Saturday, October 29, 2011

"But Now..."

Reformation Sunday—October 30, 2011
Bethany Lutheran Church, Red Lake Falls, MN
Romans 3:19-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning I have bad news, good news and better news for you.

1.   First, the bad news:  what you’ve been trying to do isn’t working.

You’ve been trying to do the right thing—attempting to live in a way that is good and true and beautiful.    You’ve been doing your duty, obeying the rules, tending your responsibilities, working hard.

But it’s just not working.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, you inevitably fall short—experience disappointment.

And that’s the pits, isn’t it?

Here, you do your best, but it’s never good enough.  It just can’t quite get you to your final destination.   Even if everything seems to be going swimmingly—even if the world is your oyster—there’s still that big dark hole at the end:  the hole where what’s left of you will one day be deposited after you die. 

Nothing you do can make that hole go away!

Five hundred years ago there was a man named Martin Luther who was intimately acquainted with this sorry state of affairs. 

Luther was born in 1483, just nine years before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He lived in a world so very different from this time and this place.  His mother thought demons caused milk to sour.  His father insisted that Martin become a lawyer.  His church thought he needed to shape up—and it offered a hundred and one ways for Martin to do that.

Martin Luther shared one thing in common with us:  he wanted to do the right thing.   And he didn’t just WANT to do the right thing—he made a valiant effort actually to accomplish the right thing.

Luther sought to align himself with Whoever was at the core of his universe.   Martin Luther wanted to please God above all things—and so he poured himself, lock stock and barrel into this worthy effort.

“How can I find a gracious God?” was Luther’s nagging question.   How can I get on the right side of the One who created me, the same One who will someday judge me?

You and I may not put it in exactly those terms, but we surely are attempting—every minute of every hour of every day—we’re trying to do the right thing, to align ourselves with the Source of all that is.

But try as we might—we always fall short.   St Paul says so rather bluntly in our Second Lesson when he declares:  “No human being will be justified in [God’s] sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes knowledge of sin.”   End of story—there is no law, no rule, no way of life, no moral uprightness that can ever bring us home—put us right with the Source of our life.

That’s the bad news—as old as the hills, and as fresh as this new day.   And if that bad news was all there was, we would be of all persons most to be pitied.

But remember:  I said that I had bad news, good news and better news for you.  

So here goes:   what you’re trying isn’t working….but there is another way, a whole different way, a way that we’d never come up with all on our own.

2.   The good news is that there is this other way.    And it has nothing to do with what we think or say or do—thank God!   It’s a way that’s simply bestowed upon us--comes to us out of the clear blue.  It descends like gentle rain on parched earth.  It “happens” to us when we least expect it.

Martin Luther was about ready to throw in the towel.  He had tried everything he could think of to strike a bargain with God—get on God’s good side.  

And if anyone could have pulled it off—it was Martin Luther.  He tried to fulfill those 101 expectations of his church, he confessed his sins and made amends every day.  He was so obsessed with that that one day his priest-confessor turned Luther away at the door of the confessional—telling him to come back only when he had some real, serious sins to confess!

At the end of his rope, Luther dove deeply into the Word of God…searching, seeking out, trying to find a way out.

And then one fine day “the way out” found Luther!--right here in our Second Lesson for today (that’s why we read this every year on Reformation Sunday!)  Here’s how the good news begins:   but now!”

These might be the two sweetest words in the whole Bible:  But now”—something new bursts forth…something other than “trying just a bit harder” to live our lives well.

But now—a path is opened up that we weren’t even looking for.  It just appeared—took us by surprise,  showed up in our midst.

“But now,” sings Paul, “apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Here we thought that righteousness, being right with God, being aligned with God’s Kingdom was something we had to pursue with every fiber of our being….”but now”—lo and behold!—it dawned on Paul, it dawned on Luther and (pray God!) it dawns on us that God’s righteousness has been pursuing us, all along.

God’s right-wising of the world is never our do-it-yourself project.  It is God’s project, through and through.   It is God’s great work on our behalf.  And God delights in simply forking it over, letting it wash over us, covering all our sinfulness and waywardness with the waters of grace flowing from Christ’s pierced side, cascading now from the baptismal font, sweeping away all obstacles in the path, catching us up in the gracious current, the glorious under-tow of the Good News.

Good news:  there is another way.  And this way has found us.  It has captured us with God’s astonishing mercy.   It is, even now, making us brand spanking new—new creatures, in Christ Jesus.

Bad news:  what you’re trying isn’t working.

Good news:  there is another way—God’s way of hunting us down with mercy and a fresh start and the promise of new creation.

3.   But here’s even better news:   this other way isn’t just a bright idea or a  “live option” or a great possibility plopped down in our laps—an alternative God cooked up for us in the spur of the moment—something that might do the trick, if we’ll just be smart enough to choose it.

No, the better news is that this way, Jesus’ way is what God had in mind all along.   As Paul puts it in our text, Jesus “disclosed” what God has always been about—Jesus has revealed that God’s righteousness isn’t God’s possession—but it’s God’s modus operandi…God’s action plan played out in the world. 

God is, always has been, and always will be in the right-wising business!   God isn’t just coming to us, hat in hand, to make us a great offer.   God intends to effect this way in our lives.  It is our destiny!

Before the first star began to twinkle, God was thinking of you.  Before God created anything, he was imagining a cross and an empty grave.  God was getting ready to send his beloved Son into the world.  Before the first sunrise ever took place, God had designs on you to name you and claim you and never let you go.

And because all of this is God’s gift to you—a sheer, unadulterated bonus of undeserved mercy—you now have better things to do than nervously trying to measure up to expectations that will always be beyond your grasp.

You now can just float—float in God’s mercy.  

I often think of a Roman Catholic bishop I knew down in southern Minnesota.   Raymond Lucker served the Diocese of New Ulm until cancer stole him away.  While he was dying Ray often spent free time at a little farm place he owned near Renville, MN.  Once a friend found Ray, sitting in a lawn chair in the bright sunshine of a Minnesota summer morning.  “What are you doing, Ray?” the friend asked.   “Nothing,” Ray replied.  “I’m just sitting here, letting God hold me.”

Reformation Day is about floating on the sheer grace of God, living in the confidence that before you ever lifted a finger to do one good thing for God, God had already done all good things for you, in Christ Jesus. 

And where does that now leave us?  Floating in the grace of God, held tightly by God, riding the baptismal river, and calling to others on the shore:  “Come on in.  This water is fine!”

In the name of Jesus.


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