October 27, 2002
††††††††† The train pulled into station at Wittenberg, Germany around noon on a cold and windy November day.† My dad and I stepped out of the train and felt the brisk winter wind on our faces.† The overcast sky was beginning to fade away as the sun started breaking through revealing welcomed bright blue skies.† We were excited about our visit to Wittenberg, a small town southwest of Berlin, Germany.† It was part of the trip that we had anxiously awaited since arriving in Germany the day before.†
††††††††† As we walked down the parking lot to find a place to cross the tracks, I pulled my map out of my pocket and began trying to find out where we needed to go.† "It's this way," I said, so we started up the street toward our destination.† It was hard to believe we were in Wittenberg, so much happened in this small town, so much history, so much church history, nearly 500 years of it.
††††††††† As we turned the corner onto Lutherstrasse, we looked down the road back into history.† We passed by the tree where Martin Luther burned his excommunication papers from the Catholic church, we passed by the University of Wittenberg where Luther studied and taught as a monk, we passed by his home, and the Protestant church where he preached to the people.† Finally, what we had been waiting eagerly to see stood like a cathedral in front of us, a church where history took place that forever changed the life of the whole church as we know it, and a door where one man stood on the side of the power of God against the side of the power of men.††††††
Today is Reformation Sunday.† In many respects, this is one of the most important days for us as Presbyterians in the Reformed faith, for today we recognize the faith, courage, and perseverance of those who risked their lives and lost their lives in the reforming of the faith and life of the church.† There have been many great Reformers in the history of the church: Ulrich Zwingli who began the Swiss Reformation.† John Calvin, who reformed the church in Geneva and had a profound impact on what we believe as Presbyterians.† There was John Knox who reformed the church in Scotland and is considered the father of Presbyterianism.† But in my humble opinion, if it wasnít for one man, Martin Luther, the Reformation of the church may not have happened at all.†††
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, who studied, taught, and preached as a priest at the University of Wittenberg, and as much as he believed he was called to be a priest, he was miserable even more, not because of his work, but because of what he had been taught to believe.†
You see, the religious world in which Luther lived as a priest taught that people had to work at achieving salvation.† It was believed that everyone had a spark of goodness, and even Luther believed that no one lacked a natural, God-given inclination to seek and choose God.† At one time, Luther said that everyone had the power to distinguish between good and evil.† No one was so utterly lost that he or she could not recognize when they had sinned, or known what would have been the right thing to do, to think, or to feel.† The only thing that made recognizing sin impossible was the weakness of humanity, a weakness caused by sin.†
The solution to this problem was found in the church, through confession, penance, Mass, and the sale of indulgences.† As long as someone did these things and was faithful and pious enough, then one's sins could be cleansed and he or she could be saved.†† But for Luther, the peace he so desperately wanted to have continued to elude him.† Luther knew and believed his sins were far too great to ever appease and gain the favor of a righteous God.†
One night, as he sat at his wooden desk in his study, under the light of a candle, he again read Paulís letter to the Romans.† But this time something different happened when he read these words, the very same words we read as our scripture reading:
ďFor the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ĎThe one who is righteous will live by faith.íĒ
When Luther read Paulís words that the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith and that the righteous live by faith, the weight and fear of not knowing whether he was saved lifted from shoulders.† For Luther, this was a life changing revelation and nothing short of a spiritual rebirth.†
He realized for the first time that the righteousness of God meant two different things and that he had only been taught the second one, that Godís righteousness is the means by which God judges sinners.† But what Luther discovered was that Godís righteousness was more than just an attribute of God; it was a quality of God, a quality of God that is given to sinners that makes them acceptable before God.†
Our righteousness is none other than the righteousness of God.† And it was this radical new perspective that changed everything for Martin Luther.† He was no longer a man consumed by his own guilt or by his own works for righteousness.† Through the power of the Holy Spirit he had been set free.††
With this new understanding of Godís righteousness and a hope of salvation, Martin Luther composed his 95 Thesis against the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church.† And on the night of Halloween, the eve of All Saintís Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther walked out of the front doors of the University, down the same stone streets of Wittenberg that my dad and I walked down, to the front door of the Catholic Church, and there he nailed to the door his 95 Thesis, and with each blow of his hammer, the history of the church was changed forever.
For Luther, the belief in a personís ďspark of goodnessĒ, that made it possible for a human to choose God, was not just insufficient, it didn't exist, because no one has the ability to make themselves right with God or even choose God in the first place, no matter how good or faithful or repentant one is.† The one who makes us right before God is not ourselves; it is God, the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.†††
For many people this is a shocking claim to make.† Many people see faith as a choice to be made, as the door in which God enters.† ďAll you have to do is choose God and have faithĒ, they say, ďand then God can come in and change your heart.Ē† For many people it all comes down to a choice.† But I want you to think about the word "choice".† Think about how much this word has influenced our lives.
We live in a society where every day we have to make choices.† Itís practically the American way.† Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and choices.† Do you want cheese on that?† One scoop or two?† Fries or coleslaw?† What color shirt do I wear?† What do I want to do today?† Do I want hot fudge on my ice cream and brownie or not?
We even make choices when we donít even consciously try to make a choice.† Next time youíre in your Sunday school class think about where you are sitting.† What about in the Sanctuary?† Donít tell me you donít have your favorite place to sit?† What about at home eating dinner, where do you sit then?†
We make so many choices that we believe we have a right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and choices.† We can make any choice we want because we have free will.† RightÖ or wrong?†
My friends, the fact of the matter is that we are not free and we donít like hearing that.† It is a normal and natural part of our daily lives to make choices, but our choices are never free.† They are greatly influenced by our past experiences, who we are, where we live, what we believe.†
Our choices are prejudiced by money, education, health, religion, family, and whatever other advantages or disadvantages we may or may not have.† Even our choice about God is prejudiced too, but in a much more permanent and catastrophic way, because of sin.† In reality, we are not free.† Free neither to love God nor our neighbors, nor even ourselves properly.† In reality, we need to be made free.
Not one person, not a single human being, is able to, nor even has the ability to come to Christ unless God draws them.† Before a person is able to see and believe, before that person is even able to come to Christ, his or her heart must be changed.† He or she must be born again, must be born from above, must be born of the Spirit.
Martin Luther came to realize that night in his candlelit study, that regeneration, being born again, precedes faith.† We do not believe and have faith so we can be born again, we are born again so that we can believe and have faith.† We are only able to choose God because God first chose us.†††
Only when God regenerates our bodies and souls through the power of the Holy Spirit and makes us alive together with Christ are we then able to make a choice about Him.† It is only then that we believe.† It is only then that we have a faith that saves.†
And what is this saving faith?† It is a faith that trusts completely in the righteousness of God, a faith that trusts completely that we have been made right before Him, a faith by which we acknowledge, receive, and respond in gratitude for the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.†
The righteousness of God is not a threat to our freedom, it is the source of our freedom, it is the good news of the gospel for which we are not ashamed, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.† The righteousness of God is none other than a spiritual rebirth, a spiritual rebirth that changes our faith from a noun to a verb, from something we have to acquire to gain Godís favor, to the way in which we live in the knowledge and promise that we are already in Godís favor.†
The righteousness of God is a spiritual rebirth that changes our way of life and directs it toward God, that transforms us from not only just hearers of the Word on Sundays, but to doers of the Word everyday, a spiritual rebirth that calls us to service in the church and in the world, that calls us to think about our priorities in life, that calls us to reflect upon what we value most, that calls us to give abundantly, that gives us the courage and the hope to face each new daily challenge.†
As Paul rejoices and gives thanks for the spiritual rebirth of the people in Rome, so I rejoice and give thanks for you.† There is no doubt my friends that the Holy Spirit is present in the life and ministry of this church.† During this last week, I have been energized through the power of the Spirit.† This last week I went to Presbytery and saw the church at work in the community and the world, I spent some time with some of you in your homes, and the elders and I returned yesterday from our session retreat where we began putting together a vision for this church.†††
My friends, rejoice in the knowledge that you too have been given a spiritual rebirth, that you too have been set free to live a life of empowered by the righteousness of God.† Prayerfully consider the spiritual gifts you have been given and let us use all of our gifts to encourage each other in our faith, and may our faithful witness and loving service be the means by which Godís righteousness is revealed to the world.††