Their God, My People

“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new Covenant…This is the Covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My People.”        Jeremiah 31:31,33

500 years ago, Pope Leo X realized that something had to be done with Martin Luther.  At first he had tried to dismiss the upstart monk as unimportant.  But the 95 theses had grown in popularity with each day.  It would have been easy to silence the monk by having him come to Rome, where he would never be seen or heard from again, but the Elector, Duke Fredrick the Wise, refused to let him go.

So the Papal Envoy, Cardinal Cajetan, was sent to straighten out this dissenting voice from Germany. [From Ingeborg Stolee, Luther’s Life (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1943), pg 52]

Armed with prayer and confidence, Luther set out to meet the papal legate…. There was much opposition to his going, and someone said to him, “Brother, you will meet with very shrewd opponents against whom it will be almost impossible to defend yourself.  They will burn you at the stake.”  And they had good reason to fear.  They remembered the murder of John Hus who was forced to pay with his life for disagreeing with the Roman Church….
Someone reminded Luther that he could easily live in peace if he would say the two words necessary for the pope’s absolution of his crime: “I retract.”  But it was not that simple.  How could he say what they wanted him to say when he felt compelled and resolved to uphold the truth?…

Later, as Luther approached another dangerous time in his life, as he traveled to the city of Worms, to the Diet (assembly) there: [pp 60-61]

Luther’s friends feared this to be summons of death.  But he admonished them, saying they should pray earnestly that the will of the Lord be done.  Even though his enemies wished to destroy him, Luther assured his friends nothing would happen that was not according to the will of God….
…Most people took it for granted that Luther was going to his doom.  “Since there are so many cardinals and bishops at Worms, they will soon burn him as they did John Hus,”…
Luther’s only answer to such remarks was that he had to go to Worms nevertheless.
Approaching Worms, a messenger from a faithful friend met Luther and his followers.  He warned him that Luther’s enemies had said that they would not respect the letter of safe conduct, because, as a heretic, Luther should be killed anyway.
To those who heard the messenger’s news Luther gave the response, “Were there as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs of the houses, I should not hesitate to enter.  God will stand by me.”

Rightfully, most often for a Reformation service, the sermon accents the doctrines that Luther had corrected, and how he had returned to us the truth, allowing us to see again the fullness of the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

These indeed are very important themes to remember because our confidence in God’s eternal life for us hangs upon these things.  It is the freedom that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel [John 8:31-36], the freedom from being a slave to sin; and, as St Paul points out in the Epistle [Romans 3:19-28], freedom from slavery to the impossible standards of the law.  What Luther restored to us is the freedom to be alive and to live deeply and fully, to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into new things, rather than be held by mere rituals.

But it is important to also be mindful of the man, Martin Luther.  No, we don’t want to make a god out of him, yet his life demands of us to pause and look again at our lives. Perhaps most humbling thing about him was his utter willingness to make the Lord the most important thing in his life, that he was willing to be used by God, and that he would go ahead with what he knew was right and necessary.

This was all with the full awareness of how, quite easily, it could cost him his life.  After all, Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola, among others, proved that death would be a very close companion when one stood against the might and power of the Roman church.

It wasn’t as if Luther was merely “bull-headed” or irresponsibly a rebel.  His intention was never to make a name for himself.  Many long hours of prayer into the night were spent before giving his famous answer at the Diet of Worms, and even afterwards the doubts assailed him.  “After all, how could this lone monk be right and the whole church after 1500 years be so wrong?” he himself asked.

What would have happened had Luther compromised just a little? or that he had gotten “cold feet” and disappeared to some unknown town?  or that he had tried to protect his self-interests?  or that he had not wanted to “rock the boat” in the event that he would be penalized or made to suffer in some way?

Although we can guess at such an outcome, we will never really know, because Luther did not back down.  Even at threat of his life, he was willing to make sure that Jesus and the truth about grace and salvation were proclaimed.
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This is important, because today we must decide all over again why we call ourselves Lutheran.  This is more than just the theology, although that is extremely important, but also because that name identifies us with the man.  Do we have more than just his theology, do we have his spirit?

Perhaps that’s what the Lord was indicating through Jeremiah: “I will put My law (Torah) in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My People.”  Notice that God is not saying that He just deals with the minds, but also He looks for the heart; He is not just looking to be their God, but also that they be HIS PEOPLE.

We Lutherans are often very well trained.  The Bible and its doctrines were drilled home to us in Sunday School and confirmation classes.  The passages and the catechism that you had to memorize have made us familiar with the basics that we need to know.  The “law” in the Jeremiah passage is the Hebrew word “’torah,” which really is far broader than merely Law.  Rather it is “teachings” or “lessons.”  Including far more than commandments, this Torah covers what God is and does, His steadfast Love and faithfulness even when confronted with the repeated rebellion of His special People.  The Torah declares that there is a way out from the devastation of mankind’s sin, and points to the perfect solution which will come in the future.

For the New Testament people, this Torah now covers in detail the work of God in Christ Jesus as the culmination and completion of the sum total of the teachings which began in the very beginning of creation.  This now encompasses the full law of salvation which governs our relationship with God.  Truly as we are gathered to worship today, God has indeed “put His Torah into our minds.”

But the Lord goes beyond that — He wants to write this in our hearts.  Do you have the heart for God?  We say that Luther had a lot of heart, by which we mean that he had boldness, courage, inner strength; that his devotion toward the Lord and His truth was such that he would face ridicule, persecution, even death – NOT because of principle, but because of his love for his Lord.  He had “a heart for God.”  Do you?

We come this morning, rightfully acknowledging that this triune God we worship is our God.  But can we say that we are HIS PEOPLE?  Can we say that we are a people where the Lord is the single pivot upon which turns our lives and our existence, not just individuals but as a group?

It is easy to be knowledgeable about God; it is hard to live with God directing your life.  It is easy to have God as your God; it is hard to HIS People.  We want the benefits but not the costs.  In selfishness, we want God at our beck-and-call, but we don’t want to be at His beck-and-call.  We want a God Who would die for us, but we don’t want to be embarrassed, challenged, or even made to suffer for Him.

That’s why we need to celebrate the Reformation and look again at Luther’s theology and also at his commitment to that understanding of God’s involvement with us.   Just what did he discover that would compel him to be so bold, so insistent, so in love with the Lord that he would not trade this relationship for anything, not even his life?

What he discovered was that God really loved him – REALLY loved him, loved him not after he had made himself somehow measure up to God’s standards, but rather God eagerly, desperately, determinedly loved him.  Luther discovered the extraordinary lengths that God would, did, and will go just to have this individual join Him for eternity.  He discovered not merely a Jesus as Judge, but that here was a Jesus with incredible love, Who had no good reason to love us except that He had made up His mind to love us.

Luther discovered a Holy Spirit that was not some “1984 Big-Brother-is-watching-you”, but rather was God’s genuine interest in your life, in your needs, and in your faith.  Here was a God that was not just giving commands and judgments, but one that would come off His high throne and share your life, willing to be there in the messy, dirty, disgusting areas of your life as well as in the proper and proud places as well.

Behind this was God the Father, Who sat not just waiting for one more lousy, rebellious sinner to bash, but rather as One Who literally yearned for us, Who suffered as He saw us suffer, Who was serious enough to have given up the most precious Thing He had for us, the dearest Thing to His heart: His only Son.

This goes beyond merely theology and doctrines.  Luther discovered that God was really forgiving, really loving, really involved, really GOD.  But most of all, that God would really care about even a little person in this vast world called Luther, just like He would care about you.  Come and meet again Luther’s God that He might give you a heart like Luther’s.

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