Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we celebrate the 504th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. On this day in 1517, an Augustinian friar and professor at Wittenberg University named Dr Martin Luther posted 95 theses in Latin for debate concerning the sale of indulgences on the castle church door, the town bulletin board. This sparked a controversy that split the Church. When Luther was charged with being a heretic by the Roman Church and asked to retract, Luther insisted that what God said in Sacred Scripture must have the last word.
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
The Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century was sparked by a commitment to what the Bible says above all else. When you reform something, you don’t start from scratch. You preserve what you can, and you fix what you can’t. Reformations are like trimming a tree. You don’t dig out the whole tree and put another in its place. You don’t whack down the entire tree to the root. You trim selectively, skillfully, carefully. This was not about shaking a defiant fist at the pope, and it was not about breaking away from the big evil Catholic Church. This was supposed to be about reformation: correcting what is wrong and conserving what is right.
A Timely Discovery
There is always and ever a need for reformation. The Bible has often been a lost book throughout history, buried and forgotten beneath the rubble of ignorance, tyranny, and unbelief. That’s the way it was before the reform of Josiah. In our Old Testament reading, we see the people of God in desperate need of their own reformation. And as in the sixteenth century, it was God’s Word that sparked it.
King Josiah was only eight years old when he began to reign. When he’d been king for 18 years, they were performing some much needed repairs to the Temple. During these renovations, someone found a dusty old scroll, long forgotten, the book of the Law of Lord. It was the book which we call Deuteronomy.
Imagine the excitement as the scroll was read, the growing awareness that this was no ordinary book, the final realisation that this was nothing less than the very Word of God. But along with excitement, the contents create two other reactions. When the priests and the secretary read this book, they were frightened, and that is why they brought it to Josiah. Josiah immediately took special note of the repeated stress on the Creator God’s exclusivity in worship. It also sounded the dire warnings of imminent disaster and exile if the people failed to fulfil their covenant with God. The king, was absolutely horrified. Their nation was plagued with a sickness that was destroying their spiritual and public life. They had an obligation to care for the less fortunate, the poor, the widows, the fatherless, to see to it that justice was done for all, that was thrown to the wind. The Lord was given lip service, but the people accepted the worship of other gods as legitimate. The feast of Passover hadn’t been celebrated in 600 years. The Israelites were basically pagan at this point. And so Josiah knows that the Lord is angry at them because they had not paid any attention to his word.
Along with this scary word of warning, Deuteronomy also contains a word of hope. Suppose they return to the Lord, repent of their idolatry, and begin to take God’s Word seriously again. In that case, God will forgive their sins and shower blessings upon them.
So, they have a consultation: what are they going to do? The crucial thing is Josiah’s response: this book is for everybody. It’s not just for a scribal elite to do some study on and write some footnotes for and have some disputations and arguments about what this or that detail might mean. This is God’s own word for his people, and it’s a Word to which the people of God have been unfaithful. And Josiah does this great reformation in chapter 23, where he directs that “all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which had been found in the house of the Lord.” (23:1-2).
Scripture was central to the Reformation of Josiah. It showed the people of God what they should be doing to improve their spiritual life, their public life. Sadly, Josiah was succeeded by other kings who reversed what he had done and who went from bad to worse. Exile was looming, Babylon had come upon the horizon, and it was all downhill from there.
Continuing in the Word
The Bible has often been a lost book throughout history, buried and forgotten beneath the rubble of ignorance, tyranny, and unbelief. That’s the way it was before the reform of Josiah. That’s the way it was in pre-reformation Europe. Today, even though the Bible is the world’s most widely distributed book, it is seldom read even by Christians and is regarded by many as mythical or outdated. A rediscovery of God’s Word needs to happen in every generation. We can’t simply live on something that was done in a previous era or an earlier reformation.
“If you continue in my Word you are truly my disciples.” Being a disciple is not like being a member of a political party or a local club. We can claim any sort of affiliation we want. We can call ourselves “Christian” or even “Lutheran.” You cannot simply rely on your heritage. Their Israelite heritage did not help the people during the time of Josiah. The Christian heritage of pre-Reformation Europe didn’t prevent them from trusting in their own spark of goodness. Your Lutheran heritage won’t save you. But to be a disciple of Jesus is to continue in the Word of Jesus. We are connected to Jesus by hearing His Word and having His Word have its way with you.
There is a promise for those who continue in the Word of Jesus. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus Himself is the truth. His word is truth. To continue in the truth is to continue in Jesus. The truth is that we are sinners. Not simply ones who sin, that is, do bad things, think bad thoughts, say bad words. It goes much deeper than that. We are slaves to sin. “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.”
Do you sin? Well, in case you’re not sure, the commandments say you do. Do you fear, love, and trust in God above all things? Do you use the name of God rightly in worship and prayer? Do you gladly hear and learn God’s Word? Do you honour father, mother, and other temporal authorities? Do you help your neighbour in every need? Do you keep marriage pure and encourage others to do the same? Do you help your neighbour protect his property? Do you defend the reputation of others by putting the best construction on everything? Do you desire what doesn’t belong to you? Are you content with what you have?
The Law is not given to make you better or provide you with some ladder to climb up to God. The commandments are a mirror that shows you the actual state of your soul. Even though we were born slaves to sin, God did not abandon us. In God’s Word, we are told instead that Christ has set us free. “Chief of sinners, though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.” Our Savior Jesus Christ is God’s own Son. By his holy bloodshed on the cross all of our sins were wholly atoned for. He frees us from the guilt and power of our sin. God justifies us, declares us not guilty, for Christ’s sake. So, remember Jesus’ words “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Continue in his word. Josiah, the priests, and the people saw their need to continue in God’s Word. Luther saw the need to continue and stand firm in God’s Word. And we must abide in it today as well. That means holding on to God’s Word, never letting go of it. It means letting that word sink deep into you so that it becomes part of the fabric of your being.
When the word of forgiveness and life is preached and taught, your Lord Christ wants you to hear it, learn it, and trust it. Jesus sets us free from our slavery to sin, and he does so through his word. Abide in his word; continue in it. His word is the truth, and he works through it. The power of Baptism to save is not due to the water, but because Christ’s Word with the water is what works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this. By his almighty Word, Christ’s body and blood are truly present and offered with the bread and wine. Your sins are forgiven. The Lord Jesus, in His Word, has authorised his Church to absolve all who repent and believe. Whenever that word comes to you, Christ is there to set you free. Continue in that reforming word, and you are forgiven. Continue in that word, and you are free indeed.
Continue in the word, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.