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.”

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