Monday, October 31, 2016

Sermon on John 8:31-36, for Reformation Day, "Heritage, Truth, and Freedom"

This month we have focused on themes of the Lutheran Reformation, leading up to today, the 499th year anniversary of the Reformation of the Christian Church. We’ve touched on themes of repentance and forgiveness, Law and Gospel, the hiddenness of God, and being justified by faith. Luther and his colleagues, usually called the Reformers, made important contributions to all of these Biblical teachings, bringing clarity and returning the church to the fountain from which these teachings flow—the Bible—God’s Word.
Having this rich spiritual heritage, with next years’ milestone of 500 years, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the truth is a powerful weapon against error and the enslavement of sin, as Jesus teaches in today’s reading. But on the other hand, it’s dangerously easy to fall into that same sense of special privilege that Jesus’ confronts in the reading. The Jews had a rich spiritual heritage, and they claimed their ancestry back to Abraham, and they took pride that they were his descendants. We can fall into the same sense of privilege by ancestry or knowledge, with our Lutheran heritage, as they did with theirs. Cherishing the heritage of God’s Word—as our choir sang—is a great thing. But turning any heritage into a reason for boasting, or a special privileged status, is not.
Being prideful, even of a good heritage, leaves us no better off than the Pharisee of last week’s sermon. He did not go home justified by God, because he trusted his own righteousness. It would sad and ironic if the Lutherans, who reclaimed the Bible’s teaching that we are justified by faith, not works, were to prop up our own particular good works or self-righteousness before God, instead of holding fast to Christ alone by faith alone. We never escape the danger of trying to justify ourselves, even if we’ve been correctly taught the Gospel of Jesus that sets us free. Sinners are always notoriously good at finding ways of undermining and losing our own freedom, as Jesus teaches today. Whoever sins is a slave to sin. The 20th century Christian author C.S. Lewis described the terrible way that pride sneaks into all aspects of our life, even and especially into the center of our religious life. The best way to escape this is to forget about ourselves, or to humble ourselves completely before God as a helpless sinner.
If we really can’t accept that we are poor, miserable sinners before God, then Lewis argues we can’t even begin to understand Jesus’ message. Jesus “takes it for granted that men are bad.” Jesus didn’t approach people as though some are naturally free of sin, and others are enslaved, but that all are enslaved under sin and needing freedom. Even the Jews with their heritage. Even us with ours! Unless we admit that we are sinners, we’ll be deaf to His Words. Pride stuffs our ears. Jesus says to those who had begun to believe in Him the truth will set them free—and their knee-jerk reaction is to get defensive and offended. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?’” Commentator D.A. Carson points out they had a heavy sense of inherited privilege, as children of Abraham. So strong that they couldn’t acknowledge their own need, or recognize that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son. Pride blinds us! Same problem as last week—underestimate the trouble of your own sin, and ignore Christ—and all of a sudden you’ve refused God’s justification in favor of your own meaningless self-justification. But confess your sins to God, and grab onto Jesus Christ, and then you have Jesus, who justifies you.
Jesus won’t let those who believe in Him, become self-satisfied. That puts us back under the slavery of sin. He continually impresses on His followers the difficulty of discipleship, and the depth of our need, showing us our slavery to sin. He doesn’t let us off the hook, because until we realize our need, we will continue to ignore or push away God’s help. The reason God’s Word is “hard-hitting” in this way, is to bring us to repentance, so we can receive God’s grace and Jesus’ redemption. Jesus wants to set all men free.  One way of referring to our deep need and sinfulness before God is “original sin.” The Reformation highlighted the way the Bible teaches we are all under the captivity or slavery of sin—the entire human race, born as children of Adam and Eve. And in that slavery, we don’t have the power to rescue ourselves or get free. Jesus says only He can do this—“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
The way to freedom is not by denial of the fact that whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. The way to freedom is not by underestimating our sin, so that we think we have satisfied God and deserve His stamp of approval. Slavery to sin keeps us from remaining in God’s house forever. It’s the son—the child of the family, who remains forever. Jesus’ clincher is this statement, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The way to freedom is only through the Son, Jesus. Sin is a return to slavery, but freedom is only found in Jesus. Only Jesus can take away our sins, and has done so on His cross.
That freedom comes through Jesus’ forgiveness. The chains of sin’s slavery are broken by Jesus, and His truth that sets us free. The truth of His law that convicts us of our sin, and correctly reveals our guilt—and the truth of His Gospel, that is the free gift of forgiveness to all who believe in Him. If you don’t know your sins, you remain blind to their slavery. If, on the other hand, you are bent and broken under the weight of your sins, there’s amazing joy in having Christ Jesus cancel our whole debt before God, and say, “My child, your sins are forgiven! Your faith has saved you!” Only He can ransom us from our slavery in this way.
Our world is increasingly resistant to hearing to the truth. And as we’ve discussed, our own sinful nature also resists God’s truth—which only means we need His Word all the more. A few weeks ago we heard the reading from 2 Timothy 4:3-4, that a time is coming when people “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” They will gather teachers for what their itching ears want to hear. Any myth that satisfies our pride, or ego, or our pleasures and desires, or that excuses our blame for sin, is a myth that people will readily believe. And myths that lead us into slavery. But to face the truth is hard. Again, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The truth is freedom. At Jesus’ trial, Jesus said to Pontius Pilate that “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” Pilate mocked Him by saying “What is truth?” This attitude is still alive today. But the fact remains that Jesus came to speak truth to the world, to set us free. His truth breaks through the walls of our pride.
We’ve covered a lot of things that threaten our Christian freedom—slavery to sin, pride and self-righteousness, and rejecting the truth in favor of myths and lies. But how do we live, practice and keep that freedom? To start, we can cherish and give thanks to God that His Word is our great heritage. That heritage is not our exclusive possession, but the gift of God’s Truth to the world. This heritage is to be shared and taught to every generation, in the truth and purity of God’s Word. The heritage of God’s Word is one that humbles us to daily confess the sins that enslave us, and not to exalt ourselves in pride over others. Our world today needs brave but humble Christians who are captivated by the Truth of Jesus, not captivated by sin. Bold Christians who can speak the truth in love, and not fall prey to the traps of pride, but call all people to the wonderful, saving Good News of Jesus.
When we tell others of the Good News of Jesus, we share this truth that sets us free. We share it as beggars who have found the feast of God’s Word. We share it as slaves who have been set free from our sins by Jesus, God’s Son. The freedom that Jesus gives is a change of status, from slaves to sin, to being sons and daughters of God. In Baptism we are adopted into God’s family, and we have a new and enduring place in God’s house. The slave does not remain forever, but the son remains forever. Jesus, by His death on the cross for our sins, has done everything necessary to secure our place in God’s house—His people—His church.
As we celebrate the Reformation today, and the heritage of God’s truth, let us cherish Christ Jesus, hold Him above all else, forgetting ourselves, and knowing how easily freedom is lost or endangered through sin or pride. The freedom of the Gospel is freedom from the fear, guilt, and burden of sin. A freedom that cannot be destroyed or taken away by political powers or religious authorities, but a freedom that comes direct from Jesus, God’s Son, who sets us free. Jesus gives us that freedom to use it in love and service toward our neighbor, to do what is pleasing to God. May God grant us joy in His Word, our heritage, His Truth, and may He continue to bless us with His freedom. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Today we remember the 499th anniversary of the Reformation. We have a rich spiritual heritage that flows from God’s Word. What is a danger of misusing our heritage, like the Jews did in John 8:31-36?
  2. How is pride an enemy to our faith, and our spiritual freedom? How does pride smuggle itself into the center of our religious life? How should we respond to this pride? Luke 18:14-17
  3. What spiritual slavery are we born into? Ephesians 2:1-5. Why is it not helpful to be defensive or offended about admitting our slavery to sin? 1 John 1:8-10.
  4. What part of God’s Word is “hard-hitting” to keep us from being self-satisfied? What Word of God brings us comfort and peace when we have humbled ourselves before God and sought His mercy?
  5. What is the difference between the status of a slave and a son in the household? John 8:35-36; Galatians 4:1-7. What is the freedom that Jesus gives? What price did He pay for that freedom? 1 Peter 1:18-19.
  6. What drives us back into slavery? John 8:34. What therefore is a misuse of our freedom? Galatians 5:13-14; 1 Peter 2:16. What is a good and positive use of our freedom?
  7. How does the world show it’s resistance to the truth? 2 Timothy 4:3-4. What was Jesus’ purpose, and how did/do people react to that? John 18:37-38. How do we respond to a world that resists truth? To our own sinful nature that resists it? Proverbs 3:5-7.
  8. What is our new status as children that belong in God’s household? Galatians 4:5; 3:25-29.

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