Summary: For Reformation Sunday, and a followup to a week of revival services: revival is good, reformation is better, but renewal is what God is really aiming at.
My great-uncle, Ed Weber, drove an ancient car. I doubt if you’ve ever heard of its brand name. He drove a Terraplane. Anybody remember the Terraplane? Well, dearie, if you do, then you are much older than I, because my great-uncle’s Terraplane was already ancient when I was a boy. It had been around many years, plying the streets of Louisville, whining and chugging along its way.
Now my great-uncle had a theory about that car. He knew exactly why he had been able to keep it so long. He knew precisely why, despite its birth somewhere in the early 1930’s, his car had made it through the second World War and well into the 1950’s. Uncle Ed said that the secret of his Terraplane was that he never drove it in high gear. Second gear was as far as he would go, and although my brother and I thought it was a riot of laughs to ride in Uncle Ed’s Terraplane, the engine screaming but the speed about 20 miles an hour, somehow other drivers did not think it quite so funny. Somehow the public was not pleased. Uncle Ed said, “I am saving the brakes.” “I am saving the brakes.” If you don’t go in high gear, and don’t move too fast, when you come to a stop sign or a red light, as you inevitably will when you are driving in a city, well, you can let the engine slow you down. And you can save the brakes.
Now I know this picture may be murky for some of you. If you have not had the dubious privilege of driving a manual transmission, you may miss the point. If you have been babied with an automatic transmission, you may not understand. But some of us learned to drive on cars with gear shifts, three gears: low, second, and high. You sat at traffic lights, waiting impatiently, and revved up the engine, letting out the clutch, engaging that low gear, so that you could get off the dime and get moving. You couldn’t go very fast that way, but low gear was necessary. It got you out of the inertia of standing still.
As soon as possible, you shifted up into second gear, which was for acceleration. Second gear took your two tons of steel and got it going faster and faster. Second gear provided a rush, because you heard the engine whining as it turned faster, you felt the power as you hurried forward. In second gear there was a feeling that you were really moving on.
And then, when the time was just right, when you realized you were about up to traveling speed, you shifted into high gear, using the engine’s power not to overcome inertia, and not just to accelerate, but to keep the car moving smoothly toward its goal. It was in high gear that you stayed when you let your car do what it was supposed to do. High gear was what a car was designed to do.
But Uncle Ed’s ancient Terraplane never got out of second gear. He was saving the brakes. It moved, but slowly. It never achieved the potential the engineers had designed. Cautious, safe, a barrel of laughs, but not much of a ride.
Most Christians have at least gotten into low gear; we are certainly off the dime and moving. We’re at least at worship, we have some good habits, we know how to do church. We’ve at least gotten into low gear.
And a good many have shifted into second gear. We’ve got some passion about the gospel. We think it’s good to save souls and claim people. We have found out how to accelerate. We can sing, we can pray, we can give testimonies, some of us can even shout and sort of wave our hands a little. Second gear is not too hard. But just when it would seem that it is time to shift into high gear ... just when it is time to move on in a mighty way .. just when we could achieve a bold victory for our God .. we shut it down. We decide it would be good to save ourselves .. and we chug along in second gear, and stop short of what we really could be, if we trusted God completely. We become Uncle Ed’s Terraplane, stuck in second gear; we’re saving the brakes.
I’ve chosen this morning to pull together three things. First, I want to acknowledge that today, the last Sunday of October, Protestant Christians observe as Reformation Sunday. Reformation Sunday commemorates that moment on the 31st of October in 1517, when a young German monk, Martin Luther, nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, some 95 propositions, challenging the church of his day. That bold act began to reshape and reform the church. It gave us a whole new expression of Christian faith. It was a low-gear act. It got a dead church off the dime. It got things moving.