Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chapel Message for Crean Lutheran High School

Today I had the joy of delivering the chapel message at Crean Lutheran High School, Orange County's other Lutheran High School. Great group of kids there and what appears to be a caring, educated and dedicated faculty. What follows is a bit of the expanded version I wrote up yesterday and used many of the highlights this morning in a condensed version. The snippets from The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz are longer in here than they were at chapel, but the full conversation is too good not to post along with the rest. Under the Mercy.

Ok. First thing’s first; I need you to close your eyes.  I know, it sounds a bit elementary. But play along with me. “Knock! Knock! Knock! (sound of hammer hitting wood). Now open them. What do you think of when you hear that sound? A knock on the door? An obnoxious salesman? Two guys in black ties and bicycles? Kids looking for tricks or treats?
Well, if you thought of a hammer and a nail and a door you were right. That was the sound heard round the world 495 years ago tomorrow, October 31 1517. This was the date Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. The church door was like today’s bulletin boards – or better yet, twitter or facebook. If you had information you wanted everyone to know about – that’s where you posted it.

But what drove Luther’s hammer? What made him swing the nail and the notice into place that All Hallows Eve? It wasn’t success. Fame. Power. Women. Money. It was a simple question: How can a rotten, guilty sinner stand in the presence of a holy righteous God?  The church of Luther’s day had an answer for that: you can’t, that is unless you had somehow made satisfaction for your sins. Work hard enough and you’ll get out of purgatory eventually. Luther had worked hard and was still left only in despair. His good works were never enough to blot out that guilt of sin. The Law only increased his sin. That’s the killer about the Law – there’s always room for improvement. We’re never good enough. How can you get to heaven climbing that ladder? Well, the church had an answer for that too:
You buy one of these indulgences – a piece of paper guaranteed by the Pope himself, given out by John Tetzel and sold to the people granting them partial, and in some cases plenary – or full – remission of their sins and the sins of their relatives. Instant freedom from purgatory.

Problem is, the more Luther searched the Scriptures for answers, the less he found man’s works – including indulgences or anything else – a contributing factor. There aren’t enough indulgences to pay off the kind of debt our sin has racked up. In fact, there’s only one thing we do bring to our salvation and that’s sin. The rest is all Christ.

But The hammer stroke that fell on October 31, 1517 goes to the very heart of what the Reformation is all about, answering that question: how can sinners, dead in trespasses stand before a holy righteous God? On the basis of works or merits or slips of paper or coins or anything we do? No. Not at all. Rather it is solely by the grace of God through Christ – a righteousness manifested to us apart from the Law, Paul says – that assures us of heaven, life, salvation, forgiveness and all other good gifts of Christ.
21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3)

That knock! Knock! of the hammer wasn’t only about the sale of indulgences. It was the Christ’s Gospel beginning to break Luther out of his prison of despair. After Luther put the hammer away, he picked up the pen and the Scriptures. And he found therein the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor. He found a Savior who rescues rebellious sinners by being numbered with them. He found a redeemer who exchanges everything he has – holiness, eternal life, righteousness and takes all that we have – sin, death, guilt. He found the God who knew no sin, yet for our sakes became sin. He found Christ Crucified and the hope that comes from knowing that Christ justifies the ungodly. That was Luther’s comfort and it’s ours. This is the message that still rings throughout the entire Christian church. And that’s what drove Luther’s hammer. It may have taken him years more to discover the full weight of the Wittenberg post but it all began with the swing of a hammer.
Reminds me of a portion of a story by a Swedish Lutheran pastor, named Bo Giertz. He wrote a book called, The Hammer of God. Here’s a little scenario between a dying man and a woman with the same hope and comfort as Luther...and you and I

...Katrina, I am a sinner, a great sinner.
Yes, that you are Johannes. But Jesus is a still greater Savior.
...Yes, he is a great Savior for those who let themselves be saved. But my heart is not clean, my mind is evil; I do not have the new spirit.
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Yes, Katrina, but it reads 'to repentance'. It is repentance that I lack.
You do not lack repentance, Johannes, but faith. You have walked the way of repentance for thirty years.
And still not attained to it!
Johannes, said the woman, almost sternly, answer me this question: do you really want your heart to be clean?
Yes, Katrina. God knows that I want that.
Then your repentance is also as true as it can be in a corrupt son of Adam in this world. Your danger is not that you lack repentance, but that you have been drifting away from faith.
What, then, shall I believe, Katrina?
You must believe this living Word of God: 'But to him that worketh not, but believeth in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.' Up to this day you have believed in works and looked at your own heart. You saw only sin and wretchedness, because God anointed your eye with the salve of the Spirit to see the truth. Do you have sin in your heart, Johannes?
Yes, answered the sick man timidly, much sin, altogether too much.
Just that should make clear to you that God has not forsaken you, said the woman firmly. Only he can see his sin who has the Holy Spirit.
...I mean, Johannes, that if you had received a clean heart and for that reason had been able to earn salvation - to what end would you then need a Savior? If the law could save a single one of us, Jesus surely would not have needed to die on the cross...
...Have you anything else to say, Katrina?
Yes, on more thing, Johannes. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Do you mean...? Do you really mean that he takes away also the sin that dwells in my unclean heart?
Yes, he atoned for all that sin, when he died in your place...
...Amen, I believe! said Johannes in a voice that could barely be heard. Katrina rose and put the Bible on the table.
Now God's work has taken place. Now you must ask the pastor to give you the holy sacrament.

And you know what else comes to mind when we hear that Knock! Knock! Knock! of the hammer blow?
The hammer. The nails. The wood. The hands. The feet. The wounds. Christ Crucified. For you.

The sign of your salvation hung over Jesus’ head. Here hangs Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Your sins are forgiven. Your debt is paid. His wounds are for you. His death is for you. The only indulgence you need is the flesh of Jesus. There’s your guarantee of eternal life. On the cross. Sealed in blood. Vindicated by his resurrection. Poured over you in Baptism. Spoken to you in Absolution. Fed to you in the Lord’s Supper. Those are free gifts for you, because Christ bore the cost for you. Paid in full. It is finished. You are justified. A Blessed Reformation day to you all. Stay Lutheran, my friends.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

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