Reading Ramblings – Reformation Sunday (Observed)

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday (Observed) ~ October 27, 2019

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; Matthew 11:12-19

Context: Properly understood, Reformation Sunday is not a celebration of division within the Church, but rather a thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit who restored the emphasis on Jesus the Son of God who alone grants grace and forgiveness as we trust in his promise to do this. The power of the Law to condemn us for failing the Law is no longer in force. Christians are of course still bound to the Law – it isn’t as though we needn’t mind it any longer. We of all people should adhere to it knowing it as the revealed Truth of God! But we no longer fear the condemnation of the Law because we are delivered from it through faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered the full measure and penalty of the Law on our behalf.

Revelation 14:6-7 – In Lutheran circles this is the traditional first reading of the day, though I would prefer it if we varied it a bit year to year. While these verses were claimed by some to be talking about Martin Luther and his work in restoring the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this really isn’t an emphasis I’ve ever heard, and it seems a bit of a stretch. We should and will properly give thanks for the Holy Spirit’s use of Luther, but we dare never mistake him for the Gospel itself. The Good News is Jesus alone on our behalf. We are free to worship God without fear because we are forgiven in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit testifies on our behalf before our heavenly Father.

Psalm 46 – We can hear echoes of Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress in this psalm, though there are plenty of other places in Scripture that use this language as well. Where else can we turn when things are difficult? Though insulated for two centuries from religious persecution, individual Christians have clung to Christ as their rock and fortress in times of personal, emotional, economic, relational, and other crises. Christians who have faced physical persecution for their faith understand as well that everything can be taken from us – even our very lives – but not our hope. We are terribly fragile creatures, but the power of God cannot be shaken, and we are promised God’s power on our behalf. Not necessarily to make things the way we would prefer them to be, but rather to deliver his promises to us in Jesus Christ, and to make good on those promises in his perfect timing even should we meet death lifting our voices in prayer to him. God will accomplish his will and plan, and promises we will be part of that, even if the world succeeds in blotting out our memory, God knows every one of us and will never forget or forsake us!

Romans 3:19-28 – Yes, everyone is under the Law. Nobody can excuse themselves from the way God has created all things to operate. We may rage against the Law, but our rage does not remove us from it’s power to condemn us for our sins. Nobody can claim to be righteous on their own merits, either from perfect obedience to the Law, or from some sort of personal exemption from the Law. Indeed, the power and purpose of the Law, Paul asserts, is to condemn, to make us conscious of our failures and our need, before a righteous and holy God, for a savior who can deliver us from the penalties of the Law we deserve. So while obedience to the Law cannot make us or declare us righteous, God has revealed another means, another source of righteousness, external to ourselves, in the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Faith and trust in the promises of God the Father delivered through the Son of God is our source of righteousness. God offers this redemption, this forgiveness and grace freely to anyone who will receive it. Therefore God is the exclusive object of worship and praise for his goodness, for He alone is the source of our salvation. So while we can and should seek to live our lives according to the Law, and while it is necessary and right that those who transgress the Law may suffer temporal punishment for their sins, we should not presume that God grades on a curve, and those who have scored higher on the Law are somehow more deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness, as though He owes it to them for their good works. Rather, we humbly receive the grace of God for ourselves, and humbly pray that all others would receive it as well, welcoming them into the kingdom of God as brothers and sisters rather than as inferiors.

Matthew 11:12-19 – This is a confusing passage in Matthew, which is perhaps why I tend to favor the reading from John instead, since we’re given a choice in the lectionary! Context is important here. John the Baptist sits in prison, ostensibly as protection from Herod’s wife who is none to happy with John’s condemnation of her marriage. John’s disciples are sent to make sure Jesus truly is the Messiah, since John probably never considered the Messiah’s arrival would mean imprisonment. John’s disciples return, undoubtedly convinced by what they see and hear from Jesus. But what of the crowds who remain, and who themselves may wonder what role John the Baptist plays in all of these amazing things? Is Jesus simply a greater teacher and miracle worker than John the Baptist? Should they ignore John in favor of Jesus?

Jesus asks them what they thought of John the Baptist. Why did they go out to see him, to walk out from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to listen, to camp overnight, to wade out into the muddy water to be baptized? Did they go out because John said what people wanted to say, changing his message when Pharisees and others arrived? Hardly! Did they go to hear John because of his fashion sense or because he spoke eloquently like the many schools of Greek philosophers and orators? Hardly! Such people sought a good living in a palace, not the rough life of the wilderness! Could it be they went to hear John because in listening to John, they knew they were listening to the Word of God? Was John then a prophet – the first true prophet of God in 400 years? Yes, indeed. That is why they went, and that is who John was and is – even as he sits in prison. And not just any prophet, but the very prophet the last prophet – Malachi- prophesied about! The forerunner of the Messiah!

John was given the most important task in all of human history – preparing the way for the Son of God. Yet that glory and honor is peculiar to here and now and our world so desperately in need of salvation, and doesn’t translate into eternal glory or prominence. As such, whether John is free or imprisoned, alive or dead is secondary to whether he has done his job well. He has reaped the reward of a sinful world for such faithfulness – he is imprisoned. He suffers violence from the powers of the world convinced they can silence the Word of God if they silence the speaker. Before John’s arrival, the Law and the Prophets testified about the Kingdom of God’s coming, but John’s task was to announce it’s arrival – a related but different message with some particularly thorny ramifications for the powers that be, whether worldly or spiritual. John has spoken the Word of God never before spoken in human history – that the Messiah has come, the kingdom of heaven has arrived. Things are in motion.

And if this is the case, and that is who John is and the role he plays, how important is it that we listen! That we hear John for who God intended him to be, pointing out the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! How important is it that while we don’t disregard John, we don’t confuse his glory with the far greater glory of the Son of God incarnate here on our behalf!

We prefer to set the pace, to determine things according to our good pleasure. But the kingdom of God is only according to the pleasure of God. If we think we can dismiss God’s messengers because they don’t suit our expectations or preferences, we play a dangerous game. A foolish game, the winners and losers of which will one day be revealed before all of heaven and earth.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

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