Luther and the 23rd Psalm

Verse 5, You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

“The Lord certainly makes of me a strange warrior and arms me against my enemies in an unusual manner.  I thought he should clothe me with a suit of armor, set a helmet on my head, put a sword in my hand and warn me to be cautious and on the lookout constantly, lest my enemies overtake me.  (So what does He do?)  He sits me at a table and prepares for me a feast, anoints my head with precious balsam or (as is the custom in our country) crowns me with a garland, as if I should go rejoicing and dancing and not do battle with my enemies.  And that might nothing might be lacking, he pours me a bumper+ so that immediately I drink and become drunk, joyful and high spirited.  So the prepared table is my armor, the precious balsam my helmet, the proffered overflowing cup my sword with which I overcome all my enemies.  Is this not a unique armor and an even more unique victory?”

Prayer: Gracious God, refresh us at your table so that even in hardship. We may go our way rejoicing in you.  In Christ’s name. Amen.

Yea though we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, we do so as those dancing for joy.

+A bumper is a cup or glass filled to the brim.

Luther on the Word

“Our life is simply contained in the bare Word; for we have Christ, we have eternal life, eternal righteousness, help and comfort, but where is it?  We don’t see it.  We neither possess it in coffers nor hold it in our hands, but only in the bare Word.  Thus has God clothed his object in nothingness.”

Luther identifies our besetting sin in the desire to retain control over thing great and small.  It’s called works-righteousness.  It’s easy to slip from receiving a gift to earning a reward.  We want to give ourselves identity and to create meaning for our lives by our efforts and achievement.  God will not have it so.

Our salvation is clothed in nothingness.  It is God’s gift, borne by the seemingly insubstantial sound of a voice.  We never know when we shall hear God’s word in, with and under the many human words.  We never know when that word will echo so resoundingly in our hearts, stilling pain, unmasking sin, and sowing hope, that our lives take an unexpected direction.  The hardest fight is to accept that we cannot control this word.  We must let God be God.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word.  Give us ears to hear, wisdom to understand and courage to respond.  Teach us confidently to receive what you would give and to surrender to you the control we covet for ourselves. Amen.

Luther on Bearing the Gospel

Luther preached the words below as part of a sermon addressed to the Elector Saxony and his party; just before their departure for the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.  Emperor Charles V had summoned the evangelicals to give account of the faith that was in them.

“When one receives the faith, one does not allow oneself to imagine that there will be difficulty in this…It appears to one as a tiny child, pretty and well – formed and easy to carry.  For the Gospel shows itself at first as a fine, pleasing friendly, and childlike doctrine, as we then saw at the start, when everyone seized upon it and wanted to be evangelical.  There was such longing and thirst for the Gospel that no oven’s heat could match that of the people then.  But what happened?  The same situation occurred that befell Christopher, who did not learn how heavy the little child was until he had entered the deepest water.”

Luther’s reference to Christopher refers to a legend in which Christopher carries the Christ child with joy and ease at first.  However, as he forded deeper waters assailed by temptations to sin and demons all around the Child becomes heavier and heavier to bear, threatening to drag him down.

Hieronymous Bosch, a Dutch painter, painted the best known depiction of “St. Christopher Carrying Christ across the Water.”

Prayer: Lord Jesus, never remove the weight of your presence from our lives. Let us lean upon you in times of weakness and trial, and bring us safely through them.

Luther on Understanding the Gospel

Martin Luther finally understood the Gospel in Romans 1:17 “For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Near the end of his life he wrote, “Then, finally, God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous person lives, namely, by faith, and that this sentence-the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel-is passive, indicating that the merciful God justified us by faith…Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise.”

He wrote in further explanation of what it meant to discover that the Gospel was the heart of Scripture.

“For the person is justified and saved, not by works or laws, but by the Word of God, that is, by the promise of his grace, and by faith, that the glory may remain God’s, who saved us not by works or righteousness which we have done, but by virtue of his mercy by the word of his grace when we believed.”

Hymn: Almighty God Your Word is cast

Stanza 4,

So when the .precious seed is sown,

Life giving grace bestow

That all whose souls the truth receive

Its saving pow’r may know.

Luther on the Washing of Regeneration

He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Titus 3:5-6

In 1522 Luther preached,

“St. Paul calls the washing of regeneration, a renewing in the Holy Spirit, in order that the greatness and the might of grace may be perfectly expressed.  So great is this thing, that no creature can do it, but the Holy Spirit alone.

Behold, this is .preaching freely and fully the grace of God.  No patching with works avails, only the complete changing of the nature.  Those who truly believe must suffer much affliction and must die that grace may demonstrate its nature and its presence.

Grace is a great, strong, mighty, and active thin g.  It upholds, leads, drives, draws, changes and works all thing in a man and is really felt and experienced.  It remains hidden, but its works are manifest.  Works and words point to where it is, just as the fruit and the leaves show the kind and nature of the tree.”

Earlier Luther had been excommunicated and forbidden to preach.  He had been “kidnapped” by supporters and taken to Wartburg Castle to save his life.  By 1522 he was back in Wittenberg, but remained an outlaw in the eyes of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church.

An Oyster, Bread Mold and Martin Luther

The people in biblical times loved riddles and puzzles.  Think of Samson who posed riddles prior to his wedding.  The Queen of Sheba checked out Solomon using riddles.  Some of Jesus parables could be classified as riddles.

So we used a riddle for a children’s message on Sunday.

What does an oyster, bread mold and Martin Luther have in common.  Becky asked me that question early last week.  I had no idea.   Each of them had a secret within them that God used to create something good and beautiful.  The answer to the riddle served as a children’s message on Sunday.

God uses a bit of sand inside an oyster to create a pearl.  Jesus used the pearl of great price in one of his parables.

In the 1800’s a scientist was working with some bread mold.  He accidentally touched it to a sore on his hand and the sore healed.  Investigating the mold further led to the development of penicillin.

I had pneumonia when I was about seven years old.  Penicillin was relatively new in the immediate post World War II days.  They gave me a shot of penicillin every three hours to overcome this deadly illness.  Something that looks revolting had the hidden secret within it to save lives.

God used Martin Luther, an ordinary person, to once again reveal the secret of the Gospel to a church and the world, who lived in fear of the church’s power and God’s judgment.

You Can’t Burn Down the Church.

Over the past couple of weeks seven black churches have been set on fire in north St. Louis.  Some received severe damage and others not much at all.  The denominations cover Baptists, Bible Churches, Catholic and Lutheran.  These are often struggling churches who live on the edge of not making it.

The message, loud and clear, that runs through the meetings is “You can burn the building, but you can’t burn down the church.”  Another sentiment at a prayer service was that an attack on one church is an attack on all churches.

Pamela Dolan, a rector at a Caucasian local Episcopal Church attended the prayer service.  She no sooner walked in the door than the host pastor asked her to offer a prayer.

She wrote in the PostDispatch, “It is a bit of an understatement to say that impromptu speaking is not my strong suit.  Normally I preach from a manuscript, polished and practiced to within an inch of its life, and pray from the Book of Common Prayer, reciting intercessions and thanksgivings burnished from decades and even centuries of use by the faithful.

My tradition is known for serenity and order…not for spontaneous overflow of emotion.  …I was wracked with self-doubt…But soon I realized that I was letting my performance anxiety get in the way of a holy moment…(they) were literally welcoming me with open arms, treating me as a sister in Christ, and even an honored guest.

The church is not some place we go, but instead, by the grace of God, we are.  All Christians should pray that one day our divisions will end and we will be one.  More than that we should live in ways that will help bring that prayer to fruition.

May God grant me the strength and courage to answer that call.”

The Word Unbound

Reformation 2 Timothy 2:8-9

One year I preached on Reformation Sunday in Hannibal, Mo. They put me up over night in a large old house that the funeral home across the street used as a guest house. Suddenly, I heard a window rattling “Boom.” Rushing to the window I saw that the “boom” was from a fireworks display down by the Mississippi river. “Wow,” I thought, “These people really know how to celebrate the Reformation.”

One of the sparks that set off the fireworks of the Reformation was Luther’s insistence on the “Word Alone.” For Luther the word of God was alive and powerful. This Word became flesh and lived among us. The words proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection have the power to bring us to faith and make us God’s sons and daughters.

The entire scriptures testify to the lively and powerful word. Paul writes that though he is bound in chains like a criminal, God’s Word is not bound. His imprisonment did not make the Word of the gospel ineffective. He urges us to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead for our salvation. Remembering Jesus involves believing and trusting in what he has done for us and living in harmony with His Word.

Long before Luther, long before St. Paul, long before Jesus suffered and died, God’s Word demonstrated it’s lively power. Time and again the Lord spoke into the cavernous realm of space, “Let there be…” and time and again, “It was so.” Thus the creation came into being. Martin Franzmann praised the God of creation in his hymn, “Thy strong word did cleave the darkness; at thy speaking it was done…”

The powerful unchained word accomplishes the task for which God sends it. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty.” Years later God called a teenager named Jeremiah to be his prophet. God placed his word into the overwhelmed teen’s mouth, “See, today I appoint you to overthrow nations and kingdoms. To uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Yet, is the Word of the Lord such an unchained lively power in our own lives? Word alone, does not mean the same thing as when we say in exasperation, “Will you leave me alone?” Charles Stennott, author of the “Body and the Blood,” grew up in a family where the church was the center of life and death. But “the big black leather-bound bible on the bookshelf just by the front door…was not for reading but for storing important documents.” He writes, “My mother must have known that it was the one book my brothers and sister and I were most likely not to touch. Things were safe and sound in the Bible.” However, while writing a book about Christians in the Middle East he read the gospels for himself. Through his reading, Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness came alive and gave him understanding of Jesus in a whole new way.

I recall seeing a picture some time ago showing a bible chained to a reading desk lest someone steal it. The message accompanying the picture was that Martin Luther unchained the word making it freely available for all to read and study. Yet, for how many Christians today, yes, for Lutherans the church of “The word alone,” is that word chained once more. Chained not because the church has locked up the bibles, but because we have done it ourselves not opening the word for study and meditation from one week, one year, and one decade to the next. Luther warned, “When you get to the point of imagining that you know the Gospel, the Ten commandments, and the word of God outstandingly well, then you are lost, and the devil has won the game.” How many Lutherans on the day following confirmation believe they have had enough of the Word to last them a life time?

Luther knew what it meant to be without the truth that God’s word not only shows us our sins but also shows us our Savior. He wrote in 1528 that it would be better to fall in all sorts of folly, even sin “If only we do not lose this Treasure, Christ in his word.” Four years later he thought his fears had come true, “I have lived to see the greatest plague, to wit, the contempt for the Word, the most extreme and godless misdeed of this world.” What was true in Luther’s day even among his followers is also true in our day, even among those who claim the name of Luther. We in our weakness and stubbornness resist the Word of God and Gospel.

Yet what a great treasure of promises we have in this word. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises, “From the least of them to the greatest I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” God will not remember how we failed in living the life we ought to live as his beloved people. Though we all, without distinction have fallen short of a sinless life, nevertheless God declared us innocent because of the gift forgiveness through God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Because of Jesus, God will not take action against us for our sin. Rather, He took action against sin through Jesus death on the cross. Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Martin Luther risked his life rather than renounce the grace and truth he had found in the Word. St. Paul wrote our text while bound in chains for proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ. They risked all, because the Word that had become flesh in Jesus Christ, though it was bound to the cross it could not be bound by the grave but arose to new life. They knew and believed that through the word of Jesus Christ all might be saved and come to the glory of his name. Thus as we receive the word, in baptism. We hear it preached or read. We study scripture. In the bread and wine of Holy Communion we receive Jesus’ body and blood. Through these means God grants us forgiveness, life and salvation.

We live in a world that regards God’s Word as no more important than anything else that has been spoken or written. For that matter we ourselves speak and hear so many words during the week. At times it reminds me of one of the stories about Paul Bunyan, that great mythical woodsman of the north. One winter it was so cold that all the words of the Lumberjacks froze solid as soon as they spoke them. Then when the spring melt arrived all of the words thawed out filling the woods with a cacophony of sounds. Luther reminds us of what are truly the important words for our lives. He writes, “Do you really want to consider the Word of the Gospel on a par with the word or talk -in an inn or tavern? Remember that God has said: When the word of God is preached I am in your mouth, and I pass the Word through your ears and into your heart. Therefore, whenever a person reads the Word of God, the Holy Spirit is speaking to him.” Its not simply more noise.

It’s the lively power of the unchained Word of the Gospel which unchains us from all the ways in which we fail to live up to God’s expectations. Through the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed from our sins. Now we who follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther are the means through whom that word has free course and is preached to the joy and edifying of all people. God in Jesus reforms us into his image once again. In the hope of our reformation we wait to hear his word on the last day when he returns and says to us and all believers “Come beloved of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from before the beginning of the world.”

Can I Help You?

Yesterday I went to the seminary.  As I made my way to the library a man younger than me, and it’s getting so that who isn’t younger than me, asked, “Can I help you with some directions?”  “No, I graduated from here 50 years ago.”  Actually its only 48 years and five months ago. The man was dressed in a suit, I was in a shirt and shorts carrying a book bag. I assume he was a professor.  But afterward I thought, “Did I look that disheveled or confused?  Did I look lost?”

One of the things we find in church is that we are criticized for not being friendly enough.  So people have sought to introduce themselves to those they don’t know.  Then many have discovered that the “stranger” turns out to be a founding member of the church.

Recently, an African American family sat down in the pew I was occupying.  I liked the feel of that.  I miss the African Americans that worshipped at Immanuel Chapel where I was for four and a half years.  A teenage boy sat next to me and I helpfully showed him where we were in the service.  But when we went to communion and the family knew the procedure it dawned on me that I was helping a young man who knew very well what was going on.  He didn’t need any directions.  (See first paragraph above.) They probably attended a different service.

Last Sunday we sang during communion,

One bread, one cup, one body we,

Rejoicing in our unity,

Proclaim Your love until You come

To bring Your scattered loved ones homes.

Though we may fumble our way with strangers, in Christ we are one and not strangers to him.

Your Hearts will Rejoice

Almost hidden in between all the earthly blessings that comes from following Jesus “and in the age to come eternal life,” is two words, “with persecutions.” (Mark 10:30)

The sainted Pastor Alton Wedel, long time pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran church in Minneapolis, writes,  The Christian Gospel is not our private underwriter to guarantee successful living on our terms because God is on our side.  For this kind of world Jesus had to die, a world in which the tragedies are closely interwoven with the triumphs.

But your hearts will rejoice!  All through Sacred Scripture bells are ringing, even in the midst of tribulation…  Your hearts will rejoice!  He said it on the night before His cross-that in a little while they would not see him anymore and then another little while and they would see him again.  He said they would weep and lament, but the world would rejoice; they would be sorrowful, but their sorrow would be turned to joy…I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice.  The promise speaks to us not from the vantage point prior to the cross but after it.  The major issues have been settled.  The crucifixion has been followed by the resurrection.  The strong chords of joy cannot be silenced.