The 22nd Sunday After Pentecost November 1, 2009
261, 260, 262, 283, [WS 2000 alt. 775, 781]
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Dear Fellow Heirs of the Reformation:
If an angel from Heaven were to suddenly appear before you at this very moment, point his finger at you and declare: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Whatever you shall attempt, in that you shall succeed!’” what would you attempt? In other words, if you have God’s promise that you would accomplish whatever you set out to do, or succeed in whatever project or crusade you undertook, what would you choose to do or change?
Understand that the field is wide open here. You could choose to become the richest human being on earth within the next six months, and that is exactly what you would become. You could choose to end world hunger within the year, become the oldest Pro-Bowl middle linebacker in the history of the NFL, star in your own film, have your own hit album, write a best-selling novel, become president of the United States, grow hair again—anything at all. What would you attempt if you had a divine guarantee of success?
Interestingly enough on this Reformation Sunday we note that of all the things that Martin Luther could have chosen to do, the project that he did undertake (the reformation of the Christian Church of his day) was arguably the most important and the most beneficial thing he could have chosen as his life’s work. Even more interesting, he didn’t choose it. It was chosen for him, or he for it.
We have a God who tends to work that way. God chooses his people and assigns them tasks, great and small. So God chose Abraham to start the Jewish race. God chose Moses to lead that people to freedom despite Moses’ own reservations and protestations. God chose the Apostle Paul to carry the Gospel to the Gentile world despite the fact that Paul had originally set out on his own personal quest to crush the Gospel and destroy the Christian Church.
So also God called an obscure monk in east-central Germany to lead the return to the truth of the Gospel. Equally as interesting is the fact that history actually records no single event where such a call was issued. Luther’s “call” was, therefore, not so much a single event—as with Moses’ burning bush or Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—but a life-long, step-by-step path that God had laid out for him. While some would argue that that path actually began with Luther’s preliminary training as a lawyer, others would argue that it really began with our text for today, found recorded in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the third chapter:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
So far our text. We once again humbly acknowledge that our God Himself has here spoken to us, for we believe, teach, and confess that all of Holy Scripture is the verbally inspired Word of God. Having thus heard from our God, we pray that He would bless us with wisdom, comfort, and strength through the study of these words. Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord, Your Word is truth. Amen.
If one could argue that the path God laid out for the Apostle Paul actually began with his conversion on the road to Damascus, then one could certainly also argue that the life’s work of Martin Luther began with this text, for it was reportedly through these words that God the Holy Spirit created saving faith in the heart of the man who would later be known as “the Great Reformer.”
Still I cannot help but wonder what Luther would have chosen as his life’s great accomplishment before God led him to the path his life later took. Even with the posting of the 95 Theses—the event we commemorate each year on the 31st of October as the start of the Reformation—even then Luther had no intention of beginning any sort of reformation as his life’s work. In fact, had Luther been asked several years earlier, he might well have chosen the exact opposite of the path his life actually took for he was then a devout Roman Catholic bound and determined to pay for his many sins through his own good works and to thus earn Heaven by his own righteousness.
That is why the Reformation is not about Martin Luther, it is about our God. Luther did not return the truth of the Gospel to mankind, God did; and God employed many different human beings to accomplish His good pleasure. Luther is just the best known among the reformers and arguably one of the most gifted human beings in history. Yet the fact remains that had God not raised up the later stalwarts of the Christian faith like the “Second Martin”—Martin Chemnitz, most, if not all, of the Reformation might well have been undone in the Roman Catholic counter-attack that followed Luther’s death.
Consider, for a moment, what God accomplished for you personally through the Reformation. Even today, despite the fact that the truths of the Gospel have been returned to the Church and are clearly proclaimed in thousands of Christian congregations throughout the world week after week, untold millions still attend church services or masses without the faintest idea what true Christianity is really all about. Imagine a world where the true, saving Gospel remained hidden, where Bibles were locked away by an elite few who passed along to you their own false and damning notions of how man can save himself through his own actions. Contemplate the eternal horror of being locked into a religion that taught you from little but was a system of religion that would lead to your eternal torment in Hell.
That is why we still celebrate the Reformation—because it still profoundly affects you and me today. The Reformation still represents the greatest gift of God to His Church since the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Ask yourself: “What possible good could I gain from the good news of the Gospel if I never even heard that news?” Through the Reformation, God saw to it that that didn’t happen. Through the Reformation God returned to mankind the truths laid out so beautifully in today’s text.
To Christians it remains a mystery how anyone could possibly read these sacred words and come away with any impression of the Gospel other than what this text truly declares. Here is the basic outline of our text:
While these are the clear and certain facts of eternal life, it is also true that no one can truly understand these words and be saved apart from the divine working of God the Holy Spirit. It is also true, therefore, that no one can believe them if they never hear them. Through the Reformation, God made certain not only that you and I would be able to hear these great and saving truths, but that they might be rescued from the perversion and distortion of the very men charged by God with teaching them. These are the gifts that you and I have inherited, and we celebrate that inheritance again today.
Yet, we began by talking about great things and personal accomplishments. Again then I ask you: “What great thing would you do with your life?”
It seems that there comes a time in the life of every human being when the wild, limitless dreams of youth are dashed against the rocks of reality, when we are faced with the realization that we will never do great things, never change the course of history, never be famous, powerful, or in any way great. It is almost as if we grow up thinking that a page in life will one day be turned, and suddenly gone will be the mundane and uneventful, and a new and important existence will then be ours. Gradually, a sad reality begins to set in—the reality that says we will never be much more than we are now. We will never build buildings that will stand for centuries, write books or music that will forever be counted among the world’s classics, never change the world. You and I will never do great things.
Or will we? Will you? Many of you have already and the only thing lacking is your understanding of, and appreciation for, that which is truly great. It is God who alone determines greatness and He determines it along different lines than those used by sinful mankind.
Jesus saw greatness, not in the rich man who made a show of giving of his wealth, but in the widow who quietly gave her mite. He saw greatness, not in the brash young men who swore that they would follow Jesus to the very death, but in the Gentile Centurion whose quiet confidence assured him that if Jesus said it, it would be so. He saw greatness, not in the Pharisee in the temple who heralded his own actions, but in the sinner who knew that he had no reason to boast before God.
While motivational speakers will pummel you with humanistic clichés like “Greatness lies deep within you!” and “You can accomplish whatever great thing you really set your mind to!” and “It’s never too late to be great!” God sees things differently. If God determines that He wants to use you to accomplish his good will in a more remarkable way, He will certainly find you just as he found Gideon, Deborah, Noah, and Apollos. It is far more likely that God will use you for great things in a much more unremarkable way. That makes you no less valuable in God’s sight.
“Great” in God’s sight is not when human beings bring children into this world, but when they bring those children to the baptismal font and then spare no effort to train those children in the fear and love of the one true God. In so doing, Christian parents play a vital role in preserving and perpetuating the gifts of the Reformation. God sees a great thing when He sees His children earning a living by the sweat of their brows and then dedicating their wealth to support and promote the Gospel ministry at home and abroad. “Great” in God’s eyes are those who seek first that one thing needful and trust Him to supply all of the necessary lesser things of life.
The bottom line is that truly great things—as God views them—always involve the eternal future of human souls and that eternal future has been secured by Jesus Christ. In fact, human beings could do nothing at all that was valuable in God’s sight had Jesus Himself not carried out that one good thing that only He could accomplish—our salvation. He alone could supply the perfect life and innocent death necessary for mankind to be saved. This he has done. He alone could provide payment for our sin debt. He alone could provide our eternal rescue. He alone could achieve reconciliation between God and man. All these great things our Savior has done for us.
Rejoice then in the great gifts of our Savior God and never disparage the humble service into which he has called you. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.