Reformation Sunday 2015
Text: John 8:31–36
Today we celebrate the Reformation, made possible by the outspoken confession of Martin Luther. The Reformation is considered to have begun on October 31, 1517, when Dr. Martin Luther, professor of theology at Wittenberg University in Germany, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. These statements protested the Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences, which proclaimed a false way of salvation—that you could in effect buy your way into heaven. There will be much celebrating of the 500th anniversary of this event in 2017.
We begin with this: A magnificent army had taken the field on a late summer day. The cavalry soldiers sat tall in the saddle, their regimental flags unfurling a rainbow of colors in the wind. Strong young men on foot stood ready for the order to advance. The spotless steel of the officers’ drawn swords shiny in the sun. The commander reviewed his troops with pride. Here was a military force to be reckoned with. They were ready for battle and victory!
The scene? Something out of the middle ages? Custer’s last stand? No. That late summer day was in 1939, and the field of battle was the border between Poland and Germany. The force described was the grand army of Poland, respected at the time as one of the world’s finest. It stood bravely to defend its homeland. Across the border, however, an aggressor nation had put together a different type of army. Horses had been replaced by Panzer tanks in the army of Nazi Germany. Its generals were about to unveil a new kind of warfare: Blitzkrieg, lightning war.
How did the two armies fare that summer day? Let the historian, William Manchester, describe it “Down the slope rode the [Polish] Pomorskas, sabers gleaming, pennons waving, moving at a steady gallop, their lances at the ready. And then, as they were preparing for the final irresistible surge, the Germans squeezed their triggers. . . The few Polish survivors were taken prisoner. They were seen rapping hard on the tanks’ armor. Somebody had told them German armor was cardboard and someone had been wrong” (Winston Spencer Churchill, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932–1940 [New York Dell Publishing, 1988] p. 574).
Someone had been wrong, all right. The whole world had been wrong about the Nazi threat. Still remembering the horror of World War I, the nations of the world refused to believe that the Nazi’s would do what they said they would do. Evidence of Hitler’s intent abounded, but it was too unpleasant to acknowledge. In this act of denial we find exposed a tragic weakness in the human condition: we are easily deluded to accept as true that which we wish to believe is true. Wanting to believe that the Nazi armor was cardboard, the Poles were deluded into thinking a cavalry charge would win the day.
In our text, the Jewish leaders and Jesus are having a discussion, and there are folks who were self-deluded then too. Up to the point of our text, the conversation proceeded fairly well. Some of the Jews had even agreed with Jesus on several of His teachings. However, the moment Jesus mentioned that His hearers were slaves, the discussion took a turn for the worse.
“Slaves?” said the Jews. “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone”—an interesting thing to say, considering Israel’s bondage in Egypt, the Babylonian exile, and the current Roman military occupation of Palestine. Jesus had in mind a more important matter: not slavery to other human beings, but slavery to sin. “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” Jesus said, an indictment that stands against everybody.
If these Jews were not receptive to the idea that they had been made slaves by governments, they were even less receptive to the idea that they were slaves to sin. Jesus was simply going too far. As Abraham’s children, they insisted “We already are free.”
What a grand delusion! Evidence of their sinfulness was everywhere, but sin had so inflated their pride they could not accept the truth of Jesus’ word. They were slaves to a power that had tricked them into thinking they were free. All slavery is bad. The worst slavery is slavery to sin. One of the reasons that this is true is because that kind of slavery masquerades as freedom.
It’s tempting for us to stand in judgment over these folks, isn’t it? It’s easy to condemn them as if we are better or smarter than they are as if we would never be so deluded. The temptation surely exists, but we would do well to resist it, for the truth of the matter is that we are just like them.
Like those Jews, we too will listen to Jesus about many things. We like to hear about eternal life, about God giving us daily bread, about Jesus being with us always. We even like the idea of His judging wicked people at the end. However, when Jesus pushes into the sensitive areas of our lives, we want to turn Him off. When Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, we cheer in agreement; but when He refers to our hypocrisy of singing praise to God’s name in church, and then using that same name to curse someone at home, we begin to thumb through the bulletin. When Jesus speaks of God’s love for all people, we rejoice; but when He brings up our prejudice against some of those same people, we bring the discussion to a close.
It’s not that we deny our sins. We’re willing to admit we behave wrongly. But call us slaves? That’s an insult. “I can stop doing that sin whenever I want. I just need to try harder—that’s all. I can conquer it. I’m not a slave; I’m in control of my life.”
Wrong! We are slaves of sin. We can’t stop. In our natural state, sin is our master. To think otherwise is wrong. That’s why this slavery is so nasty: it works to shield us from the truth of just how enslaved we are. We are like the inept prisoners who think they can tunnel their way to freedom. Smuggling a shovel into their cell, they dig and dig and dig; but with no blueprint or compass, their tunnel comes up in the cell next door. On their second attempt, they tunnel into the guard’s room. On their third attempt, they tunnel into the warden’s office. No matter how hard they try, no matter how many tunnels they dig, they haven’t the means to succeed; they always come up still in prison.
So it is with our attempts to conquer sin ourselves; we haven’t the means to set ourselves free. The result is always slavery to sin. As William Barclay put it, “The point is that the man who sins does not do what he likes; he does what sin likes” (The Gospel of John, vol. 2 [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956] p. 23).
How we would like to be free, but sin holds us captive. Seeing our slavery to sin, God sent His Holy Son. As the very Son of God, Jesus has the authority to free us from our slavery. He has led the charge to gain our freedom, not with an army of cavalry, but with His life on Calvary. Although He committed no sin of His own, He allowed Himself to be made a prisoner of sin—your sin, my sin—on the cross. For all our sins—even the most private sins we are reluctant to confess—Christ gave Himself and rose again, and by that gift we are freed from their damning curse.
Each day we go to Him alone for deliverance from the evil one. By the grace given you in Baptism, continue in His Word. Daily confess your sin and your slavery to it. By the power of God’s Spirit, continue in the Word, daily trusting Jesus for a full pardon. Through the faithful use of the written Word and regular dining at this Lord’s Table, Jesus loosens sin’s enslaving grip on your life and sets you free. By Jesus Christ’s power, you will have the last word over sin: victory!
This Gospel is our Reformation heritage. We are not here today to celebrate a German monk as our savior. We are not here today to give glory to our Germaness, for those of us who have Germaness. We are here today to celebrate the Gospel. Abiding in the saving Word of Jesus throughout our lives is our only hope. To shatter our delusion, to save us who are slaves, Jesus reveals the truth—the truth of His cross and the empty tomb. God’s freedom is yours by grace alone, received through faith alone, revealed in Scripture alone. This Gospel is the truth that sets you free.