Monday, October 27, 2008

The Song of Speratus

I don’t know if I should admit this or not: The hymn “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” preaches a better sermon than I ever could—and in a lot less time. This hymn is a treasure of the Church because it unpacks the heart and soul of Christian faith. It is an A#1 example of how the hymns we sing should both uplift us and teach us.
Salvation unto us has come/by God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom/They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone/Who did for all the world atone; He is our one redeemer.
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone/and rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known/with love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify/Works serve our neighbor and supply/the proof that faith is living.
There, in just a few of lines of poetry, you have the gospel itself and the proper relationship between faith and good works.
I want to tell you about the man who wrote these amazing words. The words of this hymn embody the spirit of the Reformation Era, and there’s a good reason for that: the man who wrote them was a key participant in the Reformation movement, the movement that challenged the church of the Middle Ages with a return to Grace Alone; Faith Alone; and Scripture Alone. The man’s name was Paul Speratus, and his story, while dramatic by our standards, was fairly typical of those who led such reform.
Paul Speratus became a pastor in 1518. Early in his ministry, he started reading some books written by an upstart German monk named Martin Luther. Those books changed the course of his life. Speratus began vigorously emphasizing Reformation ideals in his preaching. He began to unfold for his listeners the wonders of God’s love for undeserving sinners. He began teaching that people are saved from eternal punishment by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Because of this, he was forced to leave three churches within a two-year span.
Two things happened next—he got married, and he went to the University of Vienna to earn a Doctor of Theology degree. But when he preached a sermon defending marriage of the clergy—a sermon that also featured that “faith alone” gospel theme—the university faculty branded him a heretic—a false teacher—and then things really got bad. He was imprisoned for a 12 week period, surviving on bread and water. He was threatened with death by fire during that same time. However, by God’s grace and the work of some good political rulers, Speratus was freed and ended up in Wittenberg, Germany. There he fianlly met Martin Luther, and became so involved in the Reformation movement that he helped Luther compile an early hymnal, doing translation work, as well as writing his own hymns. “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” was a product of this time—a product of this man’s life—a product, more than anything, of the true gospel message taking root and blooming in the human heart. You can hear it all through the lyrics.
Since Christ has full atonement made/and brought to us salvation/each Christian therefore may be glad/and build on this foundation/your grace alone dear Lord I plead/your death is now my life indeed/for you have paid my ransom.”
In these words you hear someone who has finally “seen the light.” And yet there was a significant personal cost Speratus paid for seeing the light of Christ. It meant rejection from the very Church that was supposed to carry this good news to the world. It meant imprisonment and the threat of death itself. As extreme as that may sound, it was not unusual for people like Paul Speratus to go through things like this as they were recovering the Bible’s true message of forgiveness in Christ. The personal cost they paid for seeing the light of Jesus was worth it to them—and they courageously confessed their saving faith in Christ regardless of consequence.
I tell you the story of Paul Speratus in order to ask you this: what personal cost have you paid in order to follow Jesus? Or maybe I ought to step back and ask: Are you willing to pay a personal cost because of Christ? Would you be willing to go through what Paul Speratus went through for the sake of the true gospel of Jesus?
Only you know the answer to that question. What I know is the personal cost that Jesus paid in order to make you his own. Here’s the message that Speratus and others like him were willing to be imprisoned and threatened for—from Romans 3: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Do you understand that phrase, “Propitiation by his blood”? A propitiation is a sacrifice or a payment that sets things right. Jesus made that payment with his blood. The personal cost he paid to rescue you from destruction was huge. He left heaven to come to earth. He left glory to come into our pain. He left praise to endure mockery. He left perfection to become sin. He was nailed to a wooden cross. That’s what sin deserved. That’s what your sin deserved. Jesus took it. He pushed you out of the way of judgment, and it slammed into him. He is punished. You’re not. You are forgiven. Free. You have no debts to settle with God. You have no peace to make with God. He has made peace with you through this propitiation by Jesus’ blood, to be received—how? By faith. By believing Jesus’ blood payment washes your sins away; by believing his resurrection explodes the curse of death. Not by how hard you work; not by how good you think you are; “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight”. No. It can only be received as a gift. You receive when you believe.
Let me not doubt but truly see Your Word cannot be broken/
Your call rings out, “Come Unto Me!” No falsehood have You spoken/
Baptized into Your precious name/my faith cannot be put to shame/
And I shall never perish!
Do you know how dearly you are loved? If you have any doubts, look at the personal cost Jesus paid in order to keep you His. Or as Paul Speratus put it, “Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bearing Fruit

Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Isaiah 5: 1—2

It was a lousy year for tomatoes, at least in our garden. Nowhere near other years. There are many reasons why that could be. But in the end, it just was an off year. For the serious gardener, a bad year can mean more than just mild disappointment. A fairly large investment of time and energy can go right down the tubes if the conditions aren’t right, or disease strikes the plants or there are hungry animals in your neighborhood. Things can get pretty frustrating.
In both Old Testament and Gospel lessons we hear about a frustrated gardener. His vineyard yielded some pretty sad results. The garden pictured in Isaiah 5 had everything going for it, yet it still produced “wild grapes,” which is another way of saying that the grapes were sour. Things go a little bit crazier in Matthew 21, where the vineyard workers go on a rampage, eventually killing the son of the owner. These stories do not end happily. In Isaiah 5, the gardener resolves to tear down the wall so that the vineyard can be trampled and laid to waste; In Matthew 21, the only right conclusion to come to is that those workers ought to be punished for their crimes and the vineyard be handed over to people who are a little more sane—or at least faithful to the owner’s wishes. Both of these passages interpret themselves for us: God is the gardener and owner of the vineyard; the vineyard is Israel, his Old Testament people, and the vineyard has been one huge disappointment. The gardener was looking for good fruit and found only sour grapes; the owner of the vineyard was looking for a harvest, only to find out that his workers were not just disobedient but homicidal. That puts our cherry tomato shortage in a bit of perspective.
The Old Testament tells the unflattering tale of Israel’s inability to bear good fruit. When God sent a prophet to snip and prune, that prophet often paid dearly for his service—sometimes with his life. Finally, the Greatest Prophet Jesus walks into the vineyard in order to announce that the kingdom is being taken away and given to people who will do kingdom work. And predictably the greatest Prophet pays for this announcement with His life. Not exactly a wonderful comment on human nature.
Human nature, being what it is, might also try to use these vineyard stories to portray Jewish people as hard-hearted, ignorant fools. Human nature (with a little help from the devil) would tempt us to look at these stories and say, “How could they be so dumb?” But that, in itself would be dumb. Human nature always tries to deflect, finding someone else to blame, or at least someone who looks worse than we do. A far, far more unpleasant exercise is to see if the shoe of God’s judgment fits. Or, in this case, to ask ourselves and one another, are we also that vineyard Scripture describes? Are we producing godly fruit? Are these vines full? Bare? Heavy with wild, sour grapes? What do you think?
Where we as individual people have become lazy; where we have been happy to receive God’s gifts but not so happy to share them; we need to change our minds and our actions. Where we as a church have neglected to go after the lost; where we have substituted the values of Jesus with worldly wisdom, we need to stop; repent; and change. God is not above taking the vineyard away from those who will not tend to it.
However, if we will admit to our poor gardening and confess our lack of productivity, we will be exposed to the only power that can cause us to grow—that power is the good news of Jesus; the Gospel. That power—power that flows from our crucified Lord—pronounces us not guilty; forgiven. God is willing to plant, water, and grow faith in your heart that trusts the words of absolution—that trusts the full pardon Jesus delivered—that trusts the cleansing adoption of baptism—that trusts Jesus to distribute remission of sins through bread and wine. Freedom from the burden of guilt, a meaningful and victorious life, and resurrection with Jesus—these are things that only God can provide—and provide them he does—generously, patiently, continually. He keeps bringing out the gifts. They all depend on Him.
But, for reasons all his own, he would have us share in the gift-giving. The gifts depend on God—yet He depends on you and me to pass them out. Producing godly fruit is a matter of passing out God’s gifts to people. It’s not always easy, but it’s almost always exciting. Working in the vineyard is challenging and yet satisfying—so many people who finally take the leap and start passing out God’s gifts discover that this is what they’ve been looking for their whole lives. What type of “fruit” do you sense God is asking you to produce? How can you become actively involved in handing out God’s presents?
Today we put the spotlight on the LWML, or Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. As their title suggests, these are Lutheran women who not only support missionaries, but are missionaries themselves. Millions of dollars worth of mission projects are funded through their Mite Box collections. There is an urgency to their work that we would all do well to learn from. St. Paul’s Friendship Circle is our congregation’s grouping of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, and it is my sincere prayer that some of you ladies who are kind of “on the bubble” or not sure how God wants you to serve would really look into our Friendship Circle and give it a try. All of us who work in God’s vineyard want to make a difference—Christ has planted that desire in us. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League can provide you with real opportunities to make a difference for the cause of Christ Jesus.
So, it was a bad year for tomatoes, but just like the Indians, Cavs and Browns, there’s always next year. Fortunately, you and I can start producing godly fruit today. Put your trust in Jesus and start giving His gifts to someone. Then just watch the growth that He gives. Amen.