear fellow Christians:
Again this past summer a number of forest fires raged across the western United States. Helicopters dumping fire retardant, hundreds of firefighters manning the lines, and all the latest technology could do little to stop them or even slow them down. Fires fanned by winds would leap from tree to tree, devouring thousands of acres. Fires like that are some of the most powerful and destructive forces in our world. Surprisingly, though, they also have a good side. Burning away the old forest overgrowth, fires allow new plants and trees to sprout. Within just a few years, a new young forest can thrive where there had been only charred tree stumps before.
About 500 years ago the Lord lit a match named Martin Luther. It started a fire which quickly swept through Germany, Europe, and far beyond. It affects our lives even today. Fueled by the Word of God, this fire burned away the old dead overgrowth of false teachings in the church, and allowed the fresh, living message that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone to sprout and grow again. As we look back on that and praise God for the blessings of the Reformation, we hear Him saying to us: “Keep the fire burning!” In a letter written originally to Christians in the ancient city of Laodicea, He shows us how.
A fire will burn with intense, incredible heat for a time, but eventually, sooner or later, it cools off and dies. That was what was taking place in Laodicea. At first the believers there had been burning with love for the Lord. The fire had been hot in their hearts. But then they began to take their faith and God’s blessings for granted. The Lord’s Word did not mean as much to them as before. They became spiritually complacent. In their own minds they were “rich and didn’t need anything.” [v.17] They were not completely cold in unbelief, but they also were not burning with a healthy, hot faith. They were only lukewarm. The Lord warned: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” [v.15]
The church at Luther’s time was similar. Outwardly, it was rich and prosperous. But the fire had cooled off to a lukewarm smolder. The leaders of the church were looking out for themselves rather than the good of Christ’s kingdom. The people were going through the motions of worship, but the real substance of faith was barely a flicker. The gospel of Jesus was buried under a suffocating overgrowth of rituals and regulations. Instead of being spiritually rich and in need of nothing, they were really “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” [v.17]
So what is our temperature? Is the fire burning strong in us or has it cooled down to a lukewarm flicker? The danger is that we begin to take spiritual blessings for granted. Most of us have had the gospel from little on. Do we still appreciate it, or is all we see the outward forms of the heritage passed down to us? Are we lethargic and complacent in our faith—spiritual couch potatoes so that we coast along thinking we are right where we should be spiritually? We would then be lukewarm Christians and in danger of God’s judgment too.
The natural tendency in all of us is to cool off over time, so what can be done to keep the fire burning? The first thing is to remember our need. The Laodiceans saw themselves as rich and needing nothing. The reality was that they were spiritually bankrupt and blind by nature. Luther became keenly aware of that same neediness in himself. No matter how hard he tried to measure up to God’s holy standards, he still fell short, and realized, to his horror, that he deserved Hell for his sins.
We need to see and remember that need in us everyday. Otherwise, Christ will mean very little to us. We need to use the magnifying glass of God’s Law and examine our own hearts and lives. Have we given God all the honor due Him? Have we read His Word daily and put it first in our lives? Have we served Him willingly or do we grumble about the Christian lifestyle? Have we used every opportunity to help and serve our neighbor, or are we at times selfish and jealous?
The closer we look into the dark corners of our hearts, the more sin we will see. Instead of bragging, “I’m rich and don’t need a thing,” we need to pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner! ‘If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’” (Psalm 130:3). When you feel the fire within cooling down, remember your spiritual poverty and blindness and your great need for God’s rescue.
Without the hope of rescue we would have nothing to live for and the fire would die out completely. But now we have that sure hope in Jesus. He offers everything we lack. He says, “Buy from me gold, and white garments and anoint your eyes with the salve I will give you.” [v.18] It is an incredible offer to Hell-bound sinners. Free of charge, He offers the priceless gold of salvation from sin. He set us free by paying the penalty on the cross. In exchange for taking on Himself our foul-smelling rags, He gives us the dazzling white robe of His righteousness. Paul writes in Romans: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).
With the salve of the Holy Spirit working in the Word, the Lord opens our eyes to see Him, not as an impersonal, angry Judge who will condemn us if we slip up, but as “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness” [v.14] of God’s love who died that we might be pronounced “not guilty” by His blood. That message is the spark that ignites the spiritual fire in us, and is the fuel that keeps it burning hot. The Lord is eager to give us that Word. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” [v.20]
The more we hear, use, and take to heart Jesus’ Word, the brighter and hotter the fire will burn and the more we will see and appreciate our desperate situation and the overwhelming sacrifice Jesus made for us. Who can be lukewarm toward someone who loves us like Jesus? In love He disciplines and humbles us. In love He knocks at the door of our heart.
Keep the fire burning by letting it spread into every area of life. Too often we keep it contained. Act on the faith the Lord has ignited. Martin Luther did that by feeding the fire with the Word. No matter how much he read, studied, and memorized Scripture, he never reached the point where he said, “Now I know it all. Now I don’t need to read and study it as much as before.” No matter how busy he was, he made the time to meditate on the Word. To help others do the same, he translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into everyday German. Through the Word the Lord gave Luther the depth of faith he needed for every challenge in his life.
The Word will do the same for us. No matter how many times you have read the Bible, make it a priority to keep reading it every day. Find a quiet spot and a special time. Don’t just skim through it as you might do with the newspaper or a popular novel. Remember, this is God Himself speaking to you. In His Word He gives you everything you need most: forgiveness, faith, and the strength to live for Him in an unbelieving world. You will be amazed at how often a portion of Scripture you just read will apply directly to a current situation in your life.
Fueled by the Word, Luther found the courage to speak up, regardless of what others might say. He was ready to tell everyone from Pope to peasant that we are saved by Christ and not by our own efforts. May the Lord give us that kind of fire too. When people ask questions about why we go to church and why this particular church, be prepared to give a clear reason for the hope you have. When God’s Word is attacked in the comments or actions of others, be ready to stand up and defend it. But especially be prepared and eager to offer the saving news of Jesus to those who need to hear that there is Someone who loves them and can give them real hope for this life and beyond. Wherever he was and in whatever he was doing, Luther put his faith into practice. Even in his casual comments at the dinner table, which were later recorded, we can see that.
May the fire of faith burn hot in us, too, so that we will put it into action at home, school, work, and everywhere. May faith shine brightly in our offerings to the Lord, in time devoted to Him and our neighbor, and in all we do. Keep the Reformation fire burning hot! Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, Thy power make known,
For Thou art Lord of lords alone;
Defend Thy Christendom that we
May evermore sing praise to Thee.
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