October 25, 2015 AD
First Reading: Revelation 14:6-7
Epistle: Romans 3:19-28
Gospel: Matthew 11:12-19
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The Joint Reformation Service which will take place this afternoon is an old Baltimore tradition. Way back in late October 1949 my father told me that the preacher at the Joint Reformation Service that year would be a certain Dr. Pelikan. Only a few weeks before our family had been in Florida, and for the first time in my life I had in fact seen pelicans. And so my seven-year-old mind wondered what on earth a Dr. Pelikan would look like! Well, he in fact looked much like any other pastor. I don’t remember what he said, but as the years went by I learned that this Dr. Pelikan was one of the greatest Church historians in twentieth-century America.
My reason for talking about Dr. Pelikan this morning is that he said something worth thinking about as we celebrate this Reformation Sunday. And what he said was this:
The Reformation was a tragic necessity. It was tragic because the opposing groups could not agree and so the visible unity of the Western Christian Church was destroyed and remains so to this very day. But the Reformation was also a necessity because in the late medieval Church the Gospel had been obscured, the Good News that we are saved not by anything we do, but by what has God has done and continues to do for us through His Son Jesus Christ.
Of course the Gospel had not been completely lost, because the Church cannot live without the Gospel, and Christ promised that “the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.” And so despite all the errors of the Church before the Reformation it was still the Church— the one flock of Jesus the Good Shepherd who never fails to feed and protect all those who place their trust in Him. And so Dr. Martin Luther was not the founder of some new religion but rather the Reformer whom God raised up to restore to His Church the Gospel in its purity.
I’ve often said from this pulpit that so many people think of the Gospel as good advice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or to put it in Biblical words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” These words are of course true but they are not the Gospel, because the word ‘Gospel’ doesn’t mean good advice but good news. The world has all the good advice imaginable but what the world does not have apart from the Gospel is the forgiveness of the world’s chronic inability to live by the good advice it already knows, or to put that in biblical language, forgiveness for its sin.
And by sin we don’t simply think of murder and drunkenness and adultery and fornication and stealing but also of the resentment and hatred in our hearts, our indifference to the plight of those in such desperate need, our discontent and lack of gratitude for all the gracious gifts of God, our anger that our prayers have not been answered in the way we wish, our impatience with God, and lack of trust in His goodness and love. And so we are sinners in need of forgiveness of our sins.
The Gospel is the good news that our sins are forgiven by God who loves us not because we are so lovable but because He is love. As Dr. Luther sings in one his many wonderful hymns:
But God beheld my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation.
And mindful of His mercies great
He planned my soul’s salvation.
A father’s heart He turned to me
Sought redemption fervently:
He gave His dearest treasure.
He spoke to His beloved Son,
“‘Tis time to have compassion,
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free,
Slay bitter death for him that he
May live with thee for ever.”
Yes, God sent His dearest Treasure to be our Saviour. And in a wonderful Christmas hymn Dr. Luther sings:
He whom the worlds cannot contain,
Doth in Mary’s lap repose.
He is become an Infant small
Who by His might upholds all.
Look to the Child of Mary, look to the crucified Savior! That is where we see God with eyes of faith, that is where we see His love. The preaching of the Gospel points you to Him. Baptism clothes you with the spotless robe of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. And now again at the altar He truly feeds you with His precious Body and Blood.
Yes, the Reformation was tragic in the which followed, but it was also necessary so that believers might again see with clarity the love of God which brought Him to the manger and the cross, the Lord who now lives and rules all things for the good of His holy Church, His Body and beloved Bride which in the end He’ll bring to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom.
And now the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.