The Festival of the Reformation (October 29, 2017)
“The Enduring Significance of the Reformation” (1 Peter 1:25)
Nothing in this world lasts forever. Even the grandest mountains are slowly eroding over time, enduring the ravages of wind and rain and ice and snow. Some of them even blow their tops, like the ones we are familiar with in our region.
Mankind has attempted to build some things to last for a very long time. Think of the pyramids of Giza. Those have been around for about 4500 years and still stand as a testimony to the engineering skill of the early Egyptians. Much more recent but also enduring is something closer to home … the granite portraits of four presidents on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Finished only 76 years ago, you can imagine that those images will be around for quite a while. You might also think of the monuments in Washington D.C. that tell the story of the enduring principles of freedom and liberty upon which our nation was built. Still, none of these grand monuments will last forever … at least not in the way they were originally constructed. Earthquakes and environmental wear and tear will change their appearance, if not topple them to the ground one day.
I got to see many of the monuments to the Reformation last year in Germany. All the statutes of Luther in every city where he had some connection. The door of the castle church in Wittenberg where historians say the opening salvo of the Reformation was fired when Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. The spot where Luther supposedly stood at the Diet of Worms and gave his famous “Here I stand” speech on April 18, 1521, refusing to renounce all that he had written.
Luther never wanted to start a new church. He simply wanted to point out some of the problems he saw in the one he knew and loved. But it didn’t take long before it became much more complex. It wasn’t only about the buying and selling of forgiveness as he addressed in the 95 Theses. It was about the sources of authority. Was it Scripture and pope and council and tradition, or was it Sola Scriptura … Scripture Alone? It was about the nature of salvation itself. Was it faith in Christ along with human effort done to gain merit in God’s sight, or was it Sola Gratia and Sola Fide and Solus Christus … that we are saved by grace alone to be received by faith alone in the work of Christ alone?
Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when the Good News of the full and free forgiveness of sins began to be preached again in all its clarity after centuries of accumulated traditions that obscured its comfort and beauty. It is all about Christ alone. The Reformation is still all about Jesus and his work of saving us by dying on the cross for our sins and giving us eternal life.
There are many reasons why the Reformation has enduring significance. Documentaries on television will emphasize its cultural and political significance. Religious historians will call it either a curse or a blessing, depending on their personal bias. Above all else, the enduring significance of the Reformation is signified in those four letters on the banner on the other side of the chancel: VDMA. That stands for the Latin phrase “Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum” … “The Word of the Lord endures forever.” That comes from 1 Peter 1:23-25, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.’
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum. The Word of the Lord endures forever. That became the motto of the Reformation. It was sewn onto the official clothing of the court of the electors of Saxony. It was later used on flags, banners, swords, and uniforms of Lutheran laymen united against those who would seek to destroy them and take away their right to confess their faith according to their conscience.
This should still be our motto today. Because in a world that is falling apart, there is only one thing that lasts. Only one thing that endures. And that is the Word of the Lord … the Word of the Lord and all his promises given to us … the good news of Jesus that must be constantly preached to us.
At the time of the Reformation, there was division in the church. There were societal and cultural changes occurring. Exploration and advances in science were changing the way people saw the world. Peasants were increasingly dissatisfied with the way they were treated by the upper classes. There were wars and rumors of war. The forces of empire and church were lined up against the Protestants. The forces of the Muslim Turks were pressing in from the east. Sickness and plague and violence constantly threatened to take away the fragile lives of both young and old and everyone in between.
When you stop to think about it, we face similar challenges today. There is still division in the church … between denominations, inside denominations, and within congregations. We are often overwhelmed by swift societal and cultural changes … changes that are not always friendly to Christians or the Christian Church. We’re often dissatisfied with the way our government operates. There is war in Afghanistan and rumors of war from North Korea. Islamic terrorism is still a real threat, as is random violence from our own citizens. And even with all our advances in modern medicine, no one can stop the onslaught of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and any other number of health issues that prove we live in a sin-broken world.
Our world is falling apart. Uncertainty abounds. Nothing lasts. Our first reaction is often to engage in fearful, incessant hand-wringing. The Church is losing ground! The Church is losing members! What should we do? Isn’t it terrible? What is this world coming to?
Instead, we should remember those four letters. VDMA. Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum. The Word of the Lord endures forever. He has made promises to us, and our Lord God Almighty is the only one who keeps his promises perfectly. His Word is a Word that works. It goes forth and achieves the purpose for which he sends it. It forgives you. It justifies you. It declares you not guilty for the sake of Christ’s finished work at the cross. It makes the sacraments into saving gifts rather than empty shells. His Word fills the water of Baptism with saving grace, the gift of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon you. His Word amplifies the pastor’s voice with God’s own voice when he says, “I forgive you all your sins.” His Word fortifies the bread on the altar with Christ’s body that was nailed on the cross to bear your sins. His Word saturates the wine in the cup with Christ’s blood that was shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins. His Word is given to you in your ears and in your mouths to comfort you and to assure you of God’s abiding presence, love, and mercy in a world that is radically changing and rapidly decaying.
Every October, Lutherans get the urge to get all proud and triumphalist. That’s especially true when a big anniversary rolls around. 500 is a pretty cool number, after all. But celebrating the Reformation should never be all about “yay Lutherans” or “hoorah for Luther!” It should always be all about Jesus. It should be a reminder that Lutherans never meant to be separatistic or even cultic … following the teachings of one single influential and charismatic man rather than the teachings of Scripture. The Book of Concord, our Lutheran Confessions, begins with the ecumenical creeds … the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds … to express our connection with the Christian Church of the ages, the Apostolic Church, the Holy Catholic Church and all her saints and martyrs and confessors who confessed the faith before 1517. We continue to confess the faith as we have learned it from the Reformers and from their heirs, all the teachers of the Church that God has given to us since 1517. We offer our confession without compromise. And we seek to unite with other believers where we share the same confession of what Holy Scripture teaches.
VDMA. Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum. The Word of the Lord endures forever. It’s still all about Jesus. He is the Word made flesh. The Word who was crucified for us. The Word who rose again from the dead. He lives forever. The Living Lord Jesus makes the written Word of God what it is … inspired, inerrant, living, active, convicting, forgiving, edifying, enlightening, and faith-building … for us to hear, and read, and study, and respond to in prayer and worship.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, lives forever. United to him in Baptism, we will live forever, too. When we take our last breath, he will bring us to himself and away from this sin-broken world that is falling apart. And one day, when Jesus returns in glory, we will be raised to life again – just as he promised in his enduring Word – and live together in a God-restored world. And there, with Jesus our Savior, and with all the saints who have gone before us, we will endure forever.