Reformation Sunday – The Eternal Gospel

The human eye is pretty amazing.  Each of your eyes has about 120 million rods and 7 million cones.  The rods are more sensitive, but can only detect shades of gray and so are used for night vision.  The cones are used for color detection and daylight vision.  With them you can perceive depth and size as well as see in a rainbow all the hues of color as the spectrum runs from red to violet.  But, in order for your eye to do this, it needs light.

That’s why when it’s dark out you can’t really see colors that well.  If you’ve ever tried to pick out a shirt in the dark, they all look kinda gray, because you need light to see color.  But, the longer you’re in the dark, the more your eyes get accustomed to the darkness.  Your pupils dilate, and then the darkness almost begins to seem normal.  So much so that when light is introduced into that darkness, it hurts your eyes, because you’ve become used to the dark.  When darkness seems normal, the light seems odd and offensive.

There are so many people in the world today living in darkness, a kind of spiritual darkness.  People who have lived in this darkness for so long that they don’t know anything else.  They don’t know the light and even try to hide from the light, lest it hurt their eyes.  And this darkness is constantly trying to encroach upon the light.  The darkness hates the light.

The Church, as the body of Jesus Christ, is charged with spreading the light of Christ through his Gospel.  But, bringing people out of the darkness and into the light of Christ can be difficult and hard.  For those living in darkness, they don’t know anything else.  They are used to seeing things in shades of gray and do not know the full spectrum of color that is seen only in Christ’s light.  The light seems painful and offensive to them.

This offense is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11:12-19.  John the Baptist had come preaching a message of repentance as Elijah who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  John bore the Law of God to bring people to repentance and to turn them from trusting in their own works to trusting instead in the one to come.  But, people didn’t like John’s message of Law and repentance; they didn’t like the funeral dirge he sang.  Therefore, they failed to mourn for their sins; they failed to realize that they were living in darkness.

Then, Jesus came bearing a message of God’s grace and mercy, but the people did not like that message either.  Jesus came as the light of God.  Jesus played the flute, but the people did not dance.  They did not like the fact that God’s mercy came to sinners apart from works of the Law.  They did not like the fact that God’s grace is freely given.  They lived in the darkness and recoiled from the light.

And so people rejected both John’s message and Jesus’ message.  People rejected God’s Word of Law and Gospel.  They said that John has a demon, because he came preaching repentance.  They said that Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, because he came preaching the free forgiveness of sins.  There was no pleasing these people.  They didn’t like being told that they were sinners, and they didn’t like being told that God freely forgives them of all their sins through Jesus Christ.  Their wisdom is opposed to this Word of God.  Yet, the wisdom of God is justified by what it does, because this wisdom is the Word of God.

For the Word, the wisdom of God, rebukes sin through the Law as it brings people to repentance.  It shows people living in darkness that they are, in fact, living in darkness.  And then the Word, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, forgives this sin and reconciles sinners to God and makes peace between them.  The Gospel brings the light of Christ and drives out the darkness.

So, God’s Word kills and makes alive.  The Word brings sinners to humility, killing us through the Law, and then raises us to new life in Christ through the Gospel.  God populates the kingdom of heaven with forgiven sinners, people whom He has freely forgiven apart from any works of our own.  It is a kingdom of grace and mercy through Jesus Christ that we do not earn a place in, but which is rather given to us freely.

However, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).  This reign of God is under attack, both by those who would seek to destroy it and by those who would seek to force their way into it.  Some persecute those in the kingdom and want the spoils of the kingdom for themselves; others want to force their way into heaven through the power of their own works and want to take what they think is owed them due to their works.

But, into this world of human presumption God brings His Law in order to stop every mouth and make the whole world accountable to Him (Romans 3:19).  God’s Law stops all our attempts at trying to justify ourselves: it stops our excuses, it stops our attempts at self justification.

If we really understood the seriousness of God’s holy Law, if we really knew the demands of perfection that God places upon us, if we really knew the seriousness of our sins, then we would not be so quick to try to trust in our own works to earn our place before Him.  We would see that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  We would see that we stand condemned and naked in sin before Him.  We would see that we have no hope in ourselves and that left to ourselves we are nothing but dead sinners, doing dead things, leading to eternal death.  We would mourn at this dirge.  We would see that we are engulfed in the darkness that only ends in the eternal grave.

But, darkness flees at the dawn of day.  So, into this darkness and into the midst of this despair brought about by the condemnations of His holy Law, God brings a message of promise.  He brings a sure hope.  He brings “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Revelation 14:6).  This is the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is the proclamation that Christ has died for your sins and been raised for your justification.  This is the promise that in Christ, God has reconciled you and all creation to Himself and is restoring you and all things.

God has removed the stain of your sins from you.  You are justified by faith apart from works of the Law, because God put His own Son forward as a propitiation – a payment – for your sins and has redeemed you from sin, death, and the devil through his blood.  God has done it all for you through Christ, and this is a free gift given to you.

The Gospel is called eternal, because it is from the foundation of the world; Christ is the beginning, center, and end of your faith, because in him God created all things, in him God has reconciled all things to Himself, and in him God is restoring all things.  And in him God chose you as His own child.  You have been called out of the darkness into this marvelous light to proclaim the excellencies of Him who did this for you (1 Peter 2:9).  This is truly Good News.

We remember this on this day most especially, because it is Reformation Sunday and we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church.  On October 31st, 1517 a young Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  These theses were centered around the practice of selling indulgences, but would spark a wider Reformation.  Luther and others wanted to bring light into the dark world of his day and return the Church to the timeless faith of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ.

This eternal Gospel had been so obscured by human ideas, human reason, and human works that its light was hidden.  People dwelled in darkness and did not know the light.  They thought that the darkness in which they lived was normal.  So, into this darkness the Reformers uncovered the light of the Gospel.  And of course, many people opposed the light, because it was offensive to eyes that had grown accustomed to the dark.

We live in a similar world today as Luther had inhabited in his own day.  The Gospel is obscured.  The light is hidden.  This fact is obvious when we look at the various religions in the world, which are but variations of mankind’s religion of self-worship, and we see that they do not have the Gospel of Jesus Christ and justification by grace through faith for his sake.  They live in darkness.  It’s not so obvious, though, that we at times in the Church have also obscured the Gospel by allowing the darkness into our midst.

We obscure the Gospel with our own works through which we think we earn God’s favor, with the so-called “prosperity Gospel” that tells us that God is obligated to reward us in this life with material blessings, with so-called “relevant” sermons that attempt to give self-help tips and guides for living as if coming to Church were akin to going to a self-help seminar.  We obscure the Gospel when we look at Jesus as simply a guide for our own ethical behavior or when we view him as just one among many possible ways to God.  Anything that tries to interject our own works or our own desire for credit or glory into our relationship with God obscures the Gospel, because it minimizes the magnitude of our sins and the importance and power of the blood that Christ shed for us.

And indeed, the kingdom of heaven has always suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

So, into this darkness, into this lost world, we are compelled by our joy in the grace of God that we have received to proclaim the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are called to shine Christ’s light into this world of sin and death and evil and proclaim life in the midst of a culture of death.  We live in an evil, dark world, surrounded by sin and death.  All our political programs, all our social programs, all our cultural-reform programs will not fix what is ultimately broken and wrong with this world, because what is wrong with this world is sin and rebellion against God.  What is wrong is man turned in on himself.  We are the problem.

Now, we are called to be good citizens and vote and engage in the political systems of our country, because government is God’s gift to His creation whereby He keeps order and peace in the world.  This order and peace is necessary because the world is fallen.  So we as Christians are citizens of two realms, citizens of an earthly nation and citizens of the kingdom of heaven; we are called to be faithful citizens in both realms, knowing that God is ruling over both.  We are called to engage in the world, trying to better it.

But, we also know that it is not government that will bring light into darkness.  It is not government that will open our eyes to the light.  It is not government that will save our souls.  It is only the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ that can and will do this, while government manages and orders the messy interactions among fallen, sinful human beings.

So, my prayer for the one holy, universal Church of Christ that spans time and geography is that we always and forever faithfully proclaim Christ’s eternal Gospel to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people (cf. Revelation 7:9).

This is the mission we have been given.  The Gospel is to be proclaimed to all people, because all people are sinners and in need of the light of Christ.  Jesus Christ is the only one in whom God is reconciling the world to himself, he is the only way, the only truth, the only life.  He is the banner under which we rally and to which we gather others.  He is our mighty fortress which shields us from sin, death, and the devil, even as the rest of the world rages in chaos.

And in the light of this eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ we can now see the colors and depths and size of God’s love for us.  We see that the kingdom of heaven is composed of every nation and tribe and language and people and that we are not so different from each other after all.  We see the full spectrum of God’s people: black, white, brown, and every color in-between.  We see that we are all one through Jesus Christ, God’s people whom He has redeemed and made His children through Christ and brought into the kingdom of heaven.  We see that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, blood brothers and sisters having the blood of Christ coursing through our veins.

We could not save ourselves.  We could not work our way into God’s favor.  But, God has forgiven us of all our sins, freely and without cost to us.  He has turned our mourning into joy.  And under the light of the Gospel we see the wondrous glory and mercy of God.  Fear Him and give Him glory for what He has done for you through Christ (cf. Revelation 14:7).  And proclaim it to all the nations, to all those still living in darkness.  And pray that God’s nation, the Church, will remain bold and loving in doing the same until the morning comes when the light of Christ rises over the horizon and enlightens the entire earth at his return.  Amen.

 

(Image: An Angel with the Eternal Gospel, about 1255 – 1260, by Unknown – illuminator – KwFA0VOH3o96DA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22025100 )