The task on Reformation Sunday is not to preach Reformation Sunday, nor is it to preach about Luther and his Reformation.
Don’t preach Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church; but do preach the message of the Reformation, the message to which these texts bear witness.
The texts (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8: 31-36) contain many words Christians like to use; righteousness, law, sin, faith, grace; some even call them “buzz words.” Sometimes we use these words assuming everyone knows what they mean and are unaware of how we confuse people. Sometimes we are tempted to define them perhaps a useful exercise in sermon preparation, but deadly if one fills a sermon with definitions. Or we may see them as historical artifacts and recall how these terms were understood or misunderstood (or even ignored) in medieval Europe, and then redefined in Luther’s Reformation. We really could get bogged down in terminology and history!
Look instead in these texts for great statements of the central insights of Luther’s Reformation. We are not put into right relationship with God by our good works (the works of the law), even though those works are commanded, desirable and praiseworthy. Rather, God chooses to do something new. Yes, the texts focus on what God is doing. God is making a new covenant, manifesting his righteousness apart from the law, making us free. Or, to put it in different language: God has instituted a new way of dealing with us. God has chosen to show us his justice and goodness in a way radically different from the law, and God has chosen to redefine freedom. God is surprising us. Rather than acting in the old comfortable ways that make us think we can uphold our end of the bargain, in Christ, God does a new thing. God shows us his righteousness in mercy rather than in judgment and gives us the freedom the Son has with the Father. Our texts tell us: Don’t rely on the old covenant, the old ways of doing things, your ability to keep God’s commandments, your membership in an ethnic or religious group, or anything else you may think will please God and keep you in right relationship with God. No, faith in God’s promise excludes all boasting.
Sober reminders of our sin, our failure to do God’s will, are embedded in each text. John’s phrase “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” may be hard for our ears to hear. Firmly believing in our freedom, we find it hard to acknowledge the power of sin over us. Reformation preaching must never succumb either to an optimism that believes we can overcome our own sins (with a little effort) or to antinomianism, the belief that God’s law is no longer active and valid for us. Rather, reformation preaching speaks both law and promise. The Christian lives now in the old reality of law and sin; in the midst of these God promises and gives a new reality. In this new reality we know (and “know” is not just an intellectual exercise) God as both righteous and merciful toward us. We know the truth and we are free indeed.
The results of God’s new way of dealing with us can be summarized in the two words: freedom and consolation.
Freedom in Christ contrasts to slaveries of various sorts. Luther reminded his listeners that the freedom of which Christ speaks did not concern external matters, “rather He is speaking of a freedom which lies outside and above this outward existence and life. Here He deals with freedom from sin, death, God’s wrath, the devil, hell, and external damnation…We are speaking of the freedom before God, the freedom we have when God pronounces us free from sin…” (Luther’s Works (LW) 23, 404) Luther emphasizes to his listeners that this freedom may involve outward suffering and conflict. Here is where the true and the false disciple part ways. “He promised and said: ‘Just cling to the Word, and I will uphold you. When you find yourself in any extremity or distress, you will learn to continue in God’s Word. This will liberate you and make you a true disciple.’ The false disciples never experience this…” (LW 23, 401). Regardless of outward appearances, the true disciple is free from worry and fear, continuing in God’s Word (Jesus Christ) who makes us truly free.
Psalm 46, the basis of Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” speaks powerfully of the hope and consolation found in God alone. Contemporary listeners can find renewed and manifold meanings in Luther’s words “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us…”