Luther: Awakening to Christ
Third in a series of six, Luther: Awakening 1/14
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 // 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 // Mark 1:14-20
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon today includes these words from Romans 1:16-17. Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. For, in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith, for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
We’ve reached the season of Epiphany, which means “Revealing, or “Light.” We repented in Advent candlelight to prepare for Christ. We celebrated Christmas Eve as “the Dawn of redeeming Grace.” And now we move onto the full day of the Epiphany season and the awakening of God’s people to the full significance of their faith.
Two weeks ago, we traced Martin Luther’s awakening to faith in his baptism. Last week, we saw him awaken in fear as he hears the call of God. Today we see him Awakening to Christ. For the description of Luther’s life and world, we draw from Eric Metaxas and James Kittelson’s biographies of Luther.
Awakening to one little thing that changes everything. Three little stories as we begin, to frame our discussion for today. Story number one, when you are in a relationship, and you have a little puppy love, and you think everything is going well, but after you break up, your friends point out to you all of the annoying habits, all of the little things that you never saw. Awakening changes everything.
Story number two, when you’re a teenager, it’s easy to take your parents for granted, and when you’re in college, your parents seem to get smarter, but it’s really in your middle twenties, when the furnace goes out for the first time, and you call your dad in the middle of the night, and he’s able to walk you through the fix, over the phone, from memory. You start to look back and see how much you missed, all of the little things you never saw. Awakening changes everything.
This changes everything. Have you ever read a book that kept you on your toes so much that you read until the very end, and in the last chapter, the author lets something out that changes everything else that you’ve read? You have to go back and read the book again, from back to front, to see how it changes everything.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book – the Pilgrim’s Regress, where the protagonist, as he reaches his goal, sweeps back through and sees how his vantage point changes every trial and test up to that point. Awakening changed everything.
Two stories from Luther’s life in 1517, two places where he awakened to Christ. Story number one comes while Luther was on the toilet. Diese Kunst hat mir der Spiritus Sanctus auf diss Cloaca eingeben. The Holy Spirit gave me this art while I was on the Cloaca. While I was on the toilet. While I was on the john.
You see, the only copy of the Bible that he could access was in the library of the Cloaca tower, and Cloaca meant Latrine, or bathroom. Now, we don’t know if he was in the tower or if he was actually sitting on the porcelain throne, but this we know by his own writings: (and I’m going to quote him at length here)
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, [this is Romans 1:17] “In it [in the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed,” as it is written [the righteous shall live by faith]. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Thus a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Hereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘Righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul for me truly the gate to paradise.”
This 34 year old man was 24 when he was ordained as a monk. He got his doctorate when he was 29, and he had been getting up to lecture at 6am, lecturing his way through Psalms, Galatians, Hebrews and Romans, and it was as he searched the Scriptures – and can you imagine searching the Scriptures for hours a day, for five years, listening and listening and listening to God until you found his answer?
It was this moment – a moment on the john or in the tower – whereupon Luther looked back on his entire life and saw it in a different light… he looked forward and saw his worth as an entirely different and unearthly worth. He saw his present as a place full of hope and peace because the God of the universe had put his righteousness like a cloak around his shoulders.
And then we get to story number two, the posting of the ninety-five theses. There was nothing particularly dramatic about him posting them for debate, except that they were the first step of the rest of his life. There may have gone the way of many others’ attempts to reform the practice of the church except that John Tetzel, the indulgence seller was in the area and became enraged by it. It may have stopped there if the Archbishop Albrecht hadn’t had incredible debt and needed the sales of indulgences so that he didn’t have to pay up to the mafia of the time. It wouldn’t have lasted long if all kinds of printing presses hadn’t thought it would be a best-seller (and it was). It would’ve been done if Frederick the Wise, the ruler of Luther’s Saxony, hadn’t been against indulgences from the beginning, because he had a relic collection that made him a lot of money. It would’ve stopped with Luther being handed over to the Pope – the church just would’ve asked the holy roman empire to invade Saxony -- if it hadn’t been in the days when Frederick the Wise was one of Seven electors to choose the next emperor.
Here’s the point. His survival amid the great powers and happenstance that meted out the rest of his days was through Christ alone. Everything about his future changed, it took on different worth, in Christ alone. And with these stories in mind, we turn to our texts.
First, we see how the gospel changes our past. It’s remarkable in our text that the Assyrians repent. Without going into too much detail, the Assyrians were nasty enemies of Israel and they had done real damage to the people of God. What reason do they have for listening to a prophet from little Israel? What reason do they have for believing him? And yet they do. You see the Assyrians in their capital Nineveh repent in our Old Testament reading, but the most remarkable response of the whole narrative was the action of God. You see, with the mountain of sin that the Assyrians have racked up against Israel, still it is true that “He who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Or as I say it to my 7th and 8th graders, if Hitler himself had dropped to his knees in the bunker before his life ended and asked forgiveness, forgiveness would be his. The Gospel changes our past.
Second, our epistle reading would remind us of how the free gift of the Gospel changes the way we think about the future. We view all in terms of eternity and salvation. We think through our marital differences in terms of God’s forgiveness and sacrifice. We act toward people we like and people we don’t like, not giving others what we think they deserve but giving them what they need, because the hour is short and the time is quickly approaching.
Some people ask the question, “What do I want my obituary to say?” and I appreciate that, but I wonder, how much more we could remember the cosmic view. “How does this give glory to the God of the universe?”
Third, our Gospel lesson bids us do as Luther did: after searching the Scriptures, after honestly struggling, it bids us hear the call of Jesus and act. The call of Jesus calls us out of our passive Christianity. It calls us to act on the knowledge that we’ve had from our mother’s knee. It calls us to leave behind good things, so that we can see the remarkable forgiveness of our God.
Now, let me be clear: the more you act, the more you’ll get it wrong. You’ll mess up. You’ll love people in the wrong way. But look at the Gospels – they are full of people getting it wrong, realizing it, and returning to the forgiveness, the salvation, as Luther would say it, to the righteousness of God.
They are full of the cross of Christ triumphing over everything that seems to be winning, the cross of Christ loving when all seems to be hate, the cross of Christ causing us to look back, to look forward, and to see that this one thing changes everything.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town that believes with all their heart that their salvation is won through Christ alone, that they look at their lives through the lens of Christ alone and that their future and their past is in the hands of Christ alone.
Amen and Amen.
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