Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, published in 1517, were, as is widely known, a protest against the sale of indulgence letters. Luther draws attention to the damage that indulgences cause to Christian piety and life. The faithful, concerned about their standing with God, are goaded to purchase indulgences at the expense, for example, of providing for their families. Luther’s Theses, however, are more than polemical. Luther above all highlights what he considers to be the true treasure of the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Thesis 62). It is to the Gospel that anxious believers must be directed. In the merits of Christ—as Luther will repeatedly emphasize throughout his career—they will find not only the much desired peace of conscience but also the freedom to be and act toward the neighbor the way Christ has been and acted toward them. When the Gospel is allowed to shine, the Christian life, too, will flourish.
To proclaim the Gospel, Luther insists, is the church’s privilege and non-negotiable task. Without the Gospel at its center, the church loses its identity. How is the Gospel proclaimed? In no other way than by telling Christ’s story, whether briefly or more elaborately, yet always in a manner that invariably zeros in on his passion and resurrection victory over death. This telling may happen through the gestures of sacramental action: the baptismal burying of the person into Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 6:4) and the Eucharistic eating, which conveys Christ’s death until he comes again (1 Cor 11:26). Above all, the telling takes place through the spoken word. What Luther, followed by other 16th-century reformers, underscores is that the word not only narrates the events of salvation in some general, God-is-in-control way. Importantly, and more than that, the word of the Gospel explicitly brings out Christ’s ministry’s personal—“for you”—dimension. It addresses the hearer.
To proclaim the Gospel, therefore, is to bestow Christ, with all his work, on the believer. It is to invite the person to believe that “Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you,” in a manner that is utterly dependable, “as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself,” Luther writes. The Gospel, in other words, conveys Christ as a gift to be grasped. One grasps this gift in no other way than by taking God at his word, that is, by believing that he has indeed done it all and done it for you and for me. Preaching is thus basically a word of absolution which roots one—one’s entire identity—in Christ. The Gospel, when trusted, when embraced in faith, sets aside one’s sin and relieves one of self-absorption. It relieves one of being the sum total of what one has done, and it relives one of still having to make something of oneself. For the Gospel brings Christ to us with all his benefits. And that is infinitely more than we could ever make of ourselves!
For Luther, as well as for John Calvin, proclamation of the Gospel must be preceded by proclamation of the law. The law, to be sure, can take many forms, from God’s commands, through natural law written on the heart, to the more existential law that each person is to him- or herself. The point of preaching the law is to awaken the conscience, to undercut false confidence in oneself or one’s idols, and to bring the person—even Christians, sinners that they still are—face to face with their own fundamental insufficiency and inability to rely on God. Only a despairing person, a person willing to clutch at straws, a person ready to be renewed in the very core of his or her being is ready to take shelter in the cross of Christ and find hope in his resurrection. For the Gospel does not merely supply what one lacks; it makes one into a new creation! To let go of one’s old self and to grasp one’s self as Christ’s workmanship is what faith in the Gospel ultimately is. It is for the sake of this faith that all proclamation takes place.
Here one may ask: If the Gospel is this singular story, how is it related to the rest of Scripture? Can one preach the Gospel from all of Scripture? The Reformation’s answer was a resounding yes. To be sure, Reformation preaching—for all its attentiveness to the biblical text, or rather because of it—strove never to lose sight of the singularity of the Gospel story as well as the need to preach the Law. But it did this with the confidence that Jesus Christ is the meaning of all Scripture. He constitutes the culmination of God’s history with his creation. As such, Christ shows the Gospel to be truly a many-splendored thing, in that it embraces Israel in its continued striving with God and reaches out to all humanity in its alienation from God. The Law is thus never clichéd for the entire arc of Scripture testifies to the many facets of human faithlessness and waywardness. Even more so, the Gospel is never boring, for in it the Triune God outpaces and sets aside, outshines and transfigures the worst of human waywardness.
What does all this mean for us as heirs of the Reformation? Given the Reformation’s central focus on the Gospel, it would be a mistake to celebrate the Reformation in any other way than by proclaiming the Gospel. We remember the Reformation because of its witness. We do not remember it as a thing unto itself. To do that would be to turn the Reformation and its witness into a law that could only tell us how we do not measure up to our forefathers’ faith. So perceived, the Reformation would then condemn our lukewarmness, our insipid testimony, our failure to speak up, and so on. But the lesson is different. To celebrate the Reformation, indeed to preach the Reformation, is to remain faithful to its focus, to look where it looked, and to be refreshed time and again by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this Gospel we also, like the reformers, find forgiveness and peace of conscience; and by its power we also, like the reformers, can be the face of Christ to the world. Why? Not because of the Reformation, but because God is and remains faithful. And he invites—even us—to take him at his word, to trust that he is all for us, to believe that he is indeed ours.
Living in God’s Faithfulness: A Sermon for Reformation Day, Matt 11:12-19
What do we hope for? A new car? A less taxing job? A better paid job? A job?! Appreciation from bosses? Health? A long life? Loving children? – To be human is to hope. More than that, to be human is to allow yourself to dream. But who will help my hopes to come true? Who is the hope for all my hopes? The next president? The lottery? Who will underwrite and save my hopes for me?
The people of Israel had their hopes, too. They hoped for freedom, freedom from occupation by a foreign power, they hoped for a land flowing with milk and honey; like us, they hoped for health, loving spouses, devoted children; they hoped for justice and mercy in public life. God was to be the savior of their hopes. God was their God, and they were his children, “the sheep of his pasture and the people of his hand.”
The history of Israel is a history of blessing… and of unfaithfulness. It has its roots in a promise God made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. It begins – as a history of the Israelite people – when God liberates the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s slavery. There is a parted sea, and the spoils of Egypt, and a mountain full of smoke and fire, brimming with God’s majesty and God’s zeal for his own. There is God’s presence in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, and God’s provision of quail and manna during their desert sojourn. And there is a beautiful land ahead, beyond the Jordan. God blesses his people; he blesses them beyond all measure! God’s blessing guarantees that their hopes for a better and abundant life will come true.
But Israel doubts God. The people doubt whether God can really be taken at his word and provide like he said he would. From Israel’s side, the story is one of unfaithfulness, repeated betrayal and adultery (Hos 1:2; Jer 3:8). It is a story of complaining, hankering after the cucumbers that the Israelites ate in Egyptian slavery: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num 11:5). “We want the juicy cucumbers, cucumbers now, not a land flowing with milk and honey ahead!” (Can you believe it?! I’m afraid, I can. Disgruntlement runs deep in human psyche.) Israel’s story is a tale of wanting to be not God’s unique people but just like the surrounding nations (1 Sam 8:4-8): a story of chasing after foreign gods and ways, more glittering gods and more attractive ways. Israel’s is a story of not hoping in God, but of hoping in yourself, your own idea of a better life – at the expense of the community and of the neighbor. “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7).
And so, in a series of God’s acts, Israel’s story is also one of judgment. It is a story of the loss of the kingdom, a story of the loss of the temple, of exile, of foreign occupation. It’s a story of self-made glory turned all too quickly into a self-inflicted tragedy. A story of divine blessing exchanged for delusions of grandeur, of God’s gift rejected because “we know better, thank you very much.”
Enter the Pharisees. They appear late in the story, but they think they have the answers. “If only we can keep the covenant, if we can be observant even more than what God originally required of us – we could still be what God originally wanted us to be.” What the Pharisees advocate amounts to trying to get spilled milk back into the bottle. “Let’s grit out teeth and be what we should have been in the first place. Let’s do our best to preserve our identity amidst hostility and tragedy. Let’s make every effort to not be overcome by the forces of disintegration around us. Let’s dot our i’s and cross our t’s. Let’s redouble our efforts, observe all observances, purify our purity, identify our identity, and sanctify our sanctity!” Too late, too late! Too late for the unfaithful people. Too late for the adulterous spouse. For what is there to be done other than merely putting on an appearance of faithfulness, make-up over decay, a façade to hide a wayward heart? Too late!
But it is not too late for God! Enter John the Baptist. John’s voice is that of a prophet rather than a motivational speaker. He doesn’t say, as do the Pharisees, “Pull yourself together. Pull yourself together because there’s nothing else you can do. It’s too late for anything else.” John is no motivator. He is the expected Elijah, a prophet of these last days. Instead of motivating, John announces, in a loud and clear voice, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2). John points to God’s blessing, God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness. God has not abandoned his unfaithful people, his adulterous spouse. God will yet be the salvation of Israel’s hopes. God will yet again disregard the people’s lack of trust, the dirt they sweep under the carpet like nothing has happened. He will disregard their pretense, their disfigured fasting faces, their self-righteous piety, and their belated observances (Matt 6:1-18). And he will renew them, renew them yet again. But now he will renew them in the depth of their hearts – by wiping their slate clean. “Repent! And for God’s stake stop all that foolishness!” says John. “For the Christ – the Christ! – is coming!”
The response is amazing and wild. It is Jesus who comments on this response in our Gospel Lesson. He makes his comment in yet another confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus the Son of God in confrontation with the would-be spokesmen for God. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Look! There is thirst for righteousness. Not the paste-over, paint-over and gloss-over righteousness of the Pharisees, but for God’s righteousness, for God’s Spirit hovering over dry bones, for living water, for nothing short of a miracle. There is thirst not for a new coat of whitewash to beautify a tomb but thirst for a resurrection! Like all the prophets before him, John understands the people’s need, even when they are foolish and misguided, misled by their leaders and self-absorbed. When all hearts are open, all desires known, and no secrets are hidden – when we are honest with ourselves – then in all honesty God, and God alone, can be our hope. The salvation of all our hopes. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The Pharisees are offended. “But we offered such a great program of national and self-improvement! We made the bones look so lively. The tomb so dazzling. The purity so pure. The identity so identifiable. We played the flute. It’s the people’s fault they didn’t dance. We did sing a dirge, but nobody mourned. Can we be blamed? We did everything right. Is it our fault that it all fell on deaf ears?! Surely not.” The Pharisees go even further: “John the Baptist is undermining our program! He has a demon!” (Some of them, though, did actually go and get baptized. More out of curiosity than out of repentance, it seems.) “It is Jesus who is sabotaging our mission! He cares not about purity, identity, and pious effort. He is a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Look at us! Given enough time, we can be the force of renewal from within, a true spiritual reformation and rebirth of Israel.” The Pharisees are touched to the raw. And how far they are ready to go to justify and defend themselves only the Cross will tell.
But God will have none of it. In his faithfulness to his wayward people, God will have none of it, none of the posturing and whitewashed grandeur. John’s call to repentance – to faithful remembrance of God’s promise – was intended to underscore that. “The kingdom of God is on its way. He,” John then said of Jesus, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:11-12). Don’t ignore God and don’t underestimate God. For with God, you may – and you should – dream big again.
God is love. His is a zealous love. He is love with his whole being. Love that even out of lifeless stones can raise children for Abraham (Matt 3:9). And herein lies hope, even for the Pharisee. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Herein lies hope even for us who so often grit our teeth and try harder and completely forget about God’s faithfulness. Hope even for us who so often believe we are the only hope for all our hopes, that without us things will not come out right, that we must be gods and guardians and saviors of our world. It is a sobering thought to recall that Jesus Christ died at the hands of those who called themselves the saviors of the people. “It is better for one man to die than an entire nation perish,” they reasoned (Jn 18:14). And they crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8). Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. In spite of their crime, God the Father raised his Son from the dead! God defied our pragmatism, our self-righteousness, our petty calculating realism. He says, “Behold, I am faithful to you. And I will make all things new.” And he calls us not to belated effort, feats of piety and displays of righteousness. No. God invites us to take him at his word; he invites us to dream big and to bring our hopes before him in prayer. The faith that lets God work for us and for our salvation is what makes us truly righteous. It makes us righteous even when it seems too late.
Today we celebrate the Reformation. Martin Luther was born into a culture that had also lost sight of God’s overabundant faithfulness. Christians were encouraged, instead, to do their best, to try harder, and to hope for God’s grace. To see that this was a rather tall order, we need look no further than the popularity of indulgences. What Luther came to realize was that God’s righteousness is not beyond our reach, a standard that we need to measure up to, or are left to realize in our lives. Instead, God’s righteousness is what God shares with us by renewing us, and accepting us, and making us his own people. God shares his righteousness and overwhelms our sin – again and again. It is we who often blind ourselves to this many-splendored gift. God’s righteousness becomes ours by faith. It becomes ours when we take God’s faithfulness, his promises, his zeal, his works for us seriously, when we take his love seriously. And when we take God seriously, we are righteous in his eyes for we have done the righteous thing: we have taken him at his word that “he who watches over his people will neither sleep nor slumber” (Ps 121:4). A person who through such faith is righteous shall live (Rom 1:16-17) – not as a whitewashed tomb but as a child of the heavenly Father. This may be beyond even our wildest dreams – beyond hope as we think of it and as it often seems best to us. But it is no less true. Trust him! And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
This sermon was given at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dr. Piotr Małysz is a pastor, on Reformation Sunday 2015.
 Martin Luther, “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” Luther’s Works 35:119.