Guest Pastor James Krikava preached this sermon on Reformation Sunday 10/25/2020. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 11am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Reformation Bulletin
Reformation Sermon, FLC 2020
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The word of God on which we would like to meditate on our celebration of the Reformation of the Church is written in 2nd Chronicles, chapter 29, which reads as follows in Jesus’ name:
Then… Levites arose… And they gathered their brethren, sanctified themselves, and went according to the commandment of the king, at the words of the LORD, to cleanse the house of the LORD. Then the priests went into the inner part of the house of the LORD to cleanse it… So they sanctified the house of the LORD in eight days, and on the sixteenth day of the first month they finished. Then they went in to King Hezekiah and said, “We have cleansed all the house of the LORD, the altar of burnt offerings with all its articles, and the table of the show-bread with all its articles. Moreover all the articles which King Ahaz in his reign had cast aside in his transgression we have prepared and sanctified; and there they are, before the altar of the LORD.” 2 Chronicles 29:12, 15-19
These are Your words, heavenly Father, sanctify us through Your truth. Your Word is Truth. Amen.
In the name of Jesus, dear fellow heirs of the Lutheran Reformation, heirs of God’s free grace in Christ, brought to light by Your Holy Spirit and Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Ahaz… became king, and… he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD, as his father David had done. For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made molded images for the Baals… and burned his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel… Therefore the LORD his God delivered him into the hand of the king of Syria. They defeated him, and carried away a great multitude of them as captives, … because they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers for [Ahaz] had encouraged moral decline in Judah and had been continually unfaithful to the LORD… [H]e sacrificed to the gods of Damascus which had defeated him, saying, “Because the gods of the kings of Syria help them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me.” But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel. So Ahaz gathered the articles of the house of God, cut [them] in pieces, … made… altars in every corner of Jerusalem… and angered the LORD God…” 2 Chronicles 28:1-25
In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens tells a story of contrasts between London and Paris during the French revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …” (opening line). It’s an old story. With King David in Israel “it was the best of times.” By the time of our text, “it was the worst of times.” So evil was Ahaz that when he died they would not even bury him in “the tombs of the kings of Israel and Hezekiah his son reigned in his place.” 2 Chronicles 28:27)
Usually sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” The kings of Israel prove it. From the time of wicked king Jeroboam, the kings of the Northern Kingdom just followed in the footsteps of their founder and became worse and worse until their destruction by the Assyrians. But in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which still retained the Scriptures and the Temple worship in Jerusalem, not every wicked king was followed by an even more wicked one.
Hezekiah was the exception. God moved him away from his father’s legacy by the Word of His prophets and a return to the Temple Worship, established by God Himself. And with that came a reformation in Judah. It can be explained only as an act of God. It is this that we want to explore as we celebrate our special day:
The Lutheran Reformation of the Church:
God’s Act of Restoring What Was Lost
Before we talk about reformation, let’s talk about Formation. The Old Testament church quite mirrors the New Testament church in its formation. In the Old Testament, from the time God called Abraham to go to the promised land of Canaan until the time of the Exodus from Egypt led by Moses is about 500 years. This block of time was a time of formation, through Abraham’s offspring: Isaac, who begot Jacob, who begot sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel. While Isaac remained in Canaan, his sons were led to Egypt because of famine in the land. There they prospered and multiplied until the Pharaoh of Egypt enslaved them. Then Moses was called to lead them out of their bondage, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness.
This 500 year period corresponds to the first 500 years of Christianity after the coming of the promised Messiah. The New Testament church also began with 12; not sons of Jacob, but spiritual sons of Jesus, the 12 apostles. Through their preaching the church multiplied like the 12 tribes of Israel. These were also formative years. Much changed with the coming of Christ. The Old Testament civil and ceremonial rule had come to an end, as the Apostle Paul proclaimed: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). It took about 500 years to sort all of this out. But by the time of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome in the 6th century A.D., the doctrine of God, the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of Christ as true God and true Man in one person, and the work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament had crystallized; and the worship of the NT Church was formalized to encompass it all in a Christ-centered, Evangelical Divine Service, to the present day.
The second 500 years in the OT began when Joshua led Israel, after 40 years in the wilderness, across the Jordan to the Promised Land. There He led the conquest of Canaan and the church grew and prospered under the rule of Israel’s judges. It was a time of Generation as the nation-church grew strong. But the people complained that the judges were slow. They saw how their neighbors were ruled by kings, who made fast and fearless decisions, without time consuming debate by the judges. They desired a king and prayed that God might grant it. But as they say, “Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.”
They got Saul, a ruthless and crazy king. But then David ascended to the throne, followed by his son, Solomon, who completed the Temple in Jerusalem and solidified the Old Testament church and her worship until the coming of Christ. But with this came trouble. When Solomon died, his son, Rehoboam became king. But he was not the wise ruler his father was. He multiplied the taxes on the people until they rebelled. The ten northern tribes of Israel banded together. They chose Jeroboam, a megalomaniac, as their leader, and seceded from the union, abandoning the Southern Kingdom. But little Judah still had Jerusalem and the Temple.
This period corresponds well to the second 500 years of the New Testament period. The church was governed by a Pentarchy, a group of five patriarchs from the strongest Christian cities of the Holy Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. They were like the Judges in the Old Testament. During this period the Church flourished and expanded in every direction and the Gospel led countless souls to faith in Christ. But gradually the Roman patriarchy began to assert its power over the others, becoming known as “The first among Equals.” In reality it became a new monarchy, like King Saul in the Old Testament. Ultimately, the others rebelled, and the Great Schism between East and West came at the end of the first millennium. The Church was divided, like Israel.
In the OT, once the kingdom of Israel was divided, the next 500 years can be characterized as a period of Deformation. The Northern kingdom went its own way, forsaking the faith and lapsing into obscurity. Judah in the south maintained the Temple worship in Jerusalem according to Moses. But the kings were mostly wicked, and horrible abuses were introduced into the religion of Israel, like Ahaz in our text.
So it was in the NT church during the Medieval period. After the Great Schism, the Orthodox Church in the East became isolated from the West. But the Church of the West, with her central authority entrenched in Rome, followed the path of the wicked kings of Judah. The Church fell into steady decline. The Gospel was overshadowed by foreign doctrines of salvation by the works of the Law. Christ was viewed as another Lawgiver and Judge. The forgiveness of sins became conditioned on man’s merits and satisfactions. The church even devised a program for buying and selling these merits for money, the so-called indulgences.
In the Old Testament, when the period of deformation hit an all-time low, God raised up faithful men to fix what was broken. It was an age of Reformation. In our text, good king Hezekiah saw the abuses introduced into Israel’s faith by his father’s wicked ways. He commanded the Levites, the priestly tribe of Aaron, to get busy and restore the Temple worship according to God’s Word.
Reformation is not the same as reconstruction. When we see a dilapidated building, our American reaction is to just tear it down and build a new one. While it is true that the Levites did tear down the pagan altars Ahaz had erected to false gods, still, they did not tear down the Temple, as though it had been totally desecrated. Instead, they restored it to its original form, right down to the details, according to its original formation established by God. When they finished, they reported to Hezekiah, “We have cleansed all the house of the LORD, the altar of burnt offerings with all its articles, and the table of the show-bread with all its articles. Moreover, all the articles which King Ahaz in his reign had cast aside in his transgression we have prepared and sanctified; and there they are, before the altar of the LORD.” The Church was re-formed.
This corresponds to the New Testament Reformation of the Church. After 500 years of decay, God raised up a new “Hezekiah” and a new “Levitical” priesthood to restore His beloved Church to her pristine form established during that golden age of formation. From a small, insignificant German territory, like little Judah in the south, God raised up Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony and Imperial Elector. He was a pious Christian who did not follow in the footsteps of the corrupt Emperors before him, including his own nephew, Charles V, monarch of the Holy Roman Empire.
Frederick set his “Levite,” his monk, Martin Luther, to work in reforming the Church according to the Word of God alone. The 95 theses of Luther against the abuses of indulgences — forgiveness for sale, posted on the Castle Church bulletin board in Wittenberg — ignited a reformation. It spread throughout Europe like wildfire. The indulgence peddlers were banned from the territory. Luther was declared a heretic of the Empire through Papal decree. But the Gospel of full and free forgiveness by the merits of Christ alone was restored to the Church once again.
True, the abuses had to be simply excised, such as the sacrifice of the mass, by which the church re-sacrificed Christ daily as her own work, by which she merited forgiveness. But that did not mean that the Sacrament of the Altar should be abolished or turned into just some symbolic ritual either. No, it was restored to the Supper Christ Himself instituted, namely the Holy Meal, by which He gives His Church His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
With this, the whole liturgy of Word and sacrament was restored to its original form and purpose even more clearly than before. Moralizing sermons exhorting people to save themselves by their own piety gave way to the preaching of Christ, “delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification.” Romans 4:25
Finally, in reflection, from the time of Hezekiah’s reformation until the advent of Christ, his reformation experienced many blessings, but it also suffered many setbacks. Nevertheless, faithful believers continued to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.
By the time of Christ, the Old Testament Church had sunk again so low into the religion of the Law that it was barely recognizable. Salvation by works had raised its ugly head again. When John the Baptizer came preaching repentance and bringing a baptism for the forgiveness of sin, he was dismissed as a kook, an extremist, a troublemaker, whose head was finally served up on a platter. When Jesus denounced the work-righteousness of the Pharisees as leading to destruction, and proclaimed Himself as the Christ and only Savior from sin, death, and hell, He, too, was condemned and crucified.
The Reformation beginning in the 1500s experienced many blessings, too, but it suffered many setbacks as well. After Luther’s death, the Empire struck back with its own Counter-Reformation. For fear of death many followers of the Reformation buckled under pressure and allowed back into the church some of the very aberrations Luther fought so hard against.
We live another 500 years beyond that fateful day in 1517 when Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Our Lutheran Church has in many ways suffered the same fate as the Church in Jerusalem before the coming of Christ. Much of what goes under the name of Lutheranism has become mingled with the paganism of our own time. We hear the cry: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins are passé. They belonged to bygone days when people lived in fear of God’s wrath over sin and believed in an actual accounting on the Day of Judgment. We live in an enlightened age where such things are no longer considered. We must conform to our time, embrace the culture of the world around us, and even extol as virtue what the Scriptures call perverse and bring condemnation and death.”
But remember, Hezekiah and the Levites in our text struggled to keep alive the true faith of Israel until the Christ would come. Their goal was not to accommodate the ways of the world around them, but to preserve the Word of God and restore the worship God established by that word. And while the faith of Israel had declined so much by the time of Jesus’ birth, there were still many faithful believers, “the remnant of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20), like old Simeon, who “was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Luke 2:25
After 500 years, we, too, live in a time of great decline in the Church of Christ. But we also are waiting for the Consolation of the Holy Christian Church, namely the return of our victorious and risen Lord Jesus, seated at the Right Hand of Divine power and might. Through His Word the Holy Spirit rests upon you, too.
The true Reformation of the Church is established. There is no need for another. God Himself raised up His Levites to reform the Church, restore its teachings, polish the good silver, and restore the Gospel of forgiveness with Christ Himself as the center. What is needed today is not another Reformation of the Church, but a Church Semper Reformanda, i.e., not ever-evolving, but ever-returning to her roots and ever-conforming to it. Every generation must re-examine itself in order to make THĒ Reformation its own. And if we discover that we have deviated, we must repent in word and deed. With those Levites of old, we must return and restore what was set aside and broken to its proper place.
May He find us busy upholding the precious Gospel of Christ in word and deed, through the preaching of sin and grace and through the Sacraments of His house, that wash us clean in the blood of the Lamb, and feed and nourish us with His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. And to this let us be Semper fidelis, ever faithful, and Semper paratus, ever ready, that being “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), “we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
“The Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 4:7). Amen.