1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Selah) 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah) 8 Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” 11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah)
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
First off, happy Reformation Day. As a quick reminder of what the Reformation was… 500 years ago people in the church lived under this oppressive system – one in which people were never sure of God or of God’s mercy. It was a system in which people were told that they had to climb the spiritual ladder up to God by being really, really good and sinless people. But if that failed, well, they could cough up a little extra money here and there for the church, then they could also climb their way up to God that way. Make note of the direction of things – up. The message was YOU climb up to God. God will not leave God’s thrown. You are the one who must climb up to God. Which leads to us being either spiritually proud and thinking we are doing so much better than everyone else. Or it leads to spiritual despair, thinking you can never ever climb high enough. And the church took advantage of that; the church was the place that told you whether you had climbed high enough or not. Whether you were in or out.
Basically, the church had become this corrupt system that was no longer preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness, but rather was welding power over everyone for the sake of control and wealth. In the midst of this was a monk named Martin Luther, who, under the weight of this oppressive church, tried and tried and tried to be holy and sinless enough to be worthy of God. But then the reading from Romans 3 spoke to him – we are saved by grace, not by our works. Which is exactly not what the church had been preaching. So then, Martin Luther, along with others, decided to protest the way the church was by nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church. Basically, the 95 theses can be summed up like this: the Church is in bad shape. It’s a mess and we need to get rid of some things. We need to reform…
And so that’s what he and others worked towards. They re-formed the church. And the whole world changed because of it.
In light of this, this history of the Reformation and in light of these texts before us, three words are standing out to me on this Reformation Sunday. Sin. Truth. Presence.
Sin. Truth. Presence. Those are the three things I want to talk about today.
First one – sin. In our reading from Paul today, Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And when I hear that, all I want to say it, “Oh thank God.” All of us. Every single one of us has fallen short of God’s glory. Which means, as Paul says, there is no distinction between any of us. Which means that all of us are on the same level. We all are in the same boat. All in need of God’s grace. Which is such good news, right? Because that is so not how we live our lives. Most of the time, we compare ourselves to everyone else and either think how much better we are or we worry about how much better everyone else is than we are.
So, we’ve been watching a lot of the Okee Dokee Brothers in our house lately. And if you don’t know who the Okee Dokee brothers are, they are these two guys who play guitar and banjo and they write music and make videos for kids. Songs about riding in a canoe and hiking in the woods. And their videos are all about how they go on journeys down the river and up mountains and how they just write cute little songs for kids along the way. And they are ridiculously cute and funny. Trust me, I know…my wife won’t stop telling me. And so, seriously, all week, I found myself thinking, “The Okee Dokee Brothers must just have the perfect life. They are so funny and cute and every one loves them.” I was seriously wanting to be them. Do you do that? Do you look at people and are just like, “Oh they just have the perfect life.” But then we hear these words from Paul that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and it just sort of slaps me back to reality. And I am reminded – Oh yeah, even the Okee Dokee Brothers fall short. Even they mess things up. When the cameras and recording equipment are off, they probably fight about money and music. Or something. All of us fall short of the glory of God; some people are just better at hiding their sin than others. That’s the message that Martin Luther needed to hear, right? Martin, don’t beat yourself up. None of us are good enough.
I don’t know about you, but that is such good news because that sets me free. Free to not compare myself to other people. Free to be honest about who I am. Which leads to the next word.
Truth. In our gospel, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This past weekend, I had the great joy of officiating at a wedding. And it is so easy at weddings to get caught up in all the joy and happiness and celebration and love. And you find yourself quoting the Beatles a lot – all you need is love. And then on top of that, there is almost always that passage from 1 Corinthians 13 – the love chapter. 4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And as I was writing the wedding sermon, I found myself saying, “All you need is your love for each other. And what does that love look like – patience, kindness, not envy, not boasting, not arrogant or rude.” But then my friend, Ken, who edits all of my sermons, said to me, “Yeah, but they will never live up to that. They won’t always be patient, or kind. They will at times be envious and arrogant. That’s just human nature.” And that’s completely true isn’t it? But we are not used to saying that at weddings, are we? But it is the truth! And you know, it is a truth that sets us free. Free from feeling like in order for our love to be real, we have to always measure up to that highest standard of love. And then my friend Ken said this beautiful thing. He said, “They will never be able to love each other like that. But God will. God will be patient with them. God will be kind to them. God will be slow to anger with them. But most importantly, God will love them and be with them.” Which is such truthful, good news at a wedding, right? To be able to say, “Look, you are not always going to be very good at loving each other thing. In fact, some days, you won’t be able to stand the sight of each other. But God will love you at that moment and will help you through.” Martin Luther could have used truth spoken like that. Martin, you will never feel like you’ve been good enough. You are just like the rest of us. So stop trying. God will love you, even with all your failures. It is that kind of truth – a truth that says God will be with you even when you don’t like who you are – it is that kind of truth that sets us free. God will be with you even then.
Which brings me to that third word. Presence. In our Psalm 46, we heard the word, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God is present. As in – here. As in – not up there. The psalm even has this incredible line that has stuck with me all week – God is in the midst of the city. Think about that…God is in the midst of the city. Note the direction. If God is in the city then God has come down. Remember what direction everyone was trying to move in, back before the Reformation. Up. But this text says we’ve got it all wrong. It is not us who are going up to God; it is God who is coming down to us. God is coming to meet us. In the city. In the town. On the streets. In the middle of this life.
God was in the midst of our city this week. I didn’t get to see it, but I heard about it. Many of you know that a small group of us gather at Olivia’s on Tuesday afternoons. Our conversations together is usually pretty random. This past week was no different. But after I left, our waitress (who is almost always the same person) came over to the table in tears and said she took care of our bill that day. She calls our group Tuesday church. She can’t go to church on Sundays, so she admitted to listening to us each week. And for her, that was her church. And this past week, in listening to us, she said that she realized that she made the right decision in leaving an abusive relationship down in Texas and in moving up here. Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to pin a rose on us and showing off how we brought God to someone. Sometimes we talk about God, and sometimes we don’t. Most of the time we just talk about life. How sick or busy or frustrated we are. I don’t have a clue what we said that gave her a message from God, but she received it. And as one person who was there put it, it was like God showed up to all of us, very clearly. And so God was in the midst of the city. In Olivia’s. Through a random conversation.
God is in the midst of the city. God is here with us. That’s the message of the cross. That God would come down to be human with us; that God would show up in the foolishness and weakness of the cross. That God would be present with us in time of trouble. When we are suffering. And that’s a message Martin Luther could have used early on. Martin Luther always believed God was against him. When in fact, God wasn’t against him, God was with him; God for him.
Sin. We all are burdened by it. We all fall short of the glory of God. And thank God for that. Because it means we can no longer place ourselves above anyone else. Or below them. And that is truth that sets all of us free. And when we are free from worrying about ourselves all the time, we can finally look up and see the presence of God not high up on a throne. But here, in the midst of the city. God with us. Bringing grace and mercy and love to all those in need. Which is all of us.
Now, those are things that can continue to re-form us still, even to this day. Thanks be to God. Amen.