Reformation Day [Observed]
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
October 29, 2017
I believe... you can fill in the rest. I believe in God. I believe He is almighty and the sovereign Lord of the universe. I believe He loves His whole creation and particularly the crown of His creation, human beings who were created in His image. In the Creed we confess belief in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But the way I think and act forces me to acknowledge my belief in myself. I believe I am a good person. I believe that the good I do tips the scale in my favor over-against the bad I do. I believe that though I don’t always live as I should I do make an effort to live in a way that God wants and that is loving toward the people in my life.
When you confess the Creed you say you believe in something that most people don’t. That sets you apart. But when you look at yourself and are satisfied that you are a good person, you actually believe right along with the world. The world sees no need for the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That you think you are good in and of yourself betrays your belief that you share with all non-Christians of the world.
Our observance of the Reformation puts all of this false belief to rest. And that is the first thing to see, that your belief is false. At the heart of the Reformation is the Third Article of the Creed, in which we confess, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. The Catechism skillfully and clearly lays out what it is that we are saying that we believe when we confess the Third Article:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
In other words, I believe that I cannot believe. When everything is stripped away—all the things you believe in, all the things you think are right, all the things you have convinced yourself of—you in fact cannot believe. Whatever you might believe, believe this, that you cannot believe. You in fact do not believe in Jesus your Lord or come to Him. Only by the Holy Spirit, who has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith, can you believe in Jesus your Lord. Take away all the doctrines, all the traditions, all the church buildings, all your notions of your own goodness, there is one thing you must confess and that is you cannot by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ your Lord or come to Him.
The Reformation gets a good amount of attention in some circles of Christianity, including our Lutheran circles. And especially this year since two days from now, October 31, marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. With all the attention comes also a lot of misunderstanding about what it is. The Reformation in the Sixteenth Century is pretty much what the name implies: reformation. Martin Luther did not set out to begin a new Church but to reform the Church. At the heart of the Reformation is what is at the heart of the Christian faith, the Christian Church, and the Christian life, the Third Article: I believe that I cannot believe.
I can convince myself all day long and my whole life long that I am good where I’m at, but that doesn’t change the fact of the clear teaching of the Word of God that I am a sinner and am under the wrath of the almighty holy God. I am utterly sinful. How then could I believe in Jesus of my own power and will? I can’t. Only by the Holy Sprit can I believe.
And what is it that I believe by the power and work of the Holy Spirit? I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, as we also confess in the Catechism in the Second Article of the Creed:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.
Luther wasn’t doing a new thing, he was going back to the old thing. He saw that the Gospel was being obscured, that people were being directed to their own goodness, their own works that they must do to be forgiven. There wasn’t need for a new Church. There was need for reforming the Church. The only way to reform the Church is not to start something new or work things out, but to go back to the Gospel.
Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church. Jesus Christ is the head of His body, the Church. Jesus Christ is Lord of His Church. He is the Savior of fallen, sinful human beings. Luther was unable to reform the Church. Just as he was unable to believe by his own reason or strength, he was unable to reform the Church. Only the Holy Spirit can bring about belief and only the Holy Spirit can bring about reformation. Luther is called a reformer but he didn’t reform the Church.
Consider, then, the Gospel reading for today. For some festivals of the Church Year it’s easy to see why the particular Scripture reading was chosen. Obviously on Christmas you’re going to have the account of the birth of Christ and on Easter the resurrection account.
But these few verses in Matthew 11 that we heard in our Gospel reading? Out of all the books of the Bible, why was this passage chosen for Reformation Day? Being as there’s nothing in the Scriptures about Martin Luther, or Reformation Day for that matter, we need to consider what Luther was doing 500 years ago and how this whole Reformation thing played out.
Luther realized that there is no hope in this life and eternally apart from Jesus Christ and the salvation He accomplished. You can sum up the entire Reformation in this way: Luther was doing nothing else than pointing people to Christ. Where the Church had fallen into grave error in pointing people to themselves he went back to the Scriptures and showed people that there all the focus is on Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
This is nothing different from what another famous man had done 1500 years before him. John the Baptist pointed people to Christ. He came on the scene proclaiming repentance. That there is nothing you can do of yourself to be saved. That you need one thing, and look, there He is!, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John, as the Old Testament had prophesied, and as Jesus confirms in the Gospel reading today, was Elijah who was to come. The one paving the way for the one who was to come to save His people from their sin.
The Reformation is counted as a watershed event. God used Luther to call people to repentance. He called him to proclaim the one thing needful, Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Jesus, in one verse in our Gospel reading shows how 2000 years ago another watershed event occurred, the event in fact which alters all of history: For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. The Law and the Prophets is a common way the New Testament refers to what we call the Old Testament. Jesus says all the Prophets and the Law prophesied. All of the Old Testament prophesied until one moment, the coming of Elijah. And Jesus says in the next verse that he is John the Baptist.
When that would happen, prophesies the Old Testament, he would pave the way for the Savior of the world. And there He was, in the flesh, speaking, teaching, preaching, healing, and finally, humbly approaching the cross where He would suffer the wrath of God upon sinners and take upon Himself the sin and guilt of sinners.
This is what we believe. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies you in the true faith. Faith in Christ. Trust, belief—not in yourself; not in what you do; not in anything this world offers. The Son of the Father, Jesus Christ who is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus Christ who is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, who is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Amen.