(The 23nd Sunday After Pentecost) October 27, 2013
Ephesians 2:12; 2 Peter 1:19; Matthew 13:44; Psalm 46:1-2
Series of Readings and Devotions
387(1-5), 377 (1, 6-7, 9-10), 283, 262
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“You were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12
Reformation greetings to you all! Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
The list of blessings which God showered upon His Church through the Reformation is a long one. The list of blessings includes: having God’s Word in the common language for all to read; a scriptural understanding of what God’s true Church is; a restoration of the scriptural truth that we are saved by Christ through faith apart from the deeds of the law; the scriptural knowledge that all believers are priests before God and can approach Him directly; emphasis on instruction in Scripture for the whole household.
Another of the many blessings that came out of the Reformation is that of music—congregational singing of God’s praises and singing in the home. Music itself is a beautiful gift from God. When that music is joined together with the Gospel of Christ, the blessing is more than doubled.
Music had not disappeared in the pre-Reformation church, but congregational involvement in the music no longer took place. Through the work of Luther and others, the congregation—the assembled believers—once again shared in the joy and excitement of pouring out their hearts in the prayers and praises of song.
The work of the Reformation took to heart Paul’s admonition and made use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” They sang and made melody in their hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). Thus, in our heritage we share in the wonderful gift of song. Because of this musical heritage, we are able to find the substance of the Reformation in the Songs of the Reformation.
In our worship today, we consider that substance and sing the songs which proclaim it, so that with full hearts and lifted voice we will praise the God of heaven for His blessings in the Reformation.
The songs of the Reformation do not begin with upbeat, confident anthems. The song begins in a minor key full of despair and hopelessness. As Martin Luther grew older the misery over his sins grew larger. Day-by-day he saw his life filled with countless thoughts and actions that simply went contrary to what God demanded in His Law. Luther knew full well what God’s judgment on such sin was, it was death eternally in Hell. Such condemnation leaves little room for hope when you are a sinner.
Luther tried so many things in an attempt to feel that he was at peace with God, but the peace of God which surpasses all understanding still eluded him.
Luther gave up everything in the world and became a monk. Luther was the monk’s monk and kept the rules so strictly that if ever a monk were to get to Heaven it would have been him. That kind of self-sacrifice and focus on God was supposed to solve the problem of sin…it did not.
Luther tried everything including beating himself almost to the point of death in the hopes that God would have pity. Nothing worked, the misery only grew greater.
Luther was in the same situation as which the Ephesians had once been. Luther was “without Christ…strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Luther had a Christ but was without the Christ.
Luther had been taught to see Jesus, the Son of God, as an angry judge who judged him on the basis of what he, Martin Luther, had done. Luther knew what he had done—sin—and if that was what this judge was going to see then there was no hope.
Luther was angry at God, hated him for what seemed to be so unfair and hopeless. Underneath the hatred, the anger, and the fear, lay deep sorrow at the prospect that he would be separated from God forever. Luther was searching for life and he couldn’t find it.
The Ephesians, the Germans—such as Luther, the Americans, and every human being begins life without life. They begin life without Christ without hope because we all begin life as sinner. God says the soul that sins shall die (cf. Ezekiel 18:4).
You and I, each of us, knows the song of sorrow. We see it in the world. Sinners apart from Christ, without God, and without hope in the world. They are plagued by their consciences, trying to make sure their lives are good enough to please God, despairing at the helplessness they feel, and wandering aimlessly through life lost and confused.
Each of us knows the song of sorrow in our own lives. How often haven’t we seen in ourselves exactly what Luther saw in himself: a lost and condemned creature whose best efforts could not possibly measure up to the absolute perfection demanded by God.
Take a sinner’s works and deeds, God’s Law, and His condemnation against sin and mix them together and you cannot compose anything but a song of sorrow. There is a way for this sorrow to be transposed into joy but it does not happen by something we can do.
Luther wrote of these things in his first congregational hymn: “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice” —Hymn 387 (1-5).
“And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” 2 Peter 1:19
Martin Luther’s entrance into the monastery did not ease his sin-plagued conscience. However, God did use this to bring Martin to genuine peace in Christ. Once in the monastery, Luther studied Scripture daily. He became a Doctor of Divinity and began to lecture at the University of Wittenberg which led to even more study.
At a time when Luther was lecturing on the book of Romans, he studied Romans 1:17 in which Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk and says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it stands written: The just shall life by faith.” Luther had undoubtedly seen and read this passage before, but he had always heard the “righteousness of God” as the righteousness which God demanded from him and the justice that condemned him. As a result, this passage was just another blow to Luther in his despair because he knew that he would never live because he knew that he could never be righteous.
During his lecture preparation, Luther’s renewed study of this passage raised a troubling problem in his mind. In the verse right before this one Paul had said that he was not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)…and that in it “…the righteousness of God is revealed.” Luther was troubled because he could not make the connection between the Good News of Christ and the righteousness which God demanded from him.
While Luther was studying the Word, the Holy Spirit was working through the Word to bring him to a true understanding of salvation and the life he so greatly desired. The Holy Spirit led him to understand that when Paul spoke about the “righteousness of God” he was not talking about a righteousness that is in us and comes from our own good lives, but rather the righteousness of God which comes from Jesus through faith. That righteousness is announced and given to sinners in the Gospel. Now, Luther understood and could fully appreciate what Paul described to the Corinthians, namely, that God made Jesus who “knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Free salvation through Christ relieves an excruciating burden. It was the heavy weight of sin’s guilt that pushed Luther down. But in His Word, Jesus says, “I took that burden on My shoulders and carried it all the way to the cross where I died for you. You don’t have that burden anymore. I have done it all.” When the burden is lifted, gone too is the uncertainty of “Have I done enough to please God…I think I have, but have I? What if I haven’t done enough?!
What a difference the Spirit’s instruction made! Gone was the dark gloom and despair. Now shining were the bright rays of hope found in the Gospel which tells the sinner “your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” Luther rejoiced to see the light and rejoiced to know that faith and justification are both free gifts from God’s grace. That “light” that made all the difference.
Luther said, “I felt…that the gate of Heaven itself had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained new meaning. And from that point on the phrase, ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of great love.” The whole of Scripture took on new meaning. This light of understanding in the Word sheds light throughout all of Scripture.
Darkness cannot exist in light. The Word of God is the lamp to our feet, the light to our path (cf. Psalm 119:1-5). It is the light that enlightened Martin Luther’s heart, soul, and mind. The apostle Peter tells us that the confirmed Word of God which we have in Scripture is “a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
Without the enlightenment of the Spirit working through the Word we remain in the darkness of self-reliance which can only end in sorrow. The Gospel Word and study in it which enlightened Martin Luther has the power to enlighten every sinner. The song of enlightenment is a song of joy and thanksgiving. It is a song that recognizes that the wages of sin is death and that it is a salary we all earn. It is a song that rejoices to also know that we don’t have to live on our wages because God has given us a gift. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
Paul Speratus was a pastor in Vienna, Austria during the Reformation. Later, he came to Wittenberg where he worked with Luther to prepare the first Lutheran hymnal. Paul Speratus shared in the relief of knowing that salvation comes through Christ alone without any merit or worthiness in us and totally apart from what we do. Speratus wrote a hymn which was included in the first hymnal. It declares, “Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor” —Hymn 377 (1,6,7,9,10).
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:44
The monk walked to the church door in Wittenberg and nailed a notice on it. On the top of the notice was an invitation to debate the 95 statements that were written below. The date was October 31, 1517. The monk was Dr. Martin Luther. The 95 theses discussed errors and abuses in the church and were quickly translated into German for all the people to read. In this way the Reformation gathered a momentum from which it did not turn back.
Tucked into the 95 theses, about two-thirds of the way down the list, is the short, yet powerful, Thesis 62. It states, “The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
This one short sentence gives the foundation and the whole purpose of the Reformation. So many things had taken the place of God’s Word in the pre-Reformation days. Good works had taken the place of Christ’s work. The decrees of church leaders and councils had taken the place of God’s Word. Superstition and fear of hidden things in the underworld had taken the place of confidence and hope in the life of the heavenly world. Self-service and self-promotion had taken the place of serving lost souls and Gospel proclamation. Power, authority, riches, honor, fame, arts, relics, and all the like had become the treasure of the church. Yet, the leaders said that all was fine. Luther said, “All is not fine. The true treasure of Christ’s church is the Gospel.”
The Gospel alone can change the heart of any born-sinner into a heart which loves God as His child. It is the Gospel as it comes to sinners in the Word for “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). It is the Gospel which comes in Baptism and gives forgiveness so that Ananias could tell a penitent Saul, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). It is the Gospel in the Lord’s Supper which says, “This is My body given for you…this is My blood which is shed for you for the remission of sins” (Luke 22:19-20).
Luther used Matthew 13:44 to support his 62nd thesis. In that verse, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a man who finds a treasure in a field and then sells everything he has and buys that field so that he can have the treasure. Treasures become more valuable when they are rare. The Gospel—in Word and Sacrament—gives the only way into forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It is a one-of-a-kind. That is true treasure!
When a church makes something other than the Gospel of Christ it’s treasure, then it is sure to fall. The visible presence and activity may continue, but without its true treasure the church fails in its true mission. Jesus gave all of His disciples of all time, the commission to make other disciples throughout the world so that they too will share in salvation from their sins. He gave the means to accomplish this: the Gospel in Word and Sacraments—nothing else, nothing less.
The Gospel is the true treasure of the church because it alone has the way of life. It is not just a glorified rule book for life that may be taken up or set aside at will. The Word of God is not a book of cultural morals and history that may or may not apply to each individual and each new generation. No, the Word of God is a treasure! No treasure ought to be forgotten and lost or dumped in the mud or treated carelessly or ignored as if it had no value.
Luther treated the Word of God as a treasure and that is evident by what he did. He translated both Old and New Testaments into every-day German so that the average person could open the treasure chest on his own. Luther wrote the Small Catechism so that the head of the household would have a good instruction book to use in assuming the God-given privilege of showing the treasure to the children.
In the Gospel treasure chest we can find the riches of righteousness, the jewels of peace, life, hope, and a joy that doesn’t fade to tears. Do your sins trouble you? Open up your treasure chest and see the gem: “The blood of Jesus Christ, [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Does the future have you worried? Open the treasure chest and marvel at the clarity and cut of God’s precious promise: “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). The more you dig into this treasure the more and the greater jewels you will find.
In a religious world which all too often finds its treasure in everything but the “most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God” let us always stand up with thanksgiving to God for the heritage given through the Reformation which keeps the Gospel as the true treasure. Like the man who sees the true value of the treasure in the field and spares no cost to get it, may we hang onto that treasure and never let go.
Our foundation, our purpose, our work, our reason for existence, our goals, our happiness, are all built on Christ the Cornerstone. His Word is our heritage. The hymn, “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage” was written 300 years after Luther posted the 95 theses, but it expresses the same truth as Thesis 62. The hymn is also the English translation of the 5th verse of the Danish translation of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” —Hymn: 283.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” Psalm 46:1-2
Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, so hilf mir Gott! — “Here I a stand, I can not do otherwise, so help me God!” Today we’d say it “took a lot of guts” for Luther to speak those words. It took courage to speak those words and refuse to take back what he had written and taught. It took courage because he stood in front of the emperor and other powerful leaders who had the power to order his death.
When the day of Luther’s death from natural causes did come, a friend asked him “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?” Luther’s body moved and he said in a loud voice, “Ja!” — Yes!
It wasn’t only in these dramatic times that Luther needed confidence and courage, it was a need throughout his life. From the 95 Theses to his lectures in the classrooms, from debates to the opposition all around, from hardship in the public eye to the heart-breaking deaths of two young daughters, there were countless things that could have made Martin Luther throw up his hands in despair.
When the frustrations became great and he was facing despair, Luther would often turn to Philip Melanchton and say, “Philip, let us sing the 46th Psalm.” Psalm 46 begins with words that can chase away fear and give renewed courage, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…” No fear…not even in the face of the most catastrophic events.
We celebrate the Reformation and all the things that God accomplished through Luther and the others. We tend to focus on the end results and the blessings we have received from the Reformation, but it might be that at times we forget what an uphill struggle it all was. Nevertheless, God strengthened and enabled the people of that time to stand confident that what they preached was God’s Word, and then to go forward with boldness.
You and I are the ones who guard, treasure, and carry the heritage of God’s Word in this generation. Make no mistake, it will take confidence and courage. It takes courage for parents to continue teaching their children that God and His true Word are still the most important thing in their lives. It takes courage to tell the people of today that sin is still sin, when the world around them tells them it is not. It takes confidence in Scripture to stand on that truth without flinching and uphold it as being the saving unchanging Word of God. It takes strength to survive the tears that come from the rejection and the cold shoulders. It takes boldness to be different from all the rest if that is what faithfulness to the Word of God requires. It takes confidence in the Word of God so that when questions, controversies, and difficulties arise that they can be studied, answered, and solved with God’s answer and solution.
It is hard to imagine such confidence and courage until we remember why we are here. We are not observing “Martin Luther Day.” It was not Luther’s Reformation. The confidence and courage was not in Luther or anyone else. The confidence and courage was born out of God’s faithfulness to His Word and His promise to care for His own.
One look at what we have to face day-by-day in a world filled with sin and temptation, and we know we need help. “Our help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.” The Almighty God who created all things is our rock of defense. “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10). His Word is the confidence-builder and our weapon just as Jesus defeated the Devil and his temptations in the wilderness (cf. Matthew 4).
Your Savior is on your side. He has given You His Word and that Word is true. God’s gracious dealings and blessings in the Reformation are just one example of His faithfulness for all of history. He promises the same for all that is yet to come. Make Him your confidence and courage then when the winds and rains and the storms come, you will find that you have built your confidence on the rock.
“A Mighty Fortress is our God” has been called “the battle hymn of the Reformation.” It is a hymn of encouragement and confidence because it declares a hope in the Lord. No Christian hymn as been translated into more languages. It declares the same faith and courage as the psalmist did in Psalm 46. We now sing of our strong castle and also hear the words of the Psalmist with the singing of A Mighty Fortress is our God. —Hymn: 262.
In the words of Luther when he needed encouragement, “Let us sing the 46th Psalm.” Amen.
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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.