Reformation Sunday November 1, 2020
262, 294, 264, 283
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
+ In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen. +
Theme: “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage”
1) In its entirety, God’s Word is eternal truth
2) We respond to God’s Word with joy and holy awe.
Dearly Beloved Fellow Christians,
Many of the people of the United States have come here from other countries. And many more have ancestors who came here from other countries, only a few generations back. Many of these people, though they are Americans, enjoy learning about and preserving the customs of their ancestors. They regard such things as a heritage worth preserving.
We Lutherans also have a heritage, and it is one that we think is very much worth preserving. This is why we take a Sunday each year to remember and celebrate the Reformation. We do this to remember our Lutheran heritage and to endeavor, with the Lord’s help, to preserve it for ourselves and for future generations. We are taking time today to learn about the work of our spiritual forefathers. In our service we are also singing some of the old Lutheran hymns, of which the Lutheran church has a rich heritage. But our reason for doing all this is of course not merely an interest in things of the past. We are not like people attending some ethnic heritage festival, who tomorrow will put away their costumes and go back to the modern world. We value the Lutheran confessions, the Lutheran order of service, and the Lutheran hymns because they are based on the Word of God. It is for this reason that we make an effort to preserve these things. Their message is the eternal Gospel, as true and as relevant to life today as it was 500 plus years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 These on Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The heritage that we are celebrating today is the heritage of the Gospel.
One passage of Scripture that praises this heritage is Psalm 119, that longest of the Psalms, in which nearly every one of the 176 verses speaks of God’s revealed word, teaching us what a treasure it is. From this Psalm we will consider three verses, 160-162:
The entirety of Your word is truth,
And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.
Princes persecute me without a cause,
But my heart stands in awe of Your word.
I rejoice at Your word
As one who finds great treasure.
In considering these verses we want to show especially how these thoughts were the guiding principles of Martin Luther in all his teaching as we consider the them: “GOD’S WORD IS OUR GREAT HERITAGE.”
The psalmist says that God’s Word in its entirety is truth. Luther’s German translation, rendered in English, goes something like this, “Your Word is nothing but truth.” Every word of Holy Scripture is completely reliable. We can depend on it because it is God’s Word; it comes from His own mouth. Therefore we can believe it—indeed we must believe it. We can put our faith in what it says, we can rely on it; yes, we can place all our hopes in it, we can order our entire life according to it. It is the standard by which all other words must be judged. The Word itself is not to be judged, for it is God’s Word; rather it is the judge of all human words and deeds. This is so, regardless of how much people may try to sit in judgment on the Word, criticize it, and substitute their own ideas for it.
The sentence that follows adds the thought that the Word of God is eternal. “Every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.” As God is eternal—as He is God from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90)—so too His Word is eternal. As God does not change, so His Word will never change; it will stand forever. The holy standard of His law will not change. People may come up with a “new morality” as their ideas about right and wrong change (as we have seen, especially in our own life-time). But God’s “You shall” and “You shall not” will stay the same, condemning human sin. And this will be so, no matter how much people may deny it or try to ignore it. At the same time, the promises of God and the Good News of the Gospel will never change. The precious words of Jesus that “whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) will never change; they are eternal. Whoever takes hold of these words in faith will be saved, today, tomorrow, a hundred years from now, as long as the world continues.
This understanding of the Word is what lies behind Luther’s career as reformer. His objections to the many of the teachings of the church of his day all were based on convictions derived from a study of the Holy Scriptures. In all the matters dealt with by the Scriptures, Luther felt bound. In such matters he could not bend or compromise. People today talk about Christian doctrine as if it can be whatever we decide it should be, as if a church convention can rewrite the Bible if they so choose. Luther, too, came under intense pressure to yield on certain points, in particular on the Lord’s Supper, as we will examine later in some detail. But in matters decided by the Word of God he could not yield, knowing what our Psalm verse says here, that God’s Word in its entirety is truth and that His righteous judgments endure forever.
Because God’s Word, both in its demands and in its promises, is eternal truth, we, God’s children, respond to it with joy and with holy awe. The Psalmist says, “I rejoice at Your word, As one who finds great treasure.” These words remind us of one of the parables of Jesus, the parable of the Hidden Treasure. A man finds a treasure hidden in a field. And recognizing the supreme value of it, he goes and sells all he has to buy the field, so that he can have the treasure buried in it. The Word of God is a treasure, beyond all other treasures, for in it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of pardon for all our sins for the sake of Jesus. In it is the Good News of peace with God, the Good News of everlasting life. Finding these things in God’s Word, we can say, “I rejoice at Your word.”
We stand before the Word of God also in holy awe. For the Psalmist says, “Princes persecute me without a cause, But my heart stands in awe of Your word.” As he wrote these words, the Psalmist was under great pressure. We don’t know whether this came from ungodly men of Israel or heathen officials. Evidently they were persecuting the Psalmist because he was a child of God and because he was faithful to God’s Word. But he was not moved by their pressure to be disloyal to God, to sin against Him, to deny His Word. These princes of whom he speaks no doubt expected the psalmist to stand in awe of them, for that is that way it is with the mighty of this world. But the psalmist isn’t impressed by their loftiness or their power. No, rather he stands in awe of God’s Word, because that is what impresses him and moves him.
Luther also found himself under great pressure from “princes,” people with power, to do or teach things contrary to the Word of God. This pressure came from several sides. On the one hand, it was the Church of Rome, with the Pope at its head. In addition there was Emperor Charles V, who summoned Luther to the Diet at Worms and gave him an ultimatum to take back what he had written. And then there were those on the side of the Reformation who didn’t think Luther was going far enough in moving away from Rome. But with the help of God, Luther exhibited the same spirit expressed by the Psalmist and did not yield in matters on which the Word speaks. We see this especially in Luther’s understanding and defense of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
For the first thousand years of the Christian church the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was not defined in the way that we see it defined now in various ways, by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. It is clear from what was written about Holy Communion by the early church fathers that they believed in the real presence of the body and blood together with the bread and the wine. But not much was said about how this took place. It was simply regarded as a mystery, as indeed it is. But in the 11th century a man named Berengar denied the real presence. In response to him the theologians of the day also erred, saying that in the sacrament the bread and the wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ, so that bread and wine were no longer present. This in turn led to other errors, like the adoration of the consecrated bread (since it was thought to be the body of Christ, even apart from the partaking of the bread and wine) and the sacrifice of the mass (in which it was thought that the priest offered to God the body and blood of Christ as a sacrifice every time a mass was conducted). This was what Luther was taught.
During the Reformation, Luther had to reexamine the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in the light of Holy Scripture. After studying the Words of Institution, together with 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, he came to the conviction that the Bible teaches the real presence of the body and blood of Christ together with the bread and wine, and that the body and blood are present only in connection with the eating and drinking of the sacrament. He continued to believe and teach that Holy Communion is a means of grace, in which God offers and bestows the forgiveness of sins.
Then he found that this teaching had to be defended also against some of the reformers. Carlstadt, Luther’s ally in Wittenberg, denied the real presence. Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, likewise denied the real presence. Luther and Zwingli met at the German city of Marburg. And it was there that Luther resisted the pressure from Zwingli and adhered to the biblical teaching of the real presence, even going so far as to write the words of Christ in chalk on the table in front of him, lest he lose sight of what Christ said, “This is my body…”
Why did he steadfastly refuse to be moved? It was because he stood in awe of God’s Word. In 1524, some people in the city of Strasburg asked Luther about the Lord’s Supper after Carlstadt had tried to win them over to his view that in the sacrament nothing but bread and wine is present. He replied, “I am captured by the Word of God and cannot find a way out. The words are there, and they are too strong for me.”
Yes, the Word of God is too strong for us, but it is good to be held captive by it. Today the pressures to move away from the teachings of the Word are stronger than ever. We still have the Church of Rome on one side of us and the Reformed churches, the spiritual descendants of Zwingli and Calvin, on the other side. We also have a third force to reckon with: modernism, which treats doctrine itself as unimportant, which preserves the form of the Christian faith but denies its substance. May God grant us the grace He granted to Luther and others, that we may rejoice in God’s Word as eternal truth and ever stand before it in holy awe. 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.