Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m not sure we need to celebrate Reformation Day any more. Aren’t 499 years enough? What’s the purpose, anyway? Is it just to celebrate Luther’s posting of 95 statements for debate on the church door in Wittenberg? Statements which—I would hazard a guess—most Lutherans have probably never read. And if they had read them, they would see that Luther, in 1517, still believed in purgatory, indulgences, and penance. What’s the purpose? To celebrate some Germanic culture, or the tribe of German Lutheranism? To talk about Martin Luther, how he elevated the freedom of the conscience in religious matters? How he rebelled and stood up against the mean, old pope, so, at the very least, we don’t have to be Catholic anymore? Or maybe so we can eat some brats and drink some beer? Or have a potluck with jello salad and sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”?
What’s the purpose of celebrating Reformation Day? If the center of the Reformation was Luther’s search and struggle to find a gracious and merciful God, is that even still relevant anymore? Luther examined things and he found that God was righteous and he was not. He knew that he would have to stand before that righteous God as judge, and was there any chance of him being found righteous? He tried everything he could. He confessed all his sins, and if he forgot one, he went back and confessed it. He disciplined his flesh, he lived as a monk. He memorized the psalms and kept all the prayer offices, and felt guilty if he missed one or didn’t pray with his whole heart. It wasn’t until he read Romans 3 that he found a merciful God. He had probably read it before, but something was different, and he saw something there that he had never seen. Yes, the righteousness was God’s and God’s alone, but God’s righteousness was something He gave freely to the unrighteous in Christ. A righteousness that came apart from the Law or any works that the Law demanded. Finally, he had peace. Finally, he found a merciful God, to whose promise he could cling when he was confronted with the judgment of God.
But if that mercy in Christ is the end of a search for justification, what does it mean when modern people no longer feel that anxiety, that angst, before a righteous, holy God? Other than a few pockets of fire-and-brimstone preaching and sinners caught in the hands of an angry God, where people might indeed be searching for a merciful God—other than there, who feels a need to be justified? We’ve replaced the angry, judgmental God of the Middle Ages with the “loving,” open, accepting, tolerant God of a more enlightened age. And if we assume that God, if we take for granted that God likes me and is pleased with me just the way I am; if God finds you so valuable and so worthy of His love—as if there’s something in you that made God happy with you—then what do we need with the sort of justification for which Luther searched so long? Who needs to be justified before that God? He needs no sacrifice; He just needs you to recognize how great you already are.
Last week, we heard about the Pharisee in the temple. Jesus had said that that the Pharisees are the ones who justify themselves before people. And the Pharisee brought all that righteousness before people into the temple before God. We’ve completely gotten rid of trying to be justified before God; we’ve spread it all out, so that now, all that’s left is our justification before other people. Do we try to justify ourselves anymore? I don’t know if we do anything other than try to justify ourselves. I recently watched a movie called Whiplash. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It won an Academy Award. But at the heart of this movie, the main character is trying to justify himself. Trying to justify all his work, all his preparation, all his practice. He works so hard, his fingers bleed. And the major point of conflict in the movie is his struggle to be justified before the instructor at his exclusive music school. But no matter what he does, he can’t seem to be right enough.
Self-justification is everywhere! All the political candidates are trying to justify themselves and their records, defending themselves from accusations and charges, trying to justify their candidacy and election. And then you have voters trying to justify voting for this candidate or that candidate. And whether you’re on the internet, on social media, or not, the primary purpose of social media is to justify ourselves. Even private, digital communication is self-justification. Justifying the way I look, or the way I spend my time, or how much fun I’m having, or how I’m eating or exercising. Isn’t the vast majority of that self-justification? How much anxiety and depression comes from a failure to justify myself? How much suicide comes from a failure to justify my very existence? We do almost nothing but search for justification. And wherever it happens, it’s about appeasing a god. Whether it’s the God of the Scriptures, or the god of myself, or the god of my family, or the god of people I’ve never met, they’re all very jealous when it comes to their worship.
All of this is what the Law says to those who are under the Law. The Law demands self-justification, no excuses, no rationalizations. Do this, do that, do all of it and prove your worth. The Law is built into this world, whether we want to recognize it or not. It consistently reminds us that something is not quite right; that it’s not quite enough; that we haven’t yet satisfied even the god of our own expectations and goals. But, finally, all the appeals are denied. All the extenuating circumstances are ruled inadmissible. All the lawyers of self-justification have their objections overruled. Nothing left to say. Case closed. So that every mouth may be stopped, every word silenced. So that the whole world is accountable to God. And then what? Either despair a the failure of self-justification, or a word that comes from outside you. In the midst of all this self-justifying talk, God speaks. He speaks His Word into flesh, and He puts forward a righteousness that has nothing to do with your or I justifying ourselves. It is His own righteousness, and it comes in the form of a bloody man on a cross, blood shed to cover the mercy seat of God. Every other religion in the world is about you working to justify yourself to appease whatever god it is, whether a transcendent being or just yourself. This God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the only God who puts forward His own propitiation. He sees to His own sacrifice. He provides His own Lamb for the sacrifice. He will be righteous. And His righteousness is in Christ, justifying those for whom there is no justification.
Now all searching, all struggling, all the self-justifying words come to their end at the cross. Here is your justification: the crucified and resurrected Lord giving righteousness in Holy Baptism; giving unconditional, forgiving words in Holy Absolution; giving His own Body and Blood in the Holy Supper. And now, all those mouths shut by the Law are opened by Christ to praise Him, to confess Him, and to depart in peace. Since the self-justification has come to an end, you are free to serve your neighbors in whatever they might need from you. Open hands before God mean full hands toward your neighbor. Closed mouths before God mean open mouths before your neighbor, ready to give a defense of the reason for the hope that is within you. Open ears before God mean open ears toward other sinners who might need the mercy of Christ from you.
This word, this righteousness, this tangible mercy in words, water, bread, and wine—this Jesus—is the only reason to celebrate Reformation Day. It’s the only reason to be a Christian. It’s the only reason to call ourselves Lutheran—not because of Martin the man, but because of the Gospel he proclaimed, along with every other Christian preacher. Here, today and every week, there is rest from all the work we do to justify ourselves. It always fails. But in this rest, in this Jesus, there is a justification that never fails, because this Jesus is risen from the dead. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/28/16