Summary: A sermon that celebrates the Lutheran Reformation of the Church
A New Birth of Freedom Reformation Sunday October 31, 2004
Jeremiah 31:31-34 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more."
Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ
Freedom is a word that we American’s have always held dear. And when that freedom comes under attack, we cling to it even tighter. Thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens have fought for the word freedom and they have died for that word. The concept of freedom is also very near to the hearts of every Christian. It is one of the great themes found on the pages of Scripture and it is perhaps the single best word that could be used to describe the Lutheran Reformation, which we celebrate today. Jeremiah had a message of freedom for his people thousands of years ago. The freedom he proclaimed was the freedom of the new covenant.
This freedom stood in stark contrast to the bondage of the old covenant. This was the covenant made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. This covenant was a covenant of laws and regulations that governed every aspect of the Israelites’ lives. There were regulations on the food they could eat, the types of sacrifices they needed to make, and the type of government they would have. It soon became clear that the Israelites would not be able to keep their side of the agreement. The history of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament is a sad story of broken promises and open rebellion against God’s commands. The yoke of the old covenant proved to be a yoke that the people were not able to bear. Even those who remained faithful to the LORD must have been led to despair when they looked at how often they had broken God’s commands. The old covenant was a constant reminder of their sin and their inability to atone for their sin by their own works.
Now we move ahead to the church of the early 16th century. This was the church that Martin Luther was born into. And like the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s day, it was a church that was under the burden of laws and regulations. But these were not the laws that God established at Sinai. The church at Luther’s time had established its own laws for the people to follow. The church set up a system of work righteousness, where one had to perform certain acts or buy certain indulgences in order to receive forgiveness of sins. This was a system that led to a great deal of guilt in people’s lives. After all, how could they ever know if they had done enough? This system led Luther to the harsh life of being a monk. He prayed for hours, went to confessional, even beat himself at times. But no matter how many good works he did, he could not escape the oppressive burden of the law. He once said that he felt like he was being closed in by four walls: the first wall said "God is holy and hates sin." The second wall said "I am a sinner." The third wall said, "The wages of sin is death." And the last wall concluded "God must condemn to death." This was a time of despair in Luther’s life. There seemed to be no way out and no matter what he did he remained trapped by the shackles of the church’s teaching of work righteousness.
But that was five hundred years ago. We don’t believe in work righteousness still today, do we? The concept that we have to do good in order to go to heaven is rooted deep in hearts from the day we were born. We see this idea in most people that don’t know the truth of what the Bible says about sin and its consequences. When you ask someone who doesn’t know about Jesus why they think they are going to heaven, they will almost always respond, "Because I’m a pretty good person. I’ve been nice to people. I work hard at my job." And this is the idea we fall back on when we start to doubt the basic truths that we have learned about Jesus. There’s always a part of us that wants to say "Sure I’m going to heaven—I’ve been good." And this thought will eventually lead to despair because we know deep down that we haven’t been good. For every day that we’ve been kind and generous, we can think of five days when we’ve been selfish and unloving. This leads us to feelings of guilt.