Reformation Sunday Yr C

Reformation Sunday Yr C, 28/10/2007

Ps 46 & Jn 8:31-36

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“God’s Presence, Freedom and Truth”

 

Today we Lutherans, along with some other Christian denominations, celebrate Reformation Sunday. When we think of the Reformation, we Lutherans are likely to remember the important emphasis on the three solas—scripture or the Word alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Indeed, here at Grace Lutheran at the back of our nave’s centre aisle, we have Luther’s emblem combined with those three solas. However, there are actually five solas. The two additional solas are equally as important for us as the other three, they are: Christ alone and the cross alone. Indeed, one may be so bold as to claim that without Christ and the cross, our emphasis on the other three solas would be of little value. We Lutherans are a Christ-centred Church, and we endeavour to live by and teach a theology of the cross over against a theology of glory. That essentially means the heart and centre of our faith always focuses on the God who acts in a multitude of saving ways in and through Jesus Christ. All history is dominated by God’s action and saving presence in and through Jesus Christ. This too is the emphasis and theme in today’s Psalm and Gospel.

Many of you likely know that Psalm 46 was the basis of Martin Luther’s most famous and best-loved hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The psalm affirms ancient Israel’s confidence in God’s presence and saving action. It may have been composed after the Israelites had experienced threats from their enemies and God acted to deliver them. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” the ancient Israelites sang with joy and confidence. Yes, even in worst-case cataclysmic events, the psalmist says that God is still with us thus we need not be afraid.

Centuries later, Martin Luther picked up on the Good News message of Psalm 46 and was inspired to write the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther too had faced many threats as he undertook his work as a reformer of the Church. Luther knew and trusted, by the grace of God, and the powerful promises in God’s word that God in and through Jesus Christ was present and active, and protecting him from all evil and harm. Music was an important gift given to Martin Luther. He went on to write 37 hymns. And indeed, the Lutheran Church developed the reputation of being “a singing Church,” since one of the important reforms Luther and his supporters introduced to the Mass was congregational singing. One tradition has it that so loved was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” that Luther and his supporters sung it often, perhaps even daily, as a source of strength, consolation and inspiration for the reforming work. Eventually, the hymn was translated into some 200 different languages, and today it is widely sung in most, if not all mainline denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church!

As I’ve shared with some of you before, this past summer while attending worship in the Red Brick Church of Skive, Denmark, we discovered the ongoing legacy of the Lutheran Church as “a singing Church.” Several hymns were sung by the congregation, most of them containing around six or more stanzas! One of my favourite Lutheran hymn writers was in fact a Dane, Nikolai Grundtvig, a nineteenth century reformer and bishop, who wrote hundreds of hymns.

Coming back to Psalm 46, we too like the ancient Israelites and Luther and the fifteenth century reformers can find strength, consolation, confidence and inspiration from these words. As the promise in the psalm says: “The LORD of hosts is with us.” We know our God as Immanuel, God with us. Jesus came to live among us as Immanuel, God with us. He is our clearest picture of who God is and how God is present in our world and in the Church today.

The following story, originally told by Paul Harvey, illustrates how God is present and active today to protect his people.

It is a story about West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska. Normally all of the good choir people came to church on Wednesday night to practice, and they tended to be early, well before the 7:30 starting time. But one night…one by one, two by two, they all had excuses for being late.

Marilyn, the church pianist overslept on her after-dinner nap, so she and her mother were late. One girl, a high school sophomore, was having trouble with her homework. That delayed her, so she was late. One couple couldn’t get their car started. They, and those they were to pick up, were subsequently late. All eighteen choir members, including the pastor and his wife, were late. All had good excuses. At 7:30, the time the choir rehearsal was to begin, not one soul was in the choir loft. This had never happened before.

But that night, the only night in the history of the church that the choir wasn’t starting to practice at 7:30, was the night that there was a gas leak in the basement of the West Side Baptist Church. At precisely the time at which the choir would have been singing, the gas leak was ignited by the church furnace and the whole church blew up. The furnace room was right below the choir loft!1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The LORD of hosts is with us.” This Reformation Sunday, we celebrate the power and presence of God in Jesus Christ as he comes to us in and through his word, which is filled with promises that he honours and makes good on. He and his promise-rich word are filled with truth and trustworthiness, in life and in death. This is at the heart and core of the reforms introduced by Luther and his colleagues; this too is what it means to be a Church in continuous need of reforming.

Speaking of the truth, we turn now to our gospel, where Jesus makes this promise: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

When we think of the truth, likely one of the first things that comes to mind is a particular type of wisdom, knowledge, insight or understanding, such as: a philosophical or theological system, or a body of orthodox doctrines and intellectual assent to such doctrines. Or perhaps we think of legal truth as in the promise in a court of law to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and then, using reason to factually present a convincing case that makes the truth clear enough to reach a proper verdict. Or perhaps we think of the truth we gain from any or all fields of study or work and life experiences. In the case of our passage from John’s Gospel today, Jesus is speaking of truth in a very different way. He is actually referring to himself here as the truth. The truth is a real live person, named Jesus of Nazareth. Actually, twice in the riddle-language of our passage Jesus refers to himself. He says, “If you continue in my word,” this too is a reference to both the word as Scripture and to Jesus himself, the word of God become flesh. If we continue to be connected with Jesus in relationship with him, then we will know him, “the truth,” and Jesus, the truth, will make us free.

How does Jesus the truth make us free? The story is told of some people who were observing a monkey. They noticed it seemed to be in pain as if it were inhibited by something around its waste-line. Looking more closely, they discovered that in the past some human must have captured this monkey; for it had a wire around its waste that could not be seen easily due to the fur growing over it. When the people discovered this wire they proceeded to remove it by cutting it off. The monkey did not resist them; in fact it seemed to them that the monkey was cooperating with them. After they removed the wire, the people noticed that the monkey actually seemed very grateful for what they had done. The monkey was no longer in pain or inhibited by the wire, it was set free.2

This is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for humankind. We were in pain and slavery to sin, death, the devil and all the powers of evil. Then, at the appointed time, God sent Jesus to earth to live, teach, suffer, and die and be raised again—all in order that we might be made free. The cross cut the wire of our sin, death, and the powers of evil. Thanks to Jesus we have been made free; all of these have been nailed to the cross, crucified, taken away, removed, wiped out—thanks to the love and saving work of Jesus. Sin, death, and the devil was no match for Jesus. As the God-Man, he, together with the other two Persons of the Triune God created and rule over the entire universe. Thus we are free from the powers of sin, death and the devil since they are defeated by Christ.

There is another side to the freedom we are given in Christ. In heart-felt gratitude, we are also free for being Jesus’ disciples. In serving God and serving our neighbour we are free thanks to Jesus. This is what Martin Luther understood so well when he wrote in his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther’s Works: Vol. 31, in which he explains that: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Jesus modelled for us this perfect freedom to love and serve God and one another by the life that he lived. We do not have to earn our salvation. No, we have received it as an unconditional gift from God through Jesus. In response to this wonderful gift we are free for love and service—not because it saves us, or it is a law and we have to obey it. No! Rather, we do it in grateful response because we want to do it; we want to do things in love and service because it gives us pleasure to please the one, Jesus, who loves us so much. It’s not like the parent-child relationship where the child will not do something willingly if they feel manipulated or threatened and do not want to do it because they dread it. Rather, it’s like the parent-child relationship where out of love and respect for each other the child willingly and freely will do what the parent asks because the child really wants to do it and it gives the child much pleasure in doing it by pleasing his or her parent whom he or she loves and knows that their parent loves them. God’s Holy Spirit has prepared us for this freedom by giving us the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit to love and serve God and our neighbours. This is the wonderful Good News for us today: praise and thanks to our Triune God our Mighty Fortress, for protecting us, helping us and being with us when we face troubled times, and for giving us Jesus The Truth who sets us free! Amen.

 

1 Cited from: James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), pp. 252-253.

2 I am grateful to my wife, Rev. Julianna Wehrfritz-Hanson, for this story.

 

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Sermon 20 Pentecost Yr C

20 Pentecost Yr C, 14/10/2007

Jer 29:1, 4-7

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles in Babylon”

 

In today’s first lesson, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to his people who are now living in Babylonian exile. Our lesson today is only a small portion of the letter, which actually consists of the whole 29 chapter. This is a powerful letter. In it, Jeremiah continues to battle his rival false prophets who had counselled the people of Judah that they would not be staying in Babylonian exile very long. Jeremiah said they were only telling the people lies; telling them what they wanted to hear, but what was not a word from the LORD. Rather, Jeremiah claims that he is a true prophet, and therefore is writing this letter, which is an authentic message from the LORD. True to Jeremiah’s character as a prophet, this particular letter may not have been a message that the people wanted to hear; since it contains a rather radical message. Let’s take a closer look at it.

First, Jeremiah opens his letter as an authentic message by employing the following phrase: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel.” The message comes from God so the people had better take heed, and the letter is addressed “to all the exiles whom I (i.e. God) have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” In other words, God was behind the exile; God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army to take the people of Judah into exile. The people had turned away from God; they thought, erroneously, that since they were God’s Chosen People they could do anything and God would still be on their side; look after them and protect them from all enemies. Jeremiah adamantly disagreed—he said “No way! God was allowing God’s Chosen People to go into Babylonian exile because of their sin and apostasy. They had turned away from God and God’s ways and now therefore had to suffer the consequences—namely, live in Babylonian exile for 70 years.

One wonders how long our increasingly secular society can be sustained with so many people turning away from God and God’s ways. Is our future going to parallel that of the smug citizens of Judah? Are we heading for a fall because of so many people turning away from God? What shall be the long term consequences of such apostasy? What does the LORD have to do to draw those who have turned from God back to God? This message of Jeremiah today begs such questions for us today who long to be faithful to the LORD.

The second thing to note in today’s first lesson is that Jeremiah counsels the Babylonian exiles to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” In other words, Jeremiah is saying: “Folks, hunker down where you are right now; make the best of it because you’re going to be there for awhile. Don’t believe the false prophets who tell you ‘you’re out of Babylon very soon.’ Rather, live as best you can and realise that God is with you there, even in exile in a foreign land.” The people had believed that God had given them the Promised Land. What were they to do now that they had lost it? Jeremiah says, “Keep on living, there’s much to live for right where you are.”

Sometimes we too may get down in the dumps, perhaps feel sorry for ourselves, and think that we’re living in exile and that God has abandoned us. At times we too may feel like those exiles—foreigners in a foreign land. We might falsely believe that we’ve got nothing much to do or live for in this exiled place. We may fight God by trying to erroneously convince ourselves that we want out of this foreign land, this place of exile. Yet, God may be giving us Jeremiah’s message—”stay right where you are, make the best of your situation, hunker down, keep on living as faithfully as you can right where you are, serve me where I’ve put you.”

In this message from the LORD to those Babylonian exiles, there is something quite interesting that Jeremiah is stating: He’s telling them, “keep your hope alive, it isn’t as bad as you might think or believe. Look, be thankful that the Babylonians are giving you enough freedom to own property, build your own homes and produce your own food. Compared with the life of your ancestors in Egyptian slavery, this exile is bearable for you—you can handle it with God’s help. See the hope for you and your children in these everyday, ordinary activities. God is with you in and through all of this if you have the eyes of faith to see God at work.” That too is a message of hope for us. Do we have the eyes of faith to see God at work in and through us as we go about doing the everyday, ordinary activities of life? Don’t give up, there is hope for us in the future if we but trust in God.

The third radical message in this letter from Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles is highlighted in verse seven: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Good News Bible puts it like this: “Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.”

Now this is a radical, new message for those Babylonian exiles! They had believed that they were God’s Chosen People; thus God was with them; they were special; therefore entitled to receive special favours and blessings from God. Now Jeremiah was saying: “Have I got news for you! You are not the only people that God cares for and blesses. Those Babylonians, your enemies, are also God’s people; the Gentiles are also blessed by God.” Jeremiah was instructing the Jewish exiles to engage in intercessory prayer for their enemies and work for their well being. This message underscores that God is the God of all people—Jew and Gentile. No single racial or ethnic group; no one nation can have a monopoly on the God of all creation. God loves all people and cares for their well being.

This message of intercessory prayer for the welfare of one’s enemy reminds us too of the New Testament teachings of the Golden Rule—”do to others as you would have them do to you;” and, going further than that: “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, bless those who curse you.” The following story reveals the power of intercessory prayer on behalf of one’s enemies:

From the end of World War II to 1991 Albania was under a crushing communist dictatorship. It was more rabidly atheistic than even Soviet or Chinese communism. During the nearly 50 years of oppression 1600 churches were destroyed. In 1967 the dictatorship ordered complete religious prohibition. Even private expressions of faith were forbidden. The mere act of dying an Easter Egg (which to most of us hardly seems like a radical confession of Christ) could bring the secret police to your home to carry you away, never to be seen again. During that time Marika Cico and her sister secretly kept the Church alive in their house. [Jim Forest, “Albanian Resurrection,” Touchstone July/August 2001, p 31] For 23 years, from 1967 to 1991, members of this secret Christian congregation “repeatedly engaged in ‘unsleeping prayer’—40 day periods of continuous prayer, each person praying in one or two hour shifts, for the end of persecution.” Now at age 95, and nearly blind, Marika has lived to see her prayers answered. She is described as a “fountain of joy.”

For 23 years Marika and the church that met in her home prayed shamelessly, persistently, for an end to the persecution. It was a shameless act because it was so ridiculous. Old women, a secret priest, a handful of believers, pitted against the power of a totalitarian state by getting down on their knees, and crying out to an unseen God for help. It was shameless because they did it over and over when things got worse, and when no help seemed to come.1

We too, can be inspired from such a story and from Jeremiah’s letter of encouragement to work for the welfare of others and engage in intercessory prayer. In our state of exile tossed and turned to and fro by a growing secular society on the one hand and a violent fundamentalism on the other; the LORD desires our prayers and action. Here in Medicine Hat, our ministerial has a prayer cycle for spiritual and civic government leaders, which we include in our Prayers of the Church every Sunday. Our churches also help out various organisations. Many Christians, many of you, volunteer for these organisations, groups, and institutions to improve the welfare of people in need. Our contributions of time, talents and money, along with our prayers can and do make a difference—just as they did in Albania and, long ago for those Jews in Babylonian exile. Rather than seeing “the other” as our enemy, may God grant us compassionate hearts and lives to see that we are all in this together; may we continue to be diligent in intercessory prayer for all people, including enemies; may we also be inspired by Jesus to continue to act with kindness and love. Amen.

 

1 Ben Sharpe, “Pray Shamelessly,” July 29, 2001, at <www.orthovox.org/cornerstone/sermons/sermons.htm>.

 

 

Thanksgiving

This weekend, we Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. In the Bible, there are several words for thank, thanks, and thanksgiving. These words are, for the most part, both verbs and nouns. They are, among other things, closely associated with words referring to confession—both of sins and of faith; grace—God’s unconditional favour, acceptance love and forgiveness toward humankind, as well as grace in the form of prayers before and/or after a meal; provision of the basics of life; giving sacrificial offerings to God; and participating in holy meals like the Passover, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and the Eucharist, thanking Christ for delivering us from the powers of evil and sin and being present with us by feeding us with the eternal food of heaven.

Thank you, two small words, yet they mean so much. The more we give thanks, the more we realise what we have to be thankful for—our thanksgiving is actually a daily thanksliving. All is from God; all is gift; all returns back to God—from the micro to the macro world we live in; from the individual to the family, from the local to the national, from the national to the international, from the international to the cosmic—there are endless opportunities for thanksgiving and thanksliving. This weekend you may consider making a list from A to Z of people, places, and things for which you are thankful. “Praise the LORD! O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 106:1)