Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Festival of the Reformation, 10/29/2023. The service was broadcast live on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Reformation Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Festival of the Reformation, click here.
If you had to sum up the cause of the Reformation, you have several options. If you were a theologian, you might say that it was about the doctrine of justification. I.e. How is it that you are justified (made righteous) in the sight of God? And the answer, as you just heard from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, is simple:
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
But if you were a historian, you might say that it was largely about power – not power in the Church exclusively, but power in the Holy Roman Empire; the whole thing unfolding like a season of Game of Thrones, as Electors, Nobles, Bankers, and Emperors dramatically strive for position.
If you were a philosopher, you might say that it was about the Renaissance giving birth to the Early Modern era, and allowing the Middle Ages to finally crumble under their own weight. In the Church that would include something like the rejection of Aristotle, and the elevation and celebration of Scripture alone.
It’s perfectly accurate to recognize that all of those things are baked into the pie. Read any worthwhile biography of Luther or a history of the Reformation, and you’ll see that all these elements were present.
But there’s another dimension to the Reformation that shows up in two places today: first, in the Psalm, and then in the Gospel. And that is control.
In Psalm 46, which is the main text inspiring the Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” there is a well-worn verse that begins this way:
Be still, and know that I am God.
That word, that is translated as “Be still” has to do with letting go, opening your hand and relaxing your grip on something. Which you may as well do, since God is God, and you are not.
But despite the fact that He has a monopoly on experience in this field, and despite the fact that He is wiser than you and more gracious than you, there is always that temptation and desire to be in control.
Whether you are a theologian, a historian, a philosopher, a cynic, or an atheist, whether you are a student, a child, a parent, a Republican, or a Democrat, you have this desire to be in control; not just over the things in this world where God does allow you some agency, but over those great matters that are so obviously beyond you. The weather, the economy, your cancer, etc.
To this, to you, and to all creation, God says, “Be still.” And to God, we so often say: “No.” From Christians, it isn’t usually a crass, belligerent “No.” But something like “I can’t.” “I won’t.” Or, “I’m scared.”
This fearful restlessness is not limited to the matters of this earthly life. But that it includes eternal life and the Kingdom of God. Jesus said,
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
Jesus was then referring to the violent reaction to the proclamation of the Gospel, as they tried to seize Him who is the Kingdom of Heaven and take Him by force. Because if Jesus is in control, then it means they are not.
Fast forward to the Reformation. By His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has won the forgiveness of sins for you. He has redeemed you, brought you back, and reconciled you to the Father. He has poured out His grace and mercy on you, for free, as gift, as St. Paul writes. To quip the famous “Solas” of the Reformation: Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura, and we can add: Solus Christus. The Kingdom of God is not to be taken by force; it is to be received by grace through faith as gift.
But with something as majestic and glorious as the Kingdom of God, the temptation to exercise control over it is all the more pronounced.
There were myriad examples of this, but indulgences are still on everyone’s mind; perhaps because they’re still around. They were supposed to remove penalties for sins. They were supposed to cut off the time one spends in purgatory, a false doctrine in and of itself, conveniently leveraged as a new market for this burgeoning spiritual economy, wherein the currencies in the kingdoms of this world, had a favorable exchange rate in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Church was supposed to be very good at forgiving sins in the name of Jesus Christ. But they realized that if you’re good at something, you should never do it for free, even if Jesus does.
And so, along with churchly positions, titles, and offices, the Kingdom of God was for sale. It was bought and sold, and brought under men’s control.
Since it’s spooky season again, it bears mention that this is how witchcraft works. Satan promises to bring things under your control that aren’t, but always for a price. And in the end, the price you pay ends up being your soul.
The Reformation means a lot of things: theologically, historically, politically, economically, linguistically, and so on.
But it means, most of all, that Christ alone has saved you. It is done, complete, and beyond question. It means that the Kingdom of Heaven is yours now, already. And so, trying to buy it makes about as much sense as paying for the air you breathe. It means that the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus Himself, is in control, and that we are to be still, to let go, and live under His gracious reign.
How does this happen? If we cannot buy it or earn it, how does God’s Kingdom come to us?
The length of this Service precludes our usual Children’s Sermon, so here you go: how God’s Kingdom comes to us is summed up beautifully in the Small Catechism,
God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
I left out one category of professionals that may comment on the Reformation: cartographers, i.e. mapmakers; those folks who show us the lay of the land, the rivers, the mountains, etc. Cartographers might have a comment on verse 4 of Psalm 46, which you just heard.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
The thing about Jerusalem is that it has no river, only underground springs. So, what does this mean? To that, Ambrose, that Bishop of Milan, has noted, “The Holy Spirit is the River.” And for good reason.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city… Revelation 22:1-2a
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved… Psalm 46:5a
And Jesus said,
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, Out of His heart will flow rivers of living water. John 7:37b
Out of Christ flow rivers of living water that are beyond control and market forces. Living water that is for you, for free, forever.