Isaiah 66:1-2: Reformation, God Working Through Our Human Failures

A monk at Wittenberg, nails a document on a church door.  Written in Latin, he desires to spark a debate.  For this man spots others selling something called “indulgences,” which claim to cut short someone’s time in purgatory.

So, what’s the issue?  For the Church of Rome, unless someone lives a super-virtuous life, he dies with some of his wrongdoings still stuck to him.  So, after death, he still needs to be purged, Purgatory.  To them, this is nothing more than doing what Jesus charged His Church to do—to pardon the misdeeds of others.  Didn’t He authorize His pastors to forgive?  Yes, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (John 20:23).

The concept behind Purgatory contains both truth and lies.  Here’s what’s right.  One must be spotless and pure to enjoy God’s glorious presence.  The trouble is we are not, which explains why Christ became incarnate, died for our sinfulness, and rose from death to open the gate of eternity to us.

Reflect on why this matters.  Tell me, if I as your pastor absolve your sins are they forgiven or not?  Did Christ forgive you in full, or not?  The faith within you trusts in Christ’s work, earned for you on the cross and bestowed to you in His holy Church.

The idea of an extra purging for someone who dies in faith is an insult.  For this means Christ didn’t do everything.  For if your sinful flesh is no longer with you, which is the case after a Christian dies, only the righteousness of the Father’s sinless Son remains with you.  Why does a soul made righteous by Christ need further purification?

So, you’re a poor, uneducated peasant.  The little you understand about Christianity comes to you from the Church, which is how Jesus established things to be.  So, the problem is not in the structure but with what is taught and preached.

In your times of reflection, you ponder what takes place during worship.  The service must be about what we do for God.  In the Lord’s Supper, the Priest holds up Jesus’ body and blood, but he turns them, not to the people, but back toward God.  So, the Sacrament centers on us doing something for our Father above, not Him for us.

All you take in hammers you about what you have to do to change God’s disposition.  Yes, Jesus accomplished everything.  Now, all you need to do is.  The Gospel vaporizes, twisting away as smoke by some deed you now must do.  Well, if Jesus completed everything, who demands you to do something?  Either He did, or He didn’t.

A year ago, your mother died, and she’s still agonizing in the purging of her sins.  A loving son doesn’t let his mother suffer like this.  So, you take the little you can scratch together, and the few coins you saved go to the indulgence-seller.  No more is your mom languishing in Purgatory.  A piece of paper in your hands tells you this is so.

Let’s try to find Jesus in all this.  Well, you can’t, for He’s lost in the maze and mess of human requirement.  For if you still are required to do something, which He does not give you, everything hinges on you.  Oh, what Christ did for us, he did well, this much is certain.  Not so for you.  Nothing you do can be pure enough since the defect of sin contaminates every action you take.

In your fallen nature, no prayer will forgive you.  Only in faith, do your prayers count to God.  So, you ask for forgiveness because this is yours in Christ, not because your words contain the power to make God change.  A person’s belief doesn’t bring him into the life of Christ.  No, you believe because what He does for you is true.

All or nothing, by His doing, not yours.  Now, everything is different.  No longer is the Reformation a remembrance day, filled with sadness when the western Church fractured as Rome tried to force another to recant the life-giving Gospel of God.  No, this day exists to remind us all—what Jesus achieved for us is enough.

Today, we celebrate to refocus again on what God says.  “Thus says the Lord.”  Tell me, what does God say?  The work of Christ saves us, not ourselves.  Here’s how.

The spoken Word of Christ, which flows from Him also reunites us back to Him.  The same, all-powerful Word builds His Church, bringing Him here, to us, for our salvation.  For if Jesus is God for us in human flesh, He brings with Him the authority to speak life into our dead, sin-trapped bones.

So, God uses the Word of His Son, breathed out by Spirit-given Breath, to build His House of faith.  Apart from and outside of Christ and His Church, no one can live into eternity.  So, don’t expect to find His House where He isn’t present to grant you eternal life.  Only with what Jesus gives, do we embrace Him and His forgiveness.  All this comes to us in the preached Word and Sacraments, which our Savior chose as His delivery system for our redemption.

So, where are we in all this?  On the receiving end, “This is the one I will favor, the one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”  Tell me, who are the humble?  Think of Old-Testament Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant listens!”  Consider Mary.  The angel announces she will become the mother of the Messiah.  “May all be done to me according to your word,” she breathes back.  The submissive in spirit don’t foist their ways on God but receive what He wants to give them.

Well, who are the contrite?  Those who restate and confess the echo of the apostles and prophets in Scripture: A fallen, sin-born nature, keeps us as lost and condemned creatures.  For we don’t bring with us the spiritual ability to believe God’s Word.  Without God-given faith, we are unable to embrace Jesus’ cross-saving work.  So, how does this happen?  Through His Word, God creates the needed belief, which He delivers to us in His means of grace.

The same repentant spirit also delights with joy, for a Gospel-created faith recognizes our sins are all washed away by God’s redeeming Son.  Such trust rests in the sure and certain promises of God.  For we His sons and daughters, adopted members of His divine family, brought into an eternal gladness beyond all sadness.

Every day, we still need God’s cleansing because we always dirty ourselves by our sin.  So, the Reformation celebrates what God does for us, in us, and through us, in Christ.  On this day of Lutheran pride, don’t puff up your chest, stuffed full of our heritage.  No, allow God to topple you off your self-made throne.  For when you are no longer trying the shape God and the Church in your image, He is remaking you in His.

How did Rome become so bad, causing a schism, yet to heal?  To understand Rome’s internal corruption, we must go back to relearn the rise and collapse of many empires.

Around 900 BC, the Assyrians, who later vanquished the Northern Tribes of Israel, began to vie for dominance.  After 300 years, the Babylonians gather and swarm to crush Assyria.  Almost a century passes and, in 539 BC, Babylon also falls.

A new power broker, Persia, rules the day.  The Persians permit the Jewish people to return home from their 70-year exile.  Still, control is not a stagnant commodity.  Another mighty nation will soon expand and conquer this kingdom.

In 490 BC, a Greek General begins to rule the Mediterranean world, and more.  For about 300 years, the four Greek kingdoms to follow will influence much, providing a unifying language of the region, which the New Testament uses.  Still, empires don’t often preserve the necessary skills and competence to govern.

Soon, a different dominion will dawn.  In 146 BC, a republic, with formidable army legions, will defeat the last challenging remnants of Greece, at Corinth.  Now, Rome rules over parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and grows larger.

So, who conquers and rules over the mighty Romans?  No one does.  A culture of infighting, self-gain, and too many people living on welfare causes this once-mighty realm to disintegrate from the inside out.  Of course, several enemies do peck and poke at Rome, hastening a dying empire, crumbling under its bureaucratic weight.

No institution crisscrossed the land or held enough sway to prevent a complete collapse—except one.  The Roman Church.  So, into the abyss this guardian of civilization went, striving to keep the embers alive.  Now running both the cathedral and country, many became priests, not because of belief, but to move up into higher places of power and become wealthy.  This church deteriorated as time passed, with many unbelieving bishops and popes, holding and abusing positions of authority.

Once vested with such sovereignty, institutions hate to relinquish what they earlier gained.  So also with the Roman-Catholic Church, which tried to retain secular supremacy as states later developed and desired independence.  Today, the only remnant of Rome’s one-time rule is the Vatican, a tiny nation encircled by Italy.

Here is the bombshell—both within and without, Christ’s Church survived and remained.  Through the years, many servants of Christ strove to be faithful, including Luther.  In God’s providence, Martin, the former monk, will not suffer death by fire but will survive.  Why?  A few German princes believe in justification by faith.  Many will side with him because they seek and crave power.  The Reformation became the start of the end of Rome’s attempt to hold on to a ruling Empire.

A sad ending to a long and bitter history if God did not work something wondrous from this tragedy, which He did!  The Gospel, once more, receives its proper place.  Isn’t this the story of our salvation, God working His eternal will for us, despite our mess-ups?  Yes, which is why more than 500 years later, we find ourselves in a Church where we can receive Jesus every week for everlasting life and liberation.  For this, we can only praise our Lord.  Amen.