20th Sunday After Pentecost October 30, 2011
261, 260, 262, 283, [WS 2000 alt. 775, 781]
God grant you joy and comfort in and appreciation for the gifts He returned to the Church through the Reformation: faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Would you rather be strong or weak? Would you rather be well informed or ignorant? Would you rather be gifted or ordinary? My guess is that most would choose the first option in every case. That is, most if not all would rather be strong, well informed, and talented, rather than weak, ignorant, and ordinary. Yet Christianity turns many normal things on their ear, doesn’t it. What makes perfect sense in the secular world falls flat in the spiritual.
So it is that the Apostle Paul was taught by his Lord that it is only when he is weak that he can be truly strong for then it is the power of God Himself that is at work in and through him. Paul thus learned to rejoice in his weakness and to reflect all success from his efforts back to the Source of his strength.
Paul was extremely well educated and yet he himself “determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Why? Because in the end not only does nothing matter but faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, much of what passes for wisdom to the world is a direct assault upon the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is, in effect, anti-truth.
As to gifted vs. ordinary, Paul told the congregation in Corinth to take a look around and note “that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Here too we see that to be extraordinarily gifted is not always all that it is cracked up to be.
The point is, again, that things that make sense in one context don’t always make sense in another. It ought not surprise us therefore that we might well encounter some twists, turns, and surprises when we examine—as indicated in today’s sermon theme—the choice between slavery and freedom, together with what God’s Word has to say on the subject.
To guide us in this study on this Reformation Sunday, we turn to our text found in the 8th chapter of John’s Gospel account:
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
So far the perfect, inspired words of our God. We affirm especially on this day that we believe that these truly are God’s words, and that as such they are the only true and infallible source for all that we teach and believe. That our God would bless us through the study of these words, so we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Dear fellow heirs of the Reformation:
When the Hindenburg burned, when the Titanic sank or the Challenger shuttle blew up, do you suppose the manufacturers pretty much just said, “C’est la vie” and began construction of a replacement replica? Obviously not. They first had to find out what went wrong. One tragedy was bad enough. It would have been foolish in the extreme—downright criminal—to simply perpetuate the problem and risk another disaster.
So also on this Reformation Sunday it is absolutely imperative that we ask ourselves what exactly went wrong in the Christian Church that made the Reformation necessary? We need to ask for roughly the same reason the builders of the Hindenburg, Titanic, and Challenger had to ask. If we fail to identify what went wrong then, we are bound to repeat the mistake today.
So what went wrong? How did the Christian Church move or transition from those magnificent, heady days when the apostles themselves walked among them, teaching nothing but the pure doctrine of Jesus Himself, to the conditions that Luther found? How was Satan able to drag the Church from pure Gospel truth to damning, manipulative work righteousness? Obviously many different theories could be suggested, but boil all of them down and what is left? Truth—Truth as revealed in God’s Word. The Devil and his allies kidnapped the truth.
Jesus made a fairly spectacular promise in our text, didn’t He? Did you catch it? “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” [vv.31-32] Jesus promised that you and I could and would be able to know—definitively and without doubt—exactly what is true and exactly what is false. In a society as mixed up as ours when it comes to understanding absolute truth, this is one of Scripture’s most treasured promises. The key, according to Jesus, is “abiding in God’s Word.” Why? While it is certainly true that “God’s Word is truth,” there is actually even more to it than that. God has chosen to wield His power here on earth through his Word. To cut ourselves off from that Word is, therefore, to cut ourselves off not only from the truth, but to sever our only lifeline to our God and thus to the only real, true source of spiritual strength and discernment.
The Church of Luther’s day had lost that truth, that lifeline. In fact they withheld that Word of God from the people, actually chaining the Bible —both literally (with actual chains) and figuratively (refusing any translation other than Latin which the common folk could not read). The leaders of the church of Luther’s day believed that the Bible was too dangerous to place into the hands of the people. Hard to imagine how those folks who believed such things would explain our text. How were the people to abide in God’s Word when it was written in a language they couldn’t understand and chained in a locked room into which they had no access?
But that isn’t the crisis today, is it? Yes and no. When Gutenberg perfected the printing press and Martin Luther translated the Bible into a language the people could read, Satan had a real problem. The people were now going to know the truth and the truth was going to make them free. The Devil obviously didn’t want that. In fact, he was absolutely terrified and enraged by the very prospect. So what did he do? What has he done in our day? He’s hidden the Bible again, but this time he’s cleverly hidden it in plain sight. Look around you. There are Bibles everywhere, readily available and in every known language. It is and remains the greatest selling book of all time. There are entire organizations dedicated to nothing but the distribution of Bibles throughout the world. There is a Bible in nearly every hotel room in the United States and in countless foreign countries. They are literally everywhere.
So how many times did you open your Bible this past week and read it? Last week? Last month? See the problem? Where once the Devil had cut the Church off from the written Word of God by having his agents remove and withhold the Bible, today the people themselves are doing the cutting off. Where once the family Bible was the prized possession that was literally worn to tatters through use, today our Bibles are often pristine relics that sit on the coffee table and collect dust.
The result will be the inevitable loss of the truth since in our text Jesus said that it is when we “abide in His word” that we would “know the truth.” Is Titanic II foolishly steaming toward the same iceberg?
Let’s go a step further as our text does. According to our text, what is the inevitable result of losing the truth? The simplest answer is slavery. If we are and remain free when we “abide in His Word,” then cutting ourselves off from that Word of God is the surest path leading back to bondage.
Here is where we return to the place where we began—to an understanding of freedom and slavery and how all is not always what it seems. Just as things like strength vs. weakness and wisdom vs. foolishness are turned on their ear in the Christian religion, so also freedom and slavery take on different meanings and we would do well to recognize the truth of God’s word also in this area.
Jesus told us in our text that the only freedom that truly exists is the freedom that He provides: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” [v.36] What is particularly interesting here is the fact that the Jews actually thought they had freedom. This is puzzling, in part, because even in the secular realm they had nothing like freedom. For hundreds of years the Jews had been under the domination of one world power after another. In Jesus’ day it was the Roman Empire. Therefore what the Jews were saying to Jesus made no sense whatsoever on any level. Did they nonetheless believe that it was true? Apparently they did and that is exactly the point. The Jews had an illusion of freedom, but not the real thing. Worse still, they had come to believe their own lie.
The million dollar question is, “Is the same illusion living and active today? Does the devil still pass off slavery as freedom, and freedom as slavery?”
Jesus gave us insight in our text when He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.” [vv.34-35] The illusion of freedom that Satan still promotes today is the notion that lawlessness is actually freedom, that engaging in every sort of sin is actually a form of liberation or emancipation.
The reality is that just the opposite is true. Sin is the Devil’s chain. Those who live in sin aren’t free, they are bound hand and foot by the Devil himself. Having rejected Jesus as Savior—either actively or passively—they are locked in the Devil’s cattle cars and are headed for the slaughter houses in Hell. The illusion of freedom is created by the fact that the inside of the cattle cars look pretty nice to our old Adam. There the eyes see fully stocked wet bars, beautiful and seductive men and women, luxurious appointments and all of the modern conveniences. The eyes see and the heart desires, yet Jesus warns us that they are the vehicles of slavery that lead always and only to eternal destruction.
No one here wants that. Though the eyes of our flesh might glance longingly at what the world seems to so enjoy, you and I want to be “free indeed.” So you and I, by God’s grace, continue to abide in God’s word, and that Word of Truth returns us, again and again, to the freedom that can be found only when we are bondservants—willing slaves of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
This is the truth that was all but lost to the Church of Luther’s day. Having hidden God’s Word, the church leaders had manufactured their own religion—a religion of fear and threats and good works. God, through the various Reformers, unchained His Word and the brilliance of that light of truth burst like a thousand suns upon the sin-darkened souls of mankind. Suddenly mankind was again able, through the working of the Holy Spirit through that Word of Truth, to learn that forgiveness was earned not by sinful man but by Jesus Christ, and that His goodness was credited to us by God the Father.
We have been granted freedom from sin, not because we have lived sinless lives or have somehow “made up for” our sin. Far from it. Our freedom was granted because Jesus lived His life free from sin. Believing that Jesus did what He said He did, His perfection is now our perfection. God himself has declared it to be so. The empty tomb was his sign and seal—God’s official proclamation of freedom and forgiveness. It is therefore your divine pardon and your own personal proclamation of freedom and forgiveness. Your sins are gone, washed clean by the actions of Jesus Christ.
This is freedom. Do not throw it away for the illusion of freedom which in reality is slavery to sin and Satan. Rejoice instead on this Reformation Sunday that as a willing bond-servant of Jesus Christ, you have a true and lasting freedom that the unbelieving world can never know. The result is that eternal life is now yours and not even Satan himself can take that from you. Amen.
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