Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Righteousness of God

"But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed" (Romans 3:21a).

Over 500 years ago a young man was on horseback on the German country side.  It was dark and raining heavily, as the horse panted – heavily sloshing through the muddy path.  The young man was seeking to reach his university after a trip home to see his parents. 
This night the darkness loomed and a thunderstorm broke out and the horse began to gallop and splash through the slippery mud.  All of a sudden there was a loud crash and a lightning bolt struck near this traveler, throwing him off of his horse.
 He was so frightened and terrified of the righteous judgment of God who loomed darkly in the night, he cried out, "Help! Saint Anne, I will become a monk!"  He left law school, where he was studying to become a lawyer.  He sold his books, and entered a closed Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany on July 7th 1505. 

This newly robed young monk dedicated himself to monastic life, devoting himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, and frequent confession.  He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." 
He described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul."  He feared the righteous judge.

This man is Martin Luther, the future reformer of the church.  For brother Martin, it was the righteousness of God that completely terrified him to no end.  It is precisely God’s righteousness and holiness that made him so so frightening.  It was for this reason that the young Luther joined the Augustinian order, and entered the monastery. 

He prayed without ceasing with the monks, diligently attended to his duties.  He scrubbed the floors and put all his energy and will into every task, whether great or small.  It was the young Luther’s great hope to seek holiness and righteousness – to dedicate himself to God.  To stand before God as a good monk.  To be holy and righteous in the sight of God through his personal discipline and sheer will.

Yet, the harder he worked and strived for righteousness the worse things became for him.  He felt the burning gaze and hammer of God as the righteous judge, breathing down his back, demanding perfect obedience from him. 

The more Luther sought to attain the righteousness of God – the more he sought to fulfill the law – the condemnation of the righteous judge became louder and louder. By seeking the law he ran headfirst into Satan himself, who accused him day and night, throwing his sins and failures into his face. 

Our Scripture reading for today says, “Because the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”  That is, the more we know of God’s revelation of the law the more we realize that we are sinners.  When we speak about God’s law, we are not simply talking about the 10 Commandments. 

We experience the law every day when we are pressed in and squeezed by the pressures and powers of this world, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We are constricted, assaulted, and overwhelmed by the attacks of the law. 

The law says this, “You are a poor mother, and you are a wretched father.  Just look at you.  Look how you have misled your children.  Look at the mess you have made.  And you call yourselves Christians!” 
Or the law may say to the young, “You are a hypocrite, you have strayed from the church.  You have not lived up to the expectations of your parents or God’s expectations!  You have fallen short.  You are a disgrace and unworthy of anything!”  This voice will always tell you that you are insufficient and that grace does not really apply to you.

This is the same voice that terrified the young monk, Martin Luther.  It is the voice that causes endless anxiety, for we experience God as an angry and righteous judge – not as a merciful Father – not as “Our Father.”  We live life and experience it as if we had no loving Father at all.  And when we do consider God’s presence, we see him with all his holiness and all his righteousness.  Then we see ourselves, our sinning selves, and feel that God is forever disappointed in us.

The breakthrough of the Reformation and the brilliance of Martin Luther is that the radical nature of the Gospel was rediscovered; in its truth and purity.  Luther found that God was not angry with him, but rather that He was angry at God! For he discovered in our reading today, that God’s righteousness is made manifest in Jesus Christ alone, as a pure gift, apart from the works and condemnation of the law. 

Hear this Word of comfort.  Peace be to you from Jesus Christ our Lord.  Be comforted and let go of the frivolous anxieties of this earthly life.  Be still and let our Lord remove from you all guilt and shame.  You do not have to “get right with God.”  Rather, “God has gotten it right for you” by becoming the guilty one, bearing your shame to His death.  The righteousness of God through faith means that God gives you righteousness, gives you himself, and gives you the faith to believe. 

Yes, in faith you may claim the righteousness of God as if it were your own.  This is the the breakthrough of Martin Luther and the Reformation - which directs us away from ourselves and toward Jesus Christ, whom releases us from the tyranny and power of the demanding law.   

Dearest Christians, be comforted.  God declares you righteous and blessed as His children.  Cast off your worries and fears.  Be still from the anxieties about what is and what is to come.  Be still and do not worry about all the expectations and demands heaped up upon you.  And do not listen to that angry judge anymore, who accuses you.   Jesus the Son of God, has revealed the Father’s tender and merciful heart.  He has no judgment left for you.  He’s judged, the deed I done.  One little Word can fell him.  Jesus Christ it is.

Rejoicing today on Reformation Weekend does not hearken us back to Martin Luther in 1517 posting the 95 theses to those wooden castle church doors in Wittenberg, Germany.  Reformation Sunday is not about potlucks, green bean casserole, or nostalgic thoughts about the Lutheran church in a prior era.  It is not German heritage day. 

Dr. Luther and the Reformers did not point to themselves but to Christ Jesus alone.  Jesus in preaching - Jesus in the Lord’s Supper - Jesus in the forgiveness of sins, Jesus baptizing his Christian church, and Jesus resurrected our bodies to live in perfect love and harmony. 

And today, Jesus the Son of the living God speaks to us and declares us righteous in His sight.  He speaks the final judgment day today – on this morning.  Forgiveness and eternal life. 

Listen to Him. For this is the God that Luther desired to finally cling to, as does the whole Christian church. The righteousness of faith – the righteousness of God - is received as a precious gift.  Not by your faith, but by the faith given to you, marked on your forehead, and planted in your ears.  It is eaten and drunk at this altar, along with the whole Christian church on earth, and also in the heavenly places. 

The righteousness of God is draped over you, as a Father clothes his child in a warm blanket.  Every sin has been passed over and removed as far as the east is from the west.  He who has ears let him hear.  Open your hand and your mouths and receive Jesus.  He has declared you righteous and holy.  In Jesus+ Name.  Amen.

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