Reformation Day (observed) Sermon, 2018

Reformation Day (observed), 2018
Matthew 11:12-19
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Are you familiar with the phrase “There’s an elephant in the room?” It’s a metaphor, an idiom, a phrase that suggests something as gigantic as an elephant can still be willingly ignored in social situations because it’s convenient to do so.

It’s Reformation Day. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room of the church.

There’s widespread disagreement regarding church practice—the how’s, what’s, and who’s of it all.

There’s questions about the administration of things.

There is, of course, from the old-Germans, the complaint that none of this is now as it was years ago, and, because of that, everything’s bad (just look around).

And then, there’s the supposed abuses, the seeming pre-occupation beer or wine, the long sermons, the re-ordering of things, and the strange insistence to teach the Gospel to all.

How terrible!

That is, how terrible it would’ve been to sit in the Church at the time of Jesus or Martin Luther when all that stuff was going on!

What did you think I was talking about?

That’s the elephant in the room.

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 9).

“John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners…” (Matthew 11:18-19).

The people who hated John hated him because he rebuked them. That he “neither ate nor drank” was their convenient reason to give as to why they hated him.

The people who hated Jesus hated Him because He rebuked them. That He “ate and drank” was their convenient reason to give as to why they hated him.

In our day, we have jokes about drinking with two Baptists, not one, or if you lived near an Amish community, you’ll note the strange order to their errands: one goes to the bank while the other buys beer, and then, they swap. Both know what the other’s doing, but if we feign the proper amount of shame, then it’s all okay.

We wrongly tell ourselves such lies!

Drunkenness is a scandal, but St. Paul writes to Timothy—after saying, “keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22)—to “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).

The Psalmist writes that God provides “plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:14-15).

Noah, likewise, planted a vineyard after the Flood, because—seeing what he saw, hearing what he heard, and caring for all kinds of animals—a glad heart might require a drink.

That doesn’t excuse the drunkenness that follows. Abusus non tollit usum. The abuse does not, in itself, justify the denial of use.

They hated John the Baptist for refraining from drink—they hated Jesus for eating and drinking—and, at the time of the Reformation, they hated Luther both for making so much of Wittenberg beer and discouraging drunkenness.

But the reasons given for your hatred are only a matter of convenience. The issue—for the Pharisee’s, for the Papists—is of the heart.

People hated Jesus because of the forgiveness of sins.

To the paralytic, Jesus says, “‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’ And the scribes and the Pharisees [said to themselves], ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Luke 5:20-21).

That’s the convenient excuse, but the Pharisees really mean: “We’re the ones who have to do that. Not you.”

Jesus, rather, teaches every Christian to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (cf. Matthew 6:12).

Luther, likewise, taught the forgiveness of sins this way, but his time required a different tactic—this genesio-German changed—Luther needed to break with the Roman understanding of salvation as faith+works, so “faith alone” was confessed.

When you require more than faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, when you wrongly assert that man cannot forgive sin, Jesus is wrong to teach the Lord’s Prayer, and His sacrifice lacked something.

He would’ve had to say, “It’s not finished,” but that’s not what He said.

Today, we hear that sins can be forgiven, as though forgiveness spins on a roulette wheel, and we’re not sure enough to bet on either red or black.

It’s not “can be” but “is.” All sin is forgiven in Christ.

“Upon Him was put the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His stripes are we healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:5).

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Some people hate all of this, and here’s some reasons.

Universalists hate this, because we teach that if you reject the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ and given by His Word, you’ll be condemned.

Universalists don’t believe in hell.

But people who believe in heaven and hell hate this, too, because, to some, “all sin is forgiven” sounds like “all are saved,” but that’s a false conclusion.

All sin is forgiven in Christ.

Believe that unto eternal life.

And Jesus says, “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).

Saying “all sin is forgiven” is like Jesus saying, “It is finished” (John 19:30) where the “it” is “the forgiveness of your sins” and what was needed is the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Saying “all sin is forgiven” is like St. Paul writing, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25).

All have sinned and are in great need of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.

And all are justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and this is to be received by faith alone.

When your pastor announces the forgiveness of your sins—privately or corporately—when your spouse or your friend forgives you—when a Christian child forgives you—it’s as though God Himself is speaking.

The people who hate that hate it because they want forgiveness internally. They don’t want, merely, to hear it out loud, they want to feel it inside.

To non-Lutherans, it’s a completely alien thing to begin every service by confessing sins and receiving Absolution.

I looked at three random bulletins from an ELCA church, a United Methodist church, and a Roman Catholic church.

The ELCA and the United Methodist church had no mention, anywhere, of sins confessed. Another church had what they called a “Ritual of Friendship” where we would expect Confession and Absolution to go.

The Roman church had a “Penitential Act” at the beginning of the service, and it used some familiar language: “I confess…that I have greatly sinned…”

But then it goes on—asking Mary, the angels, the saints, and those present to “pray for me to the Lord our God.”

The priest responds with “May God have mercy on us…”

And there’s an enormous difference, intentional or not, between “May God forgive you” and “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you of all your sins.”

We’re used to hearing Law and Gospel, which is good. But some of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, He says to those who’ve shut their ears to it.

Jesus says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

To hear the dirge is to hear the proclamation of God’s law. To mourn at the singing of the dirge, is to know your place. All have sinned and fall short.

Not to mourn is to hear the Word of God, the Law of the Lord, and not to care.

“So, what? That’s what you say. Whatever. That’s not what my pastor told me.I know better.”

To hear the flute is to hear the Gospel. To dance is to rejoice in it and serve God with a willing heart.

To hear and not to dance, is to have the best date to prom, the most beautiful or the most dashing, and, instead of enjoying life, to sit, sad and solemn by yourself, in a spot saved just for you, while there’s a lot of fun going on around you.

“So, what? That’s what you say. Whatever. That’s not what my pastor told me.I know better.”

Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t, but none of us know better than Jesus.

Unstop your ears, melt your heart, and hear the Word of God as though for the very first time.

When the dirge is sung—repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.

When the flute is played—rejoice, for our God is gracious.

All of Jesus’ teaching—all of the Reformation—all Christian doctrine can be summarized in this—you have a gracious God.

You have a God who suffers slander and torture and death, and in return, He speaks well of you before the Father.

You have a God who chooses the lowest seat and raises you to the place of honor.

You have a God who is raised up for you, crucified. So that we who are brought low may be exalted.

You have a gracious God.

“Yet,” Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).

That is, if the world were to go to trial, to see who’s at fault for all our failures, Christ alone would stand apart from the body as the sole innocent. 

Believe, then, in His deeds, His work. In Christ alone.

He justifies you to the end that by God’s grace your body and soul stand together with all believers in Christ, together, innocent.

You have a gracious God.

In the history of the Church, at times, that’s the elephant in the room, something so obvious—but inconvenient to our desires.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

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