2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
On October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther changed the course of history and the direction of Western civilization when he defiantly nailed his 95 Theses – properly titled “A Disputation on the Power an Efficacy of Indulgences” – to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in Germany. At least, that’s the short, simple, and triumphant version of the story that we Lutheran Christians tell ourselves when we celebrate the anniversary of beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Many of us gather on this Reformation Sunday with that story firmly implanted in our minds, and we are met in worship today by a similarly triumphant story from Scripture centered on a vital figure in the history of God’s people. After the failure of Israel’s first king – a man named Saul whose tragic story was sadly passed over in this year’s telling of the Biblical story – the people of Israel and Judah were eager to place their lives and their fortunes in the hands of the one who had been anointed by God to succeed Saul. David, once a young shepherd whose musical talent, rugged good looks, and valor in warfare had endeared him to his people, now stood at the pinnacle of power in the eastern Mediterranean, having been given charge over the twelve tribes of Israel as the ruler of an unprecedented “united kingdom”. His reign as king became legendary, and long after his death David continued to be the model for every king who would follow him, both in terms of faithfulness to God and in terms of skillful and discerning leadership.
Two men. Two significant eras in the history of God’s people. Two leaders lionized for their boldness and courage in the face of opposition. David and Luther certainly share a number of characteristics in the popular imagination, although I’m not sure that most of those characteristics are terribly helpful for our reflection, especially because many of them don’t actually match the historical record. If, however, we cut through the myths, I think there are lessons to be learned from the lives of these two figures who loom large in our collective memories, and those lessons are capable of drawing us beyond “hero worship” to a proper understanding of God’s movement in their lives (and ours).
On the positive side, both Luther’s reformation project and David’s rise to the monarchy have in common a desire to place God at the center of community life. In today’s reading, we hear the account of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of God’s presence among the people of Israel, back into the midst of the people. The new king was convinced that keeping the nation together and making it strong would require the people to acknowledge God as the source of their blessings and their common life. So we have this evocative scene in which David leads a procession containing the Ark into the city of Jerusalem, the newly established capital of the United Kingdom, accompanied by dancing and music and wild celebration. At its core, then, the story of David’s ascent to the throne is also a story of gratitude and remembrance of God’s gracious favor poured out upon him and the entire nation, and that is certainly worthy of being lifted up as an example for us.
In the same way, if we cut through the mythology around Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, which was surely less dramatic than we commonly imagine, we recognize the truly profound impact of this young priest and university professor calling the church to take Christ’s command to be a repentant and forgiven people seriously. Where some within the church had lost their proper focus, Luther called the whole church to remember that – in the words of one of those famous Theses – “[t]he true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (Thesis 62, “The 95 Theses”, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 31)
While we rightly celebrate these defining events in the church’s history, we also do well to remember that both of these men were flawed, and that the stories we tell ourselves about them are demonstrably false if we leave out their faults and failings in the interest of advancing our own interests. So, for example, David was described as being “a man after God’s own heart,” but he was also the perpetrator of one of the most heinous abuses of power in the entire Old Testament. His assault of Bathsheba, his violation of her marriage to Uriah the Hittite, and his treachery in sending Uriah to the front lines of battle to be killed at the hands of the Ammonites, all of these are reminders of David’s humanity, including his inability to place his own desires aside for the sake of holiness or godliness. Luther’s life is also rife with examples of his fallibility. His fierce polemic against other Christian groups – from the Roman Catholic church to the Anabaptist and Reformed churches – became the justification for the slaughter of tens of thousands, and his rhetoric about the Jewish people has had an even more devastating impact upon that community through the centuries. In trying to serve the cause of God as he understood it, Luther’s frequent lack of humility did great harm to the Church and to society in general.
As Christians – those who have been grafted onto God’s chosen people and given a share in God’s grace – and particularly as Lutheran Christians, what can we take away from the stories of Martin Luther and King David? On the one hand, there is much to be emulated as we look at the lives of these two saints of God. David’s desire to seek after God’s heart and God’s will is certainly a desire that we should share. His symbolic act of placing the Ark back at the center of Israel’s common life is one that we might ponder as we are pulled to and fro by all the people and things that demand our attention. Likewise, Luther’s pursuit of the gracious God revealed in Holy Scripture is a part of our DNA as those who have inherited his legacy, and to the extent that we set our minds to pursuing the truth about God in Christ for ourselves, we embody one of the Reformation’s most enduring projects. By the same token, the very idea of reformation, of being continually shaped by the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst, is an idea and worthy of being recalled regularly for the sake of our life together.
On the other hand, of course, some of the most significant learnings we might take from these two figures are examples of what not to do. We do well to remember the excesses of David’s leadership, and his abuse of that leadership to satisfy his own needs and desires. We also do well to avoid the hubris that led Luther to espouse a rhetoric which has done profound and lasting damage to the unity of the Church, and with which we are still coming to terms as heirs of the Reformation. As we examine that lives of David and Luther, we are called to be discerning about those parts of their legacies that are praiseworthy, and to learn the lessons of those parts that are worthy of criticism so that we can avoid their mistakes.
On this Reformation Sunday, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for the lives of our forerunners in the faith – David and Martin – and for the example they set in seeking to be faithful to God in word and deed. Let us pray for the wisdom to see their failures for what they are, and the grace to avoid them so that God might be glorified. Finally, let us pray that God’s Holy Spirit would continue to move in our midst, forming us to be God’s people in the world, and drawing us ever closer to one another in the bonds of love and peace, for the sake of the church and the world that God loves. Amen.
1 Peter 3:8-22
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
There is a lot to digest in this morning’s reading from 1 Peter, isn’t there? There’s the bit at the end about baptism forging a connection between us and the resurrected Christ. There’s the cryptic but enduring image of Christ preaching “to the spirits in prison” – known in some circles as “the harrowing of hell” – which has fascinated the Church for centuries. And there’s the bulk of today’s text, the series of exhortations to God’s people that is summarized pretty well by the heading at the top of our reading inserts: do what is good and right. At first glance, this might seem like a straightforward list of ethical demands, a description of the kind of life to which Christians should aspire that shouldn’t surprise us too much. Take a step back, however, and consider what these words communicated to the people who first heard them, and suddenly they sound a whole lot different (and a whole lot more difficult to comprehend).
If you had been one of the first recipients of this letter, you wouldn’t have had a whole lot of company. First Peter was probably written sometime between the years 75 and 95, a period of time in which the entire Christian population of the known world was probably somewhere between 7,500 and 50,000.* By contrast, the population of the Roman Empire has traditionally been estimated at around 60,000,000 during the same time period, meaning that, at best around one in twelve hundred people might have identified as a Christian.† Put another way, if a group of, say, 4,325 people was chosen at random from the whole population of the Roman Empire – a group equal to the population of Falls City – you would expect to find at most four Christians in the group. In that context, the other 4,321 people would know little or nothing about you except that you were different: that you didn’t worship the same gods; that you didn’t participate in the same ceremonies; that, at best, you refused to go with the flow, and, at worst, your crazy religion threatened the whole social order. Now, picture yourself as one of those few Christians and hearing this list of commands:
Now finally, all of you should be like-minded, sympathetic, loving toward your brothers and sisters, compassionate, and self-deprecating, 9not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult, but – on the contrary – paying back blessings. (1 Peter 3:8-9a)
Can you imagine how difficult living that way would be in that context? It’s hard enough for us to do now, when we live in a totally different world. For all the talk about there being a war on Christianity in this country, the fact is that just under 71% of Americans identified themselves as Christian in a nationwide survey taken last year.§ We can debate what that means in practice, but from a purely numerical perspective, there’s no doubt that the social environment is vastly more sympathetic to Christianity today than it was around the year 100 when these words were first penned.
I don’t make this comparison to heap more guilt on us as modern Christians, but to illustrate a larger truth about the Christian life, and that’s this: that doing what is good and right isn’t a matter of doing what comes naturally to us. In the first century, the twenty-first century and all the centuries in-between, the call to do what is good and right has always been a call to live a radically different kind of life, a life characterized by peace-making, spreading blessing, pursuing righteousness, and striving for faithfulness to the one whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. In the end, as much as we might “desire life”, as hard as we try to “keep [our] tongues from evil and [our] lips from speaking deceit”, we are fighting a losing battle if we try to do so by our own strength or by the sheer force of our own will. This, in part, is why the church throughout the centuries has continued to declare its trust in God, particularly in God the Holy Spirit. The words of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed summarize that belief:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
What seems like a series of disconnected statements is, in fact, a powerful testimony to the work of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is that Holy Spirit who was unleashed on the world to call us and our brothers and sisters in Christ to faith in God. It is that Holy Spirit who gathers us into the one universal church that exists throughout the world. It is that Holy Spirit who makes us holy and inspires us to live the kind of life that God desires for us and for the world. It is that Holy Spirit who grants us grace when we fall short, and restores us to fellowship so that we might continue to live in God. It is that Holy Spirit who reminds us of the hope of resurrection and the promise of unending life with God.
In his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, Martin Luther expresses this same conviction:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the Last Day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.
The truth, brothers and sisters, is that doing what is good and right is not, first and foremost, something that we choose to do, but something that God invites us to do in response to the gift of salvation that we have received in Christ. Because God has already claimed us and called us to this life, we are freed from the fear that failing to live this way will keep us from enjoying God’s favor. Instead, we, like the first Christians to hear these words, are promised the gifts of grace and strength that are needed to strive for unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility. God knows it won’t be easy; after all, the only one to live in perfect unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility would eventually be killed because the powers of this world could not abide his presence. Yet Christ lives because those powers were incapable of holding him down, and in his rising he makes a way for us to overcome the forces of sin and death that prevent us from living the life that God desires for us and for this broken and beautiful world.
Brothers and sisters, as we strive to do what is good and right, let us trust that the Lord’s ears are open to our prayers for strength and guidance. Let us seek always to repay others with blessing, so that they might know the love and grace of God. Finally, let us live today and always in the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit, who makes our life in Christ possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.
* Ralph Martin Novak, Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts, Trinity Press International (Harrisburg, PA: 2001), 12-13.
† Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2006), 1.
Complementary Text – Psalm 20:7
Preaching Text – Matthew 6:7-21
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If you’re anything like me, your attention during this morning’s reading was immediately drawn to verses 9-13, which contain what is surely the most widely known prayer among Christians throughout the world. Those words – most often referred to as the “Lord’s Prayer” – are loved across the globe in large part because of their familiarity. Rare is the service of Christian worship that doesn’t include this prayer, particularly Lutheran Christian worship. I’d venture to guess that for many of you, this prayer was among the first that you learned by heart. For his part, Martin Luther once wrote the following about the Lord’s Prayer:
Furthermore, we should be encouraged and drawn to pray because, in addition to this commandment and promise, God takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words and approach we are to use. In this way we see how deeply concerned he is about our needs, and we should never doubt that such prayer pleases him and will assuredly be heard. So this prayer is far superior to all others that we might devise ourselves. For in that case our conscience would always be in doubt, saying, “I have prayed, but who knows whether it pleases him or whether I have hit upon the right form and mode?” Thus there is no nobler prayer to be found on earth than the daily Lord’s Prayer, for it has the powerful testimony that God loves to hear it. This we should not trade for all the riches in the world.
(Martin Luther, “The Lord’s Prayer”, Large Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert , p. 443, para. 22-23)
Yes, the Lord’s Prayer is an incredible gift to us as individuals and as the church of Christ. The danger, of course, is that this incredible gift would become familiar in precisely the wrong way – that is, that we use it so often that we fail to reflect on the significance of these powerful words. I know I’ve been guilty of this at various times in my life. In fact, I’ll confess that when I was growing up I often smiled on Sunday mornings during the Lord’s Prayer – not because I was happy to be reminded of the promises it contains, but because I knew the service was almost over. If we’re not careful, this prayer can lose its significance and its potency.
That’s no small thing, either, because the Lord’s Prayer can be difficult and dangerous. If you’ve ever been brought up short by the depth of division and disunity in the church and in our world, then you know that calling God “our Father in heaven” is both a word of hope and a stinging indictment of the way things are. If you’ve ever looked out at the world and been heartbroken over the ways that God’s name is used to sow the seeds of hatred and prejudice and violence, then you’ve undoubtedly realized that “hallowed be thy name” isn’t a given among God’s people. If you’ve ever acknowledged that this world doesn’t conform to God’s design and been led to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, then you’ve surely come to know that “thy kingdom come” is not an idle sentiment, but a fervent plea for radical, earth-rending change. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation of uncertainty or fear or doubt, you know the anxious feeling that can come from praying “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. If you’ve ever paused to reflect on the reality of hunger and poverty in our community, our state, our nation, and our world, then perhaps you’ve been struck by the sheer number of people who ask God to “give them this day their daily bread” – even though they have more than enough – while their neighbors barely make ends meet. If you’ve ever struggled with feelings of resentment and anger and frustration toward someone who wronged you, then asking God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and realizing the relationship between our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness toward us might give you pause. If you’ve ever felt weighed down by the power of sin and death that this world seems to wield against you at every turn, then the prayer that God would “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” can be difficult to swallow.
This is not a prayer for the faint of heart, and I wonder if that’s precisely why Jesus tells us to pray this way. In a world in which prayer all too often looked like a test of endurance or a show of skill, Jesus gifted his disciples with a prayer that is stunning in both its compactness and its depth. In just a few short sentences, we convey all of our needs, all of our dreams, all of our fears and longings and sighs, and we do so in chorus with countless other Christians throughout the world. When we allow ourselves to be captivated by these words again, to understand exactly how meaningful they can be, we can rediscover what an incredible gift this prayer is to the church and to each one of us. They aren’t always easy words to pray – not by a long shot. But they are important, because they represent our identity, our mission, our need, our calling, and our hope.
As this morning’s reflection ends I’d like to read an alternate translation of this familiar prayer. I would ask you to listen carefully to just what it is that we’re asking, and to hold these thoughts in your hearts as we prepare to join together in the words our Savior taught us later in the service:
Our Father in the heavens, may your name be held in holy awe.
Let your royal reign come.
Let your will be established – as it is in heaven, so may it be on earth.
Give us the food we need for today, and release us from our debts [to you], just as we release others from their debts [to us].
Do not bring us to a time of testing, but rescue us from the evil one.
For to you belongs power and might and glory throughout the ages.
Let it be so!
(Matthew 6:9b-13 and doxology, my translation)
Let it be so indeed.
Complementary Text: Matthew 6:9-10
Preaching Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
Today our preaching text centers on Solomon, the second and last king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah. Next to his father, David, Solomon is one of the most celebrated figures in Scripture, and he is particularly noteworthy because of the reputation he had for exhibiting wisdom in the governance of his kingdom. In this morning’s reading we are reminded that Solomon’s wisdom was apparent from an early age; in fact, the request for wisdom that dominates the first half of today’s text is itself evidence that Solomon possessed wisdom beyond his years. In the second half of the reading, we then get to see that wisdom put to practice, as the king mediates a dispute between two women who both claim an infant as their own. While our modern sensibilities might be offended by the thought of that child’s life being used as a pawn in settling the dispute, Solomon does bring that argument to a conclusion swiftly (and safely) by forcing the issue and laying bare the hearts of both women involved. In short order, Solomon’s wisdom is described as being unparalleled, and the results of his wisdom plain to see: Israel and Judah’s influence in the Ancient Near East was never greater than it was during the reign of Solomon.
Yet, like all human endeavors, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Last week, Pr. Morrow mentioned God’s warning to the people of Israel, a warning about the abuse of power that was sure to follow when one person was elevated to a position of authority over another. It wasn’t long after Solomon was praised for his justice and wisdom that he succumbed to the temptation to use his authority for his own glory. Yes, Solomon built the first temple to the Lord in Jerusalem; at the same time, he built himself a huge palace that dwarfed the place where God’s name would dwell. Yes, Solomon created beautiful and important civic buildings and structures; he also built them on the backs of slave labor, a decision that revealed a stunning case of amnesia regarding where his people had come from. Yes, Solomon’s temple was considered a grand accomplishment that had lasting impact on the people of Israel and Judah; he also saw his own commitment to the Lord eroded through the many marriages and alliances that allowed idol worship to take root within his household. Like his father before him, the story of Solomon is a story of great achievement and devastating failure, but even more it is the story of God’s never-failing love for those that God has chosen. Though God allowed Solomon to suffer the consequences of his actions, God remained faithful to the promise that had been spoken to David and his descendants, and the house of David saw that promise of unending rule fulfilled centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ.
At first glance, this might seem an odd text for an occasion like Reformation Sunday. For years, we’ve been accustomed to hearing passages like Jeremiah 31, where the prophet proclaims God’s intention to renew the covenant and write it on the hearts of God’s people, and John 8, where Jesus declares that to know him is to know the truth and to receive the freedom offered by that truth. Those passages remind us of the gospel’s enduring power to change the lives of God’s people, and as Lutheran Christians who claim the heritage of the Reformation that message is not to be discounted. The benefit of reading Solomon’s story today is that it communicates an equally important truth to us: that even the most profound gifts and achievements can be compromised by our propensity for selfishness, greed, and arrogance. It is always a temptation for us to see Reformation Sunday as an opportunity to celebrate the Lutheran moment in the sun or to lionize Luther and the Reformers. But we do ourselves a disservice if we forget that one of Luther’s main contributions to Christianity is the understanding that we are simultaneously sinners and saints, that we are both gifted beyond measure and captive to our broken natures.
Like Solomon, Luther was gifted with a sharp mind, and he used that mind to pursue the truth. At the same time, Luther’s insight into the power of the gospel was hindered by his arrogance, prejudice, and intemperance toward people who disagreed with him. We rightly commemorate the wind of change that blew through the church of Luther’s day only if we also recognize the profound suffering wrought by the division and disunity that plagued Europe and the rest of the world for centuries after the Reformation first began.
Brothers and sisters, the story of Solomon reveals a truth that has played out in the lives of every person who has ever professed faith in God. The people of God have been the recipients of divine grace and mercy that we can scarcely fathom, and we have also been given gifts that we can share with those around us as we strive to extend God’s blessing to the world. We have also seen time and again how our best laid plans, our most sincere intentions, and our most promising endeavors have fallen short. Through it all, Scripture and history have revealed how God works through our failings and fears to accomplish God’s purposes for the world. Solomon, Luther, and each of us stand before God as sinners and saints, broken and blessed children who bear God’s image powerfully and imperfectly. On this Reformation Sunday, let us remember this truth about ourselves, not so that we would despair about our fallenness, but so that we might go out this week knowing that we have been freed by the gospel and intent on following Luther’s advice: Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.