This was our reformation celebration. I love preaching on what is the alternate Gospel Text for the day. It offers for me an image of both the law and the gospel in John the Baptist and Jesus.
We all have compressed images of truth. The sermon looks at some of our I think. Some compressed images linger after we’ve forgotten what they mean. Others are “eternal gospels”. They speak to all times and places. The reformation has an image. Luther with a hammer nailing his theses to the door. The question that the day brings to us is if this is an eternal image, or a temporal one.
I happen to think Luther is a dramatic icon of the gospel, akin to the icon Jesus paints in the text for himself. I think Luther is an eternal truth. But the question is really to you. Do you still get the truth of the image. Are you willing to dance? Or has it become a dead image.
It is Reformation Day. The Lectionary gives us an alternative gospel text and I tend to take it. There are a bunch of reasons. The sermon puts forward a couple of reason. But the deepest reason is simply I like it. And I like it because it captures a gritty and real moment. Jesus, John the Baptist, the crowds and a confrontation of a sort. What did you think the Kingdom was? What are you going to do now?
Individuals of every age might have to answer “who do you say that I am,” but not every age gets confronted with a dramatic prophetic call. That is what John the Baptist was. That is what Luther was. Whose works and wisdom do you trust? Your own, or God’s? What this sermon is, is my pathetic attempt at proclaiming what a new Luther or a new Baptist would be saying to this generation. “To what shall I compare this generation?” My simple answer is that we lose that gospel because we dismiss its specific nature. We dismiss the specific law of the people of God defined in the Decalogue. And we glide over the body of Christ, the form of the gospel. We believe that god loves us, but we do so in a generic way such that the god who loves us is not Jesus Christ, at least not the one of scriptures, but one that looks more like ourselves. A recovery of the gospel today would be about its specific-ness and peculiarity – Jesus Christ, friend of sinners. It would be a recognition of the body in Word and Sacrament in our midst.
Worship note: I left in a little more music than normal. I left in stanza one of our opening hymn, Salvation Unto Us has Come (LSB 555). Our choir sounded great this morning in liturgical duty. I didn’t leave their Introit, but you can hear them in the gradual (between the First lesson and the epistle), and in the verse with the Alleluia before the gospel. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, LSB 657, was our closing hymn. We tend to sing the Bach arrangement, but most of the LCMS uses a LSB 656. A Mighty Fortress ends up being “the reformation hymn” but if you asked pastors they would probably give you Salvation Unto Us has Come. It captures the teaching of the Reformation clearly. A Mighty Fortress is a great hymn, but its popularity stems not so much from its teaching but from a later political-theological rallying cry.
There are two lectionary gospel texts for Reformation Sunday. This is the alternate text. It is actually my favorite because I think it reminds us of something necessary. The nature of the Kingdom here is not one of apparent power and victory. The Kingdom is comes in weakness. It is often veiled. It is violated, and violent men seize her. Yet the victory is won. Christ is risen, and there is always an angel with that eternal gospel. You might have to go to the wilderness to hear it, but the Word remains.
Recording note: I’ve left in the Hymn of the Day which was Lutheran Service Book #555 – Salvation Unto Us Has Come. A Mighty Fortress is often considered The Reformation hymn, but my money is on this one. We sang the odd verse which tell the full story of grace. I also left in the concluding short Hymn, God’s Word is Our Great Heritage, LSB 582. I think if Luther was around to say what the purpose of the Reformation was, 500 years later removed from the arguments of the day he would say what this hymn does. We have been given and entrusted with the Word. We betray the Kingdom if we forget this.
Reformation Day has had a number of modes of celebration through the years. This sermon mentions some of them, but maybe surprising for a Lutheran preacher, I’ve just never had much connection with the day. I guess part of that is my general distaste for the common forms of hagiography. If Luther is a hero (and he is) he can only be a hero in one form. Likewise, if he is a heretic who destroyed the church (and he did destroy a form of it), he can only be damned. Neither of those flavors ever appealed to me. We humans are way to complex for that. And it doesn’t give a good report on Luther’s key insight. In this life we are sinners and saints simultaneously.
Jesus uses a great visual image against “this generation” in the text. It was a generation that didn’t dance to the flute or sing to the dirge. Beyond that when the good law was proclaimed it said “he has a demon”; when the joyous gospel revealed it said “a glutton and a drunkard”. It danced to the dirge and sang to the flute, without recognizing the truth in either. For quite a while I’ve been feeling the same thing about Reformation Day.
But this year something happened that made it click. Stripping away the saint-stories and focusing on the story – A group of people confessing, remaining faithful, calling to the face the powerful and refusing to recant. It is a common story in the church. The only place I know of that celebrates those killed for being conventionally stupid. It is so much easier to recognize which side your bread is buttered on. The reformers did and they didn’t. Like Paul speaking to the Apostles wondering if his preaching had been in vain (Galatians 2:2) and confronting Peter to his face. Like the OT prophets sent to the Kings of Israel and Judah. Institutions go off track and sometimes need to be called on it. Separating the schismatics from the prophets isn’t always easy. And there is usually a little of both intermixed, but wisdom is justified by her deeds.
There is one more stripping away though. Institutions are fine and necessary. But as the hymn the choir sings in the recording tells us, God does not dwell in temples made with hands. He dwells in living stones. What is always most in need of reform is not the church or the collective or the other, but our hearts. Hearts that are no longer desiring only the clean story, but that desire God’s story – grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.