Sunday, October 25, 2009
Sermon for Reformation Day (observed) (October 25, 2009)
“The Lie versus The Truth” (John 8:31-36)
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Do you remember what you were told when you were a child about telling lies? You may have heard something like this. A lie is like a snowball that gets rolled down a hill. As it travels, it gathers more snow and gets bigger and bigger. Lies are like that. You tell one, and you keep having to tell more lies to cover up your first one. The lies keep getting bigger and bigger. And you're stuck. You are enslaved to that first lie that you told. Until you fess up and admit that you lied, you are enslaved to your lies.
That's the nature of lies. Lies enslave. That's especially true in spiritual matters. When we believe one falsehood, it usually leads to another. That's why Lutherans who take the Bible seriously make such a big deal about sticking to the entire truth of God's Word. Some who claim to be the true heirs of the Reformation don't take God's Word seriously anymore. Oh, sure, they say they do. But instead, they have bought into the lie that says some of the Bible is simply the word of man. It's our job to dig around and figure out which parts are God's Word. Those things that are bound by time and culture we can just disregard and change the rules for ourselves today. But that's a lie.
In chapter 1 of Paul's letter to the Romans, Paul describes how people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” (Rom. 1:25) The original Greek says, “THE lie.” And this lie is at the heart of all lies. THE lie is that human beings have turned in on themselves and believe that they are the center of the universe rather than God. They have invented their own gods. They have made themselves to be god.
One way this manifests itself is in the way that people deny there is any such thing as being guilty before a holy and almighty God. They have invented a god of their own imagination who is more like a big teddy bear. He's just a warm, fuzzy guy full of mushy love for everyone. Or, he's like a doting parent who loves to spoil his children with gifts and knows nothing of discipline. “Oh, aren't they just the cutest things? Look at how silly they are.” In the meantime, the kids are beating each other up, calling each other names, pushing and shoving and trying to get their own way.
Another way this manifests itself is the way in which people fall into the trap of works righteousness. They know that God has set certain standards for sinful people to live by. But they re-work those standards into ones that can easily be lived up to. They think to themselves, “If I just act a certain way, live like this, do this, don't do that, then I'll be okay. God will be pleased with me. And if anyone should go to heaven when they die, it'll have to be me, because I'm a good person.” But that's a lie. “None is righteous, no, not one,” Paul reminds us in Romans 3. “No one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12) That pretty much puts the nail in the coffin on the idea that we can become righteous before God by our own good works. Apart from Christ, we have none. Likewise, today's epistle reading makes it perfectly clear: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God's] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)
This was at the heart of what started the Reformation in the first place. Unlike many people in our day, people in Luther's day had no problem believing that they were guilty before a holy and righteous God. The question was, “How do I get right with this God?” The answer of the Roman Church was, “Yes, Jesus has died for your sins. But there are still earthly punishments which you earn for your sins. You must pay for these by engaging in certain religious works and devotions, such as going to mass and doing acts of reverence before the relics of saints. In this way, you can earn indulgences, whereby the merits of Jesus and the saints in heaven are applied to your account, lessening your time in purgatory. There is a whole treasury of merits in heaven which you can draw upon. And you can do this for your dead relatives, too, who have gone ahead of you. Now, if you have not done enough to work off what you owe by the time you die, then you must spend additional time in purgatory before you get to heaven.”
When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, he had not yet given up his belief in indulgences and purgatory as unscriptural. That came later. What angered him was the crass selling of indulgences, as if you could somehow buy forgiveness with a few coins. It cheapened God's grace and downplayed the importance of repentance and faith. Recall how Luther's nemesis John Tetzel traveled around offering an indulgence from the pope that would instantly remove someone from purgatory and send them straight to heaven … sort of like the “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. As Tetzel's little ditty went, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs!”
All of this has its roots in the lie of works-righteousness, thinking that a person somehow, in even the smallest capacity, can get right with God by doing certain prescribed religious acts. You even hear this today from the pulpits of certain preachers. I heard it with my own ears the other day on television: “You do your part, and God will do his.” That is a lie! We have NO part in helping God out in saving us. If we did, then why did Christ have to die with our sins laid upon him at the cross?
One more lie. It's the lie that says, “I'm in good shape because of my heritage.” The Jews in our text believed that. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone,” they told Jesus. Their bloodline was more significant to them than faith in God's promises.
On Reformation Day, it's especially tempting for us to cling to our heritage, too. It's tempting for us Lutherans to get all giddy and say, “Isn't it great to be a Lutheran and not be like the rest of those so-called Christians out there?” If that's the case, then we're no different than the Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke, who stood in the temple court and prayed, “God, I thank you that I'm not like other men.” He was not the one who went home justified. Rather, it was the tax collector who stood off in a corner and beat his chest and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He acknowledged the truth of who he was, repented of his sins, and asked for God's mercy, and he was justified … declared not guilty … forgiven. As Lutherans, that's exactly what we ought to be up to on Reformation Day, not to mention the other 364 days in the year.
The truth is, we're all enslaved to THE lie. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.” Do you commit sin? Then you are a slave to sin. And Jesus says you have no place in the house … the household of God, that is. As a slave, you can be kicked out of the house at the will of the master. If you were a son, however, you are the rightful heir of all that your belongs to your father.
As the Son of God, Jesus is the rightful heir of all that belongs to God the Father. And through faith in Jesus and being baptized in the name of the Triune God, you are made to be co-heirs with Jesus of all of God's heavenly treasures. You are given a place in the house. Paul says in Galatians 3, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And then, in the next chapter, he says, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Gal. 3:26-27; 4:7)
In the face of so many lies … in the face of THE lie … Jesus is THE Truth. “If you abide in my word,” he says, “you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This does not mean that “Honesty is the best policy.” That may be true, but that's not what Jesus is getting at. Too many people misuse Jesus' words here. What he is teaching us is that HE is THE Truth. All truth is centered in him. His life, death, and resurrection is the answer to all lies and is the antidote to THE lie that says, “You are responsible for your own salvation through your good works and trying to be a good person.” That sounds so good. It sounds so reasonable. But it's a lie from the pit of hell. It's a lie that keeps us enslaved. It's a lie that keeps us on the treadmill of works-righteousness, always wondering if we've run long enough or far enough. Jesus is THE Truth that sets us free from that bondage.
Baptism sets us on the road to being disciples. Then, Christ's disciples continue to abide in his Word. Christ's disciples continue to be fed often from his table. In this way, we come to know the truth and daily grow in the truth … the truth which frees us from the lies that the world and Satan and our flesh want us to believe.
Abide in the Word. Not the word of any man or church council. Not the words of any traditions that have been handed down to us over the years. Only the Word of Christ. That's one of the great “solas” of the Reformation. Sola Scriptura, as it is in Latin. Scripture alone. Our sole source of truth and teaching and life is found in the Bible. God's Word is the only sure place to know the truth of Jesus and his Cross and to know the freedom that comes from being forgiven.
And that's no lie. Amen.